Taking it to Tehran Via Tel Aviv?

by matttbastard

With the publication of Sy Hersh’s recent New Yorker article detailing how Bush administration officials have ramped up US special forces activity in Iran, all eyes are once again fixated on the contentious Gulf state–and the potential of an Israeli-initiated proxy attack.

ABC News:

A senior defense official told ABC News there is an “increasing likelihood” that Israel will carry out such an attack, a move that likely would prompt Iranian retaliation against, not just Israel, but against the United States as well.

The official identified two “red lines” that could trigger an Israeli offensive. The first is tied to when Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility produces enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. According to the latest U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments, that is likely to happen sometime in 2009, and could happen by the end of this year.

“The red line is not when they get to that point, but before they get to that point,” the official said. “We are in the window of vulnerability.”

The second red line is connected to when Iran acquires the SA-20 air defense system it is buying from Russia. The Israelis may want to strike before that system — which would make an attack much more difficult — is put in place.

Juan Cole is dismissive of the former benchmark:

This [first] “red line” is pure bullshit. There is no evidence that Iran is enriching uranium to weapons grade at all, much less that it is making enough highly-enriched uranium that it will be able to make a bomb in 2009.

You can’t use low-enriched uranium to make a bomb. It has to be highly enriched. Iran–as far as anyone has proved–is only making the low-enriched kind, and from all accounts it isn’t doing such a great job of that, either. If it made high-enriched uranium, that could be detected by the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who regularly inspect Iran’s facilities. I.e., it just isn’t there and the idea that Iran could have enough material to make a bomb by next year is ridiculous. Now if it turned all its centrifuges to this task, then maybe it could achieve that result, though most experts think Iran’s ability to enrich is still exaggerated. It could not highly enrich without creating atomic signatures detectable by the inspectors.

The IAEA says that there is no evidence–zilch, zero, nada– that Iran has facilities for enriching to weapons grade or that it is trying to do so

With that mind, along with last year’s all-but-forgotten NIE (y’know, the one that unequivocally states that Iran isn’t actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons), how potent a threat does Iran actually present?  Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center and special assistant to the president for the Middle East during the first Reagan administration, provides a Realist analysis of the ‘threat’ posed by Iran to the US, Israel, and Middle East, dubbing it “an imaginary foe”:

Rhetoric about Iran’s malign propensities has received much attention. A worst-case analysis, most vigorously argued by Norman Podhoretz, an advisor to former-presidential-candidate Rudolph Guiliani, would suggest that once Iran gets hold of nuclear weapons, its messianic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be inclined to use them, especially against Israel. Ahmadinejad and his coterie believe in scenarios that call for a bloody battle between true believers and infidels as the precursor for the return of the Hidden Imam and the establishment of a world government. This is why Iran, unlike other nuclear powers–including the Soviet Union and China during the cold war–may not be susceptible to the logic of deterrence. For this reason they must be stopped from getting the bomb. In the absence of any diplomatic solution this simply calls for a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. (1)

While such apocalyptic visions are frightening, to infer, as Podhoretz does, that Ahmadinejad is another Adolf Hitler does not take into account the reality of Iran’s strengths and weaknesses. [Iran] is an important regional power that wants to be taken seriously and have an influence on Middle East geopolitics. Yes, it has energy reserves, a talented, educated population, and a unique geographical position that strides both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea–and it may even soon have the capacity to build nuclear weapons. But its ability to act as a regional hegemon is constrained by political, economic and military limitations. For all the rhetoric about Iran as a new Mideast colossus, the reality is that Iranians are not a martial people.

With regards to an attack on the part of Israel, Kemp evaluates the steps Israel would have to take to initiate a series of strikes against Iran:

Israel could conduct such an attack with cruise missiles from its small fleet of tactical submarines from locations in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Yet these submarines have limited inventories of missiles. A purely seaborne strike could do little more than mount a token attack on the key Iranian facilities—especially the well-protected and deeply buried uranium enrichment facility at Natanz—unless it used nuclear weapons.

