Anyone cut off from all news media for the six months before December 2011 could be forgiven for imagining we’re in the opening stages of a war between the West and Iran. Sunday’s headline was Iran’s claim to have captured a sophisticated U.S. surveillance drone that American officials concede may have gone missing along the Afghan-Iran border recently. It may well be, as U.S. officials reportedly suggest, that a remote control pilot had lost control of a drone on reconnaissance in western Afghanistan along the border with Iran. It’s also possible that the U.S. is flying drones over Iran to gather intelligence. But coming on the back of last week’s imbroglio at the British embassy, recent blasts at a missile facility (and possibly a second one at a nuclear facility in Isfahan) and on ongoing cyber attacks and assassinations directed at Iranian scientific infrastructure, there are signs that covert warfare against Iran is escalating—and that Iran may be feeling mounting internal pressure to retaliate.
But despite the uptick in signs of escalation, the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program is stuck in business as usual mode. Most of the international community doesn’t share the view of the U.S. and its closest Western allies of Iran’s nuclear program representing an urgent strategic security threat, and opposes the current push for an escalation of sanctions. Vice President Joe Biden’s calls on that front were rebuffed by Turkish leaders during his visit to Ankara. Despite the recent IAEA report that found Iran may have been engaged, particularly before 2003, in research work on warhead design, China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil and India recently warned in a joint statement that further sanctions would be “counterproductive” and “exacerbate” the situation, and instead urged dialogue. No new sanctions are likely via the United Nations, and Western powers may struggle to get countries that still do considerable business with Iran to back harsher unilateral measures adopted by the U.S. and Europe.
At the other end of the equation, of course, Israel’s leaders are amping up the war talk (although that could also be filed under “business as usual” since it’s been a recurring theme for the past five years). Israel doesn’t want to attack Iran, but it may soon have no choice, said Defense Minister Ehud Barak last Thursday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday gave a speech extolling what he described as the decision of Israel’s founding leader David Ben Gurion to ignore advice for restraint on declaring statehood in ’48, warning that Israel’s leaders had to take such unpopular decisions in order for the country to survive—a history lesson widely viewed as a parable on Iran.
Netanyahu’s speech may also reinforce the idea that Israel won’t necessarily wait for a U.S. go-ahead and could initiate military action on their own should they deem it necessary. But key voices in the military and security establishment in both the U.S. and Israel are pouring cold water on the “military option” so popular among politicians and pundits in both countries.
During an appearance at the Brookings Institution last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he believed that a military strike on Iran would “at best … postpone [Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons by] maybe one, possibly two years.” He cited the difficulty of reaching some of the many facilities that would have to be destroyed. Doubts over the effectiveness of air strikes against dispersed and sometimes hardened facilities are multiplied considerably in the scenario where Israel undertakes such action alone: Such a mission would require hundreds of sorties flown over a number of days, which might be a tall order for an air force based 800 miles away.
Panetta also warned of the “unintended consequences” of bombing Iran, including strengthening a regime that is already being weakened from within and leaving Israel and the U.S. facing furious retaliation. Panetta’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also warned last year that a military strike would actually convince Iran to go ahead and build nuclear weapon—a decision that, according to the consensus of Western intelligence agencies, has not been taken as yet.
Gates’ warning is underscored by Professor Avner Cohen, an Israeli non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “A military attack on Iran is probably what would make nuclear Iran and regional proliferation real,” Cohen wrote last week. “Such action would obligate Iran to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT ), heighten its determination to pursue accelerated nuclear weapons development, and most important, would create a situation of a declared and deployed nuclear Iran, in the Pakistani style. If today Tehran is still steering its nuclear course with a great deal of caution and ambiguity, without openly crossing the nuclear weapons threshold, an Israeli military attack would fundamentally change the nature of Iranian nuclear activity.” Cohen argued earlier that all the Osirak attack achieved was to make Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program more dangerous by forcing it underground, bringing Iraq far closer to nuclear weapons capability than anyone had imagined it to be before Saddam blundered into Kuwait and lost a war that resulted in his weapons programs being dismantled under international supervision.
Also back in the fray last week was Meir Dagan, who retired a year ago as head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and has repeatedly warned that attacking Iran would be a catastrophic strategic error for Israel, embroiling it in a regional war which it could neither win nor easily end, a high price to pay for simply of delaying Iran’s progress. “I’m concerned about possible mistakes and I prefer to speak out before there is a catastrophe,” Dagan told an Israeli TV interviewer last week. “I think that engaging, with open eyes, in a regional war is warranted only when we are under attack or when the sword is already cutting against our live flesh.” Dagan clearly has little faith in those empowered to make Israel’s fateful strategic decisions on Iran. Of course they would counter that his critique reinforces his openly stated ambition to run for office in a couple of years.
Those in the corridors of power pushing back against demands for military action, however, tend to rely on the argument that other coercive measures will be more effective. Today, when the Obama Administration talks of prioritizing diplomacy over force on the Iran issue, by diplomacy it means, as Secretary Panetta confirmed last week, “organizing unprecedented sanctions and strengthening our security partnerships with key partners in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East. ” The message from Turkey, Russia, China and others, of course, is that this “diplomacy” is unlikely to achieve its goals, and could nonetheless bring on the very confrontation it is ostensibly designed to avoid. There’s no sign that existing sanctions will change Iran’s decisions, they reason, and measures to throttle Iran’s economy, or a serious escalation of covert warfare, might prompt Tehran to retaliate as if to an act of war.
But the Obama administration, facing a tough reelection battle in a season in which willingness to confront Iran is this year’s version of the test of loyalty to Israel, isn’t going to find much room for the diplomatic engagement with Iran he promised in 2008. Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate in a 100-0 vote ignored objections from the Obama administration and approved new sanctions that would penalize foreign financial institutions for doing business with Iran’s central bank. If implemented (the bill has a six-month grace period, and includes a provision for President Obama to waive the measures if US national security interests were at stake) it would amount to an economic blockade in which the U.S. would try to use its own leverage in the international financial system to impose its sanctions policy on more reluctant third parties such as China, Russia, Turkey, India and Brazil. Iran has threatened to treat measures such as these, which would prevent it trading on oil markets, as acts of war. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether China will allow its prime debtor nation to use the world’s banking system to force Beijing and others to reluctantly comply with U.S. foreign policy. So expect the drumbeat of war to continue, for now. Hopefully there won’t be a crescendo any time soon.