MoJo Convo: Iran Panic? Talk About It With the Experts

| Sat Jun. 28, 2008 9:53 PM EDT

MoJo writer Laura Rozen asked an Israeli intel correspondent, an Iranian American activist, an arms expert, a former peace negotiator, and an anti-war intellectual:

How likely is a scenario in which the US or Israel strikes Iran before Bush leaves office? (Or is the Left falling for the hawks' propaganda?)

They'll be checking in on this MoJo Blog entry starting Monday to discuss their answers with readers—and each other. Want to talk to Daniel Levy, Yossi Melman, Trita Parsi, Danny Postel, and Jacqueline Shire about their take on Iran? Now's your chance. Leave a comment below for one of the five guest MoJo Blog moderators and they'll respond.

(Thursday Update: You can read some final thoughts from the forum participants at a follow up thread here.)

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Daniel Levy, a former Middle East peace negotiator, is Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation, and of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation:

I'm going to look at the Israeli side of the equation as I think this is the direction that any action is most likely to come from, although the blowback would of course most likely impact the US (and perhaps embroil it in a war with Iran). Also I will not address how disastrous the consequences of a military strike would be in my opinion, notably for Israel and its supporters in the US.

Bottom line: I still think a strike is still less rather than more likely, although I am increasingly concerned, more so than in the past. The Israeli political timetable may add a new element encouraging action, given that Prime Minister Olmert will remain in office only a limited number of months and Defense Minister Barak needs to justify why he has stayed in the Olmert government. This of course dovetails the US political calendar. These considerations are not sufficient to precipitate action, but if the Israeli Defense establishment is of the opinion that eventually a strike is inevitable (and I am not convinced it is) then the chances of a short timetable are enhanced.

The bombing of the Osirak Iraqi reactor in 1981, and of a suspected Syrian nuclear site in September '07, are problematic precedents in that they encourage a false Israeli presumption regarding the efficacy and minimal cost of a military strike. Iran is a different story. Israel's recent regional moves—negotiations with Syria, cease-fire with Hamas, and even the likely prisoner exchange with Hezbollah—all suggest a concerted effort to blunt some of the instruments that Iran could deploy in the region. Actually all of these moves make sense, but would be smarter as a backdrop to American engagement with Iran (I could explain more on this later). So why all the Israeli bluff and bluster? Well, it might be to push the P 5+1 and others into squeezing Iran harder, or part of Olmert's domestic spin that this is the wrong time to change Prime Minister. But few believe that the sanctions will lead to a unilateral Iranian climb down, and the political explanation is unsatisfying. Hence the worry. Still, the Israel-America no-surprises rule would certainly apply to a mission against Iran, so if Israel is planning something (and again I'm not convinced) then opposition from the Pentagon can prevent it.

Yossi Melman is national security correspondent for Israeli daily Haaretz and co-author of Every Spy a Prince, and The Nuclear Sphinx of Iran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran:

Very, very unlikely. The military and intelligence contingency plans to attack Iran are still in the making. From the operational point of view, Israel and the US are not ready yet. The supportive political-diplomatic environment has not been created yet. Attacking Iran is considered by Israeli military and political decision makers as a last resort. I assume that they and the international community, including the US, are waiting to see the results of next year's presidential elections in Iran, to be held in May 2009.

Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US and president of the National Iranian American Council:

The recent war rhetoric coming out of Israel seems more geared towards ensuring that America keeps its military option on the table, than towards signalling that Israel itself is prepared to take military action. Even if Israel does have the capability to strike Iran—which is debatable—Israel certainly does not have the capability to successfully eliminate all Iranian nuclear facilities. Would Israel initiate an attack—knowing it would fail—only to force the US to step in and utilize its military option? Possibly, but it would come at a great expense to Israel: the Jewish state's deterrence is to a large extent based on the outside world not knowing what Israel can and cannot do. By attacking Iran and failing to destroy the Iranian facilities, Israel would reveal the limitations of its capabilities and strike a major blow against its own deterrence.

Danny Postel is the author of Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism and a member of Chicago's No War on Iran Coalition:

None of us can be certain at this point whether the US or Israel will attack Iran, but I read recent signs as being just ominous enough that I'd rather err on the side of being too worried than of not being worried enough. Even that paragon of cool sobriety The Economist now concludes that Israel's recent maneuvers suggest that it might not be bluffing. One thing we do know is that the intellectual runway is being slicked for an attack. John Bolton has floated the suggestion that Israel will attack after the November elections but before the next president takes office, while Daniel Pipes has evoked the same scenario, only with the US doing the job. Pipes thinks Bush will attack only if Obama wins (the assumption being that McCain would take care of business himself), whereas Bolton sees Israel attacking no matter who wins. Norman Podhoretz not only "prays" that Bush will bomb Iran but has personally urged the president to do so in a private meeting between the two. (Bush, according to Podhoretz, "gave not the slightest indication of whether he agreed," but "listened very intently" and "looked very solemn.") The writing on the wall looks deadly serious to me. I'd rather fall for the hawks' propaganda than awake one morning to find out that I'd underestimated the threat. But even if it is just posturing, it's a very dangerous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, and served previously as a foreign affairs officer in the Department of State's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs:

For a host of reasons, ably articulated by others, I think the likelihood that the US attacks Iran before Bush leaves office to be quite low (due to reluctance to undermine Iraq's fragile stability or take on another military conflict with uncertain consequences, the economic impact of higher oil prices, opposition from international partners, and a pragmatic understanding that a strike may only drive Iran's nuclear program underground or fail to set back irretrievably the enrichment effort).

For similar reasons I believe that Israel too will ultimately decide to hold off, and suggest that if Israel were going to strike Iran, it might have already done so.

That aside, there is an uncertainty to the Israel-Iran-strike calculus that bears examining. Over the summer and into the fall, we can expect that Iran will continue doggedly, if imperfectly, installing and operating centrifuges at Natanz, expanding and improving upon their uranium enrichment efforts where possible. Barring a last minute breakthrough, we can also expect the formal rejection of the latest diplomatic offer made by the EU's Javier Solana in June, and the start of more sanctions discussions at the UN Security Council.

Add to this dispiriting mix some incendiary rhetoric from an over-confident Tehran toward Israel, and Israel's reported conclusion that Iran's timetable to a bomb is closer to late-2009 than the US intelligence community's assessment of mid-next decade, and we may wake up to a smoldering Natanz some morning before 2009.

While not likely in a greater-than-50-percent sense, this avoidable scenario depends largely on how Tel Aviv reads the news from Tehran—continued progress on enrichment, a rejection of diplomatic overtures, over-confidence in the political leadership—and marries it with other factors, in particular its own domestic political considerations, its assessment of how Sens. McCain or Obama would address Iran, and whether there has been any progress internationally on how to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In short, who knows? Israel has very deliberately maintained opacity on this question, veering between shows of force and official denials. We are left to continue watching closely all the variables and pressing for a diplomatic resolution.

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