In terms of conventional air-strike capabilities the Israeli Air Force is certainly capable of reaching a number of targets in Iran. The problem is it would have to pass over either Turkey; Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq; or fly a nearly three-thousand-mile-long one-way route via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is inconceivable that Turkey would give permission for the use of its airspace—though Israel might be prepared to ignore the wishes of the Arab countries. But once its aircraft enter Iraqi and Gulf airspace, they will encounter the full array of air defenses that the United States has established since the beginning of the Iraq War. Unless the United States gave permission for such an Israeli attack Israel would risk encountering U.S. anti-air action before it even reached Iran.

But, as Kemp notes, “the consequences of such an attack on oil markets, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaction of Iraq’s government and possible Iranian retaliation against Israel are awesome and suggest such action has a low probability of being authorized.” He does however acknowledge that, despite his conclusion that Israeli air strikes against Iran are counterproductive to US interests and regional stability (and won’t put much of a dent in Iran’s nuclear ambitions), an Israeli-initiated attack could still take place if “this is what the Bush administration wants to happen.” Despite this, Kemp remains convinced that “while some White House advisors may still contemplate such an action, it would be far more difficult to convince the secretaries of defense and state that another Middle Eastern war would serve American interests.”

In a recent analysis, Haaretz correspondent Yossi Melman cautioned those who would interpret the recent brinkmanship emanating from Tel Aviv as a signal that that military action on the part of Tel Aviv is a done deal:

Israeli leaders and officials have recently intensified their campaign against nuclear Iran. The messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ambassador to Washington Salai Meridor and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is clear: Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed Israel is very concerned by the likelihood that Iran, whose leadership has called for the Jewish state’s destruction, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.

These public statements, as well as closed talks between Israel’s leadership and leaders around the world, can be interpreted as “preparing the ground” for the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. It is also correct that all the bodies dealing with the “Iran case,” including the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Air Force and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, are planning for the worst-case scenario. This is their professional duty. But one cannot conclude, as many have following a report in The New York Times (June 19) that an Israeli attack is certainly around the corner. Not only has such a decision not been made in any relevant forum in Israel – the question has not even been discussed.

Melman notes that a “significant factor” in any decision to strike Iran is the political landscape in Tehran:

Next May, presidential elections are scheduled in Iran. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decides he is fed up with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mostly because of the worsening economic situation, and prevents him from running for another term, or does not support him, this dramatic turn of events could also affect Iran’s nuclear program.

Marc Perelman, writing in The Forward, has more on Ahmadinejad’s domestic woes:

On June 1, Ahmadinejad’s archrival and likely 2009 opponent, Ali Larijani, was elected to the powerful post of speaker of parliament for one year. Within hours of Larijani’s victory, an Iranian media outlet reported allegations that close to $35 billion in oil proceeds — nearly half of Iran’s annual revenue from oil — was missing from government coffers.

“Electioneering has started in earnest,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Iran scholar and co-author of a biography of Ahmadinejad. “Larijani wants to expose Ahmadinejad by casting light on corruption and even challenging him on the nuclear issue. In other words, he wants to beat him at his own game.”

While key decisions on Iranian national security and foreign policy remain firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, observers say Larijani’s return to power suggests that Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad is on the wane. Much of the rising discontent among Iranians is centered on the economic woes the country has endured under Ahmadinejad, but among the ruling clerical elite there is also growing resentment of the president’s frequent invocation of religious principles to justify his policies.

And from Kamal Nazer Yasin of Eurasia Insight:

Concern is mounting among various conservative factions in Tehran that Ahmadinejad’s confrontational approach to international politics, combined with his thorough mismanagement of the economy, is undermining the traditionalists’ hold on power. While many continue to view Ahmadinejad as the man who can best unite key conservative constituencies — militant nationalists and Islamic pietists — traditionalists want to place greater restraints on Ahmadinejad, hoping that he becomes a less divisive figure in Iranian politics.

[…]

Presently, Larijani is viewed as one of the few politicians in Iran with sufficient stature to make Ahmadinejad listen to the complaints and desires of other conservative factions. In accepting the parliamentary speakership, Larijani made two key policy statements designed to put Ahmadinejad on notice. Concerning the nuclear issue, Larijani announced an intention to strengthen parliament’s oversight of the government. He went so far as to indicate that he might open an alternate, parliament-controlled channel of communication with the United Nations.

