By Stephen M. Walt
August 13, 2012 “Information Clearing House” — You may have noticed that there is an active campaign underway to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In fact, the real goal is to prevent Iran from having even the latent capacity to build a weapon if at some point it decided it wanted one. This is why the United States and other countries have imposed increasingly draconian economic sanctions on Iran, launched covert actions such as the Stuxnet virus, and made repeated threats to use military force.
One of the background elements in this campaign has been repeated warnings that Israel’s leaders believed “time was running out” and that they were getting ready to launch a preventive strike on their own. This recurring theme has depended heavily on cooperation from sympathetic journalists and compliant media organizations, who have provided a platform to disseminate these various dark prophecies.
In September 2010, for example, The Atlantic published a cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg (“The Point of No Return”) based on interviews with dozens of Israeli officials. Goldberg concluded that the odds of an Israeli attack by July 2011 were greater than 50 percent. Fortunately, this forecast proved to be as accurate as most of Goldberg’s other writings about the Middle East.
Then, in January of this year, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman entitled “Will Israel Attack Iran?” The piece essentially replicated Goldberg’s earlier article: once again, various Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Iran’s nuclear program was nearing a critical stage and that Israel was going to take action if Iran did not agree to end all enrichment. Despite a few caveats about the risks of an attack and the possibility that it wouldn’t halt Iran’s progress for very long, the overall tenor of the piece made it clear that Bergman thought war was very likely.
Even Foreign Policy has gotten into the act, publishing a similar report from former Cheney aide John Hannah a few days ago. According to Hannah, his recent conversations with Israeli officials convinced him that “Israel’s resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster.” His conclusion: “an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than I had believed before.”
Then yesterday Ha’aretz published an article by Barak Ravid — based on interviews with an unnamed Israeli official — claiming that U.S. intelligence had now concluded that Iran was making rapid progress toward a bomb. The information in the article was subsequently “confirmed” by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (who for all we know was the source of the original leak), but quickly denied by American officials. (Side note: shouldn’t someone ask Ravid and his editors if they now want to retract the story?) And as Noam Sheizaf describes here, newspapers in Israel are now filled with stories suggesting that the danger is growing and that Netanyahu and Barak are determined to hit Iran sometime this fall.
Last but not least, yesterday’s New York Times featured a one-sided story on the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran that placed virtually all the blame for the trouble on Tehran. On the front page, it described a “continuing offensive” by Iran, without mentioning that there has been a long cycle of tit-for-tat between these two countries. Only after the jump came any mention of the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists (almost certainly by the Mossad), or any acknowledgement that Iran might be acting defensively rather than conducting a totally unprovoked campaign of aggression. I’m not defending what Iran is doing, by the way, only suggesting that it’s deeply misleading to portray what the U.S. and Israel are doing as purely defensive and to suggest that it is Iran that has launched some sort of ambitious “offensive.”)
As I noted a few months back, it’s virtually impossible to know how much credence to place in the repeated predictions that Israel is about to attack. It does prove that there is no shortage of journalists or pundits who are willing to serve as sympathetic stenographers for government officials, but it doesn’t tell you very much about what is going to happen or what these officials really believe. Why? Because the various officials whose alarming testimony forms the basis for these articles have lots of different reasons for stirring the pot in this fashion.
In this case, those prophesying war may be trying to reinforce the global sanctions effort and keep Iran isolated. They know that the U.S. and the EU see sanctions as preferable to war, so constantly threatening to slip the leash is a good way to stiffen others’ resolve and get them to ramp up demands and pressure. It’s also a good way to blackmail the United States into providing additional military assistance, and it helps distract everyone from annoying issues like settlement expansion and the nearly-dead-and-buried “peace process.” Given these various motivations, one should take all these forecasts of an imminent Israeli attack with many grains of salt.
Although I believe war with Iran would be folly, one cannot rule it out. All countries commit blunders, and neither the United States nor Israel is immune to this sort of miscalculation (see under: Iraq, Lebanon, etc.). But I remain skeptical that Israel will attack, for the simple reason that it does not have the military capability to inflict strategically significantdamage on Iran’s nuclear facilities. As the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year, “Israeli officials and analysts generally agree that a strike would not completely destroy the [Iranian nuclear] program.” The CRS report also suggested that an Israeli strike could not delay the program for long, and that long-term success would depend either on repeated follow-up strikes or on subsequent diplomatic activity (e.g., more sanctions).
All of which suggests that all this talk of Israeli “red lines” and some sort of imminent attack (including the possibility of an “October surprise”) is just talk. Indeed, those prophesying war are starting to sound like those wacky cult leaders who keep predicting the End of the World, and then keep moving the date when the world doesn’t end on schedule. At what point are we going to stop paying attention?
Like I said, I can’t be completely sure that reason will prevail and that a war won’t happen, although there do seem to be a lot of sensible voices inside the Israeli security establishment who are counseling against it. What worries me most is that the people who have been sounding all these alarmist warnings will start to worry that their credibility is evaporating, and they will feel compelled to go to war because they’ve talked about it for so long. That’s just about the dumbest reason I can think of, but sometimes even pretty smart people do dumb things.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.