MoJo Convo: Iran Panic? A Follow Up Question for the Experts

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 7:53 AM PDT

Earlier this week 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?)

Read the original conversation here.

Now for a follow up question:

There have been hints of potentially momentous shifts on policy to Iran this past week. Final thoughts on what promises to be a long hot summer?

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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:

The first thing I would say would be to caution against expectations of a dramatic breakthrough in either direction—either imminent attacks or an imminent deal—when hearing the latest developments, which is good news in the case of the former, but not so much in the case of the latter. I would also be careful about drawing what some may see as an obvious causal relationship: Israel and American heightened the threat; Iran climbed down—longer and more complicated processes are at work.

If one were to be mischievous, one could even pose the opposite speculation: Namely, that in anticipation (or with advance information) of a greater Iranian willingness to demonstrate flexibility on the enrichment freeze, the threats were escalated in order to allow the claim that chest-thumping was working. If indeed we have inched closer towards negotiations, then the key thing will be to give those negotiations a chance to make progress and to demonstrate patience. Naturally, all sides would have to justify a change in approach to their respective domestic audiences.

The challenge will be to do this in a way that does not undermine the process itself. So keep any clucking and "they blinked first rhetoric" to a minimum. My own sense is that one of the significant factors in play here is that Iran, similar to other regional powers, is already looking beyond the Bush administration and beginning to choreograph it signals and messaging with the next administration in mind. Syria's resumption of negotiations with Israel probably comes from a similar place.

Hard diplomatic bargaining is not only the best option, but also the option most likely to address legitimate concerns on all sides in ways that the other parties can live with (limitations and transparency of any enrichment/civil nuclear energy program, Iranian regime security, cessations of Iranian provision of material assistance to groups deploying violence against Israeli civilians, etc.); and the new Trita Parsi-Shlomo Ben-Ami op-ed is well worth reading on this. But note—negotiations entail brinksmanship and moments of crisis that require very skillful management, which makes me worry given the current actors on the scene.

There have been some posts and questions on this thread regarding the relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Iranian issue. In shorthand, I would say the following:

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If one removes the grievance and injustice understandably felt in the Arab and Muslim world regarding the Palestinian issue (by ending the occupation, getting to two-states, etc.) then Iran's ability to use that issue and waive that flag is dramatically undercut. And in fact, in many ways, Israel is likely to be less a focus of Iranian attention—certainly in its propaganda and declarations. Framing the peace process as a way of further isolating Iran, as was done with Annapolis, is not smart and it only incentivizes further Iranian pushback. Finally, if one is negotiating with Iran, then acceptance of Israel and an Israel-Palestinian peace process should be on the table, which in itself creates new opportunities for progress on Israel-Palestine that should be exploited (i.e. if you remove a major spoiler, take advantage of it).

I thought I'd end on a lighter note—with a long weekend coming up and everything—with this piece from the Onion. It's not their best (and the language gets a bit offensive in parts), but it contains this precious line while President Bush is joining world leaders in a spoof roasting of President Ahmadinejad:

"What the hell is with that last name, anyway? Ahmadinejad? Ahmendinifragelisticexpialidocious? I can't even pronounce it, let alone write it on a top-secret Black Ops memo."

And for a more intellectual and poignant, but equally witty attempt to answer our initial question of will there be an attack on Iran, I highly recommend my friend Tony Karon's blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan, and his post 'Biggie Smalls Says Israel Won't Bomb Iran.'

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:

Recent leaks to the US media (New York Times and ABC News) have sent a false message that an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent. That is far from true. No decision to attack Iran has been made in Israel. Certainly no date has been fixed.

Israel will decide to disrupt Iran's nuclear program only as a last resort if and after international diplomacy fails, and more importantly only after serious consultation with the American administration. Coordination with America is the key factor in all Israeli crucial decisions. This has been the Israeli practice since 1967. Israel launched its combat campaigns since then only after realizing or understanding that the US either sanctions the military operation or has no objection to it or will turn a blind eye. These were the cases in June 1967, in June 1982, and in July 2006. In two other cases, Israel didn't respond as it had wished fearing that the US would be against it. In October 1973 Israel decided against a premptive strike against Egypt and Syria and in January 1991 for the same reason it didn't respond to the launching of 40 Scud missiles against its urban centers. If the US doesn't approve of an Israeli operation, Israel will not attack Iran. Full stop.

True, the recent leaks may serve Israeli interests to increase pressure on the international community to act against Iran. But above all they reflect confusion and a power struggle within the US administration in the twilight months of a weak administration. We are still far away—a matter of at least one year—before Israel would realize that it has no other option than to attack Iran's nuclear sites.

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:

Reading the excellent comments on this forum, I cannot help to notice that our analysis of how the Iranians are reading this debate and the latest talk of a US or Israeli is somewhat lacking. We see how the bravado of the Bush administration is replicated in Tehran and Tel Aviv, fueling fears that even if no decision to go to war is made, the three countries could still end up in a confrontation due to a mistake.

(That is the asymmetric situation between war and peace: While nations may accidentally end up in war, they never accidentally achieve peace.)

Farideh Farhi of Hawaii University, one of America's sharpest analysts of Iranian affairs, wrote an excellent analysis of the Iranian reaction to the war talk for the
National Iranian American Council. She shows that beneath the bravado, the
Iranians are carefully planning for a potential US or Israeli attack.

(Likewise, the Israelis are officially describing Iran as a irrational actor against whom deterrence won't work, yet behind the scenes Tel Aviv is preparing for a potential Iranian nuclear bomb by boosting their second strike capabilities—that is, relying on deterrence.)

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:

Recent statements by former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and current foreign minister Manoucher Mottaki indicating that Iran might accept what has come to be known as a freeze-for-freeze arrangement (where the UN Security Council freezes sanctions and Iran freezes at least centrifuge installation if not actual enrichment) for six or so weeks would be a giant step in the current climate (ABC News reports that Israel may be getting serious about a strike before 2009, etc.). It would really take the air out the tension hanging over the issue and provide a context in which a longer-term strategy could be cobbled together.

So my hopes are high. I try not to remind myself that we have also been down this road before, though not in a long time; nor do I dwell on a nagging suspicion that it might prove awfully difficult to actually get the cascades at Natanz to fall silent, or that the White House may reject the installation-freeze as inadequate, or that Iran won't want to be seen as caving to Israeli saber rattling (though Velayati seemed to address this when he referred to the "traps" that Iran's enemies want it to fall into). So I'm very glass-is-half full right now.

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