Whether all this is enough to deter ‘bomb bomb Iran’ hardliners within the Bush admin (or, more realistically, bolster the resolve of Defence Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Rice, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to resist acquiescing to hawkish demands) remains to be seen. But, as Kemp warns, “punishing the Iranians and setting back their nuclear program for months or years will reinforce the nationalism of the country and give the mullahs a further lease on life”–a view shared by noted Iranian human rights activists Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi, who both note that the international community’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program has, according to Ganji, “pushed aside the struggle for democracy and human rights”, allowing the regime to exploit “the pretext of an “impending war” to crack down more severely on its opponents.”

Ebidi puts it succinctly: “As a human rights activist I tell the people of the world that if you want to help people in Iran the solution is not to launch an attack.”

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Webs, Tangled; Pride, Fallen.

by matttbastard

“I don’t think I’d change my view of the threat that Iran poses”

– John Bolton, spinning like a centrifuge.

Related: Think Progress:

Yesterday in his press conference, President Bush asserted that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told him “we have new information” on Iran’s nuclear program, but “he did not tell me what the information was.”

This morning, the cast of Morning Joe chided Bush’s claim. Co-host Willie Geist said, “It’s just not credible answer, I’m afraid.” Host Joe Scarborough ripped into Bush, saying that president is either “lying to the American people” or is simply “stupid”:

We are left with only two options here. Either the President of the United States is lying to the American people about what happened during that meeting, or the President of the United States is stupid.

I don’t think that’s an either/or proposition, Joe.

Background: Marcy Wheeler compiles an NIE timeline (h/t skdadl @ Bread & Roses); NPR provides a handy timeline of the controversy over Iran’s enrichment of uranium (2003 to the present).

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Quote Of The Day: Cautious Notes

by matttbastard

On a theoretical level, one may be willing to minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran due to Israel’s and America’s deterrent power, and willing to accept Iran’s regional influence under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. I think there are reasonable arguments in defense of both propositions.

But on a very practical level, there are three reasons why Iran’s mastering of the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle while remaining non-compliant with the NPT poses real threats to regional and global stability. To begin with, it further de-legitimzes the NPT at a time when it has already been severely destabilized. (Yes, the US-India deal contributes to this process.) Second, it has already caused a rush on the nuclear bank, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Morocco and Libya already declaring their intentions to go nuclear within the next 15-20 years. (Keep a close watch on Turkey, which for the time being has had trouble finding a seismically safe location for its declared nuclear ambitions.) That process could be reversed with a NPT-based resolution to the Iran standoff. It’s unstoppable in the absence of one. Third, it will likely push Israel to shed even more of its posture of nuclear ambiguity than what Ehud Olmert revealed in apparently off the cuff remarks earlier this year, which would only accelerate the aforementioned regional race for nuclear capacities.

In other words, it’s a good thing that Cheney and his gang’s nonsense have been revealed for the Iraq redux they are. But that doesn’t diminish the need to deal very carefully with the very real dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear program outside the auspices of the NPT. One of the strongest arguments often made against the Iraq War, both in the run up and the aftermath, was that it was a needless distraction from North Korea and Iran, two countries whose nuclear ambitions were further advanced and more determined. Nothing about the catastrophic nature of the Iraq War diminishes the argument, as demonstrated by North Korea’s newfound nuclear status. The NIE confirms that Iran has proven more cautious than North Korea, but it doesn’t say anything about what happens next.

Judah @ Headline Junky, Hold The NIE Euphoria

h/t Kevin Drum

Related: Reese Erlich:

The real dispute between the United States and Iran has little to do with Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. The Bush administration declared Iran to be part of the “axis of evil” and has been pursuing a policy of “regime change,” a euphemism for the U.S. overthrow of an internationally recognized government. The United States has adopted different tactical positions, sometimes calling for tightening sanctions, other times threatening military strikes. But the long-term goal is installing a friendly regime.

Let’s say Iran stopped all nuclear programs tomorrow, which was verified by international inspectors. The United States could start a new campaign based on its current claim that Iran is “the most active sponsor of state terrorism” in the world.25 Iran could give terrorist groups chemical weapons. Iran has missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and U.S. military bases in the Middle East. Iran presents an immediate danger because of its support for terrorism. Time for regime change.

