Bracing for the Iran Nuclear Report: Will ‘Military Action’ Rhetoric Develop its Own Momentum?

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If the proverbial “drumbeat” for war with Iran  has grown more insistent in recent weeks, it’s about to turn into something akin to  the opening bars of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man“.  That’s because the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected, in a report on Iran’s nuclear program due for release early this week, to suggest that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program may include a “possible military dimension”, giving Tehran the means — possibly with the help of foreign scientists — to relatively quickly build nuclear weapons should it choose to do so.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected to publish some evidence — long ago shared among key international players  — suggesting that Iran may have in recent years conducted theoretical work on warhead design, and experiments on high-explosive triggering systems that don’t appear to  have any purpose outside of nuclear weapons development.

The buildup to the IAEA report has seen a dramatic uptick in media chatter, and spectacles staged for the media, suggesting that an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent. Over the weekend, Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused to rule out a military strike on Iran, while President Shimon Peres warned that “the possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option.”

That’s after a week in which Israeli headlines were dominated by leaked accounts of fierce debates at top level about bombing Iran, dark warnings that Israel’s leaders have not, in fact, agreed to refrain from starting a war without first consulting Washington, and a series of media spectacles that included the testing of a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Iran; a long-distance flying exercise to Italy to demonstrate the range at which the Israeli Air Force could strike; and a civil defense exercise involving simulated missile attack on Tel Aviv.

The New York Times even suggested Sunday that the U.S. is already engaged in a covert war with Iran, claiming that the bizarre recent used-car salesman’s embassy bombing plot was in fact part of Tehran’s retaliation for covert assassinations of its scientists and cyber attacks, dishing alarmist speculation of  Iran possibly “slip[ping] a bomb, or even some of its newly minted uranium fuel, to a proxy — Hezbollah, Hamas or some other terrorist group”.

It has, of course, become par for the course over the past five years for Israel and its allies to imply that war is imminent whenever the international community’s schedule turns to Iran. With Obama Administration officials, speaking anonymously, hyping the IAEA report as a “gotcha” moment that will leave little doubt of Iran’s intentions, the saber-rattling fits a familiar pattern of seeking to scare reluctant international players into adopting tougher sanctions on Iran as the lesser evil necessary if only to restrain Israel from launching a war that could set the Middle East ablaze.

The messages coming from Israel are mixed: Intelligence correspondents in the Israeli media make clear that war talk is part of a strategy to raise pressure on Iran, while a number of senior security establishment figures have denounced the talk of bombing, and what they see as Netanyahu’s alarmist rhetoric. Just last Friday, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy warned that Iran represents no existential threat to Israel, and said religious extremism in Israel’s military is a far greater threat to its survival. And last May, Halevy’s successor in the Mossad job, Meir Dagan, bluntly dismissed bombing Iran as “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” warning that Israel would not be able to extricate itself from nor win the resultant war.

Still, Netanyahu’s rhetoric could create its own momentum. There’s no easy way back from preparing the Israeli public for a war against what they’re told is an implacable exterminationist threat. And it appears unlikely, right now, that the revelations in the IAEA report are likely to persuade Russia and China to back the escalation of sanctions that Washington will demand at the Security Council. Moscow and Beijing believe that the route of sanctions and pressure is unlikely to produce a positive outcome.

The past five years years of escalating sanctions have clearly not changed Iran’s cost-benefit calculations, and the more dramatic blockade type measures — targeting Iran’s central bank has been mentioned lately — are unlikely to get significant international support, and even the Administration remains leery of taking measures to which Iran might respond as if to an act of war, and which could trigger a major disruption in global oil supplies with the attendant price shock.

Making the case for war is not easy when  even in the Israeli security establishment, many key figures — not least Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is nonetheless said to favor an attack on Iran — believe that even if Tehran acquired nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t dare attack Israel and court its own obliteration. Barak has repeatedly insisted in public that an Iranian nuclear weapon does not threaten Israel’s existence, even though he believes the end of Israel’s (unacknowledged, officially) monopoly on nuclear force in the Middle East would have disastrous consequences for its strategic position.

Even though they can demonstrate that sanctions adopted thus far are not changing Iran’s behavior, Israel and its hawkish allies face a different problem when arguing for military action. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted, while still on the job last December, that even if a mission to bomb Iran’s known nuclear facilities was a complete success, its impact, at best, would be to simply delay Iran’s program by two or three years — and increase the likelihood of Tehran actually building and deploying a nuclear deterrent.  Bombing Iran would “bring together a divided nation [and] make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons”, Gates warned, taking their program — currently under the monitoring of the IAEA — “deeper and more covert”. Gates added that “The only long-term solution to avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest.” Bombing them, Gates argued, would more likely have the reverse effect.  It remains to be seen whether Israel’s leaders share that view.

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