Is Iran currently developing nuclear weapons? No. Could it do so sometime in the future? Sure. According to the [IAEA Director General Mohamed] ElBaradei, some 49 countries “now know how to make nuclear arms,” including Japan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies. Neither the United States nor the UN Security Council can militarily prevent each of those countries from making a bomb, said ElBaradei. “We are relying primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries, intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security….”26

The only way to insure Iran doesn’t make nuclear weapons is to devise a political, not a military solution. If the people of Iran have a government that truly represents them, and the United States ceases its hostility and negotiates in good faith, Iran won’t see a need to develop nuclear weapons.

As they say, read the whole damn thing.

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A Sharp Reversal

by matttbastard

My, how things can change in 2 years (to say nothing of one monthnice try, Deadeye). With the most recent US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) now saying that Iran is not actively seeking a nuclear weapons program (as the Grey Lady puts it, “[r]ather than portraying Iran as a rogue, irrational country determined to join the club of nations that possess a nuclear bomb, the estimate says Iran’s “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs”–ZOMG you mean they AIN’T CRAAZY?!!11), the foreign policy debate about dealing with the Supreme Council has been turned on its head:

The impact of the National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion — that Iran had halted a military program in 2003, though it continues to enrich uranium, ostensibly for peaceful uses — will be felt in endless ways at home and abroad.

It will certainly weaken international support for tougher sanctions against Iran, as a senior administration official grudgingly acknowledged. And it will raise questions, again, about the integrity of America’s beleaguered intelligence agencies, including whether what are now acknowledged to have been overstatements about Iran’s intentions in a 2005 assessment reflected poor tradecraft or political pressure.

Seldom do those agencies vindicate irascible foreign leaders like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who several weeks ago said there was “no evidence” that Iran was building a nuclear weapon, dismissing the American claims as exaggerated.

The biggest change, though, could be its effect on President Bush’s last year in office, as well as on the campaign to replace him. Until Monday, 2008 seemed to be a year destined to be consumed, at least when it comes to foreign policy, by the prospects of confrontation with Iran.

There are still hawks in the administration, Vice President Dick Cheney chief among them, who view Iran with deep suspicion. But for now at least, the main argument for a military conflict with Iran — widely rumored and feared, judging by antiwar protesters that often greet Mr. Bush during his travels — is off the table for the foreseeable future.

As Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, put it, the intelligence finding removes, “if nothing else, the urgency that we have to attack Iran, or knock out facilities.” He added: “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of this.”

[…]

Senator Hagel said he hoped that the administration might in its final year in office show the kind of diplomatic flexibility it did with North Korea over its nuclear weapons or with the conference in Annapolis, Md., last week on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has previously called for the United States to open direct and unconditional talks with Iran to end the state of enmity that has existed since 1979.

He said Iran’s halt of weapons activity had created an opening for such talks, indicating, as the assessment does, that Iran’s government may be more rational than the one that Mr. Bush said in August had threatened to put the entire region “under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.”

“If we’re wise here, if we’re careful, I think we have some opportunities,” Mr. Hagel said.

As Senator Hagel says, perhaps it’s time to rethink the present (un)diplomatic approach on the part of Bush administration officials (ahem). Zbigniew Brzezinski (writing in an op-ed published prior to the release of the latest NIE) thinks China could prove to be an effective partner for negotiations with Iranif the US ratchets down the hawkish rhetoric and brinkmanship. Fat chance, sez an ever-defiant Dubya:

George Bush today ruled out a change in Washington’s Iran policy following the declassification yesterday of a US intelligence report that concluded Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

The US president denied the national intelligence estimate (NIE) – which said Tehran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons “is less … than we have been judging” – had undercut his administration’s repeated assertions that Iran was building nuclear weapons.

“Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush told his first White House press conference in nearly seven weeks.

He said the US would continue to work to “isolate” Iran, claiming the NIE was a “warning signal” to the international community.

“I think it is very important for the international community to recognise the fact that if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger of the world. “And so, I view this report as a warning signal that they had the programme, they halted the programme. The reason why it’s a warning signal is they could restart it.”

As recently as October, Bush was invoking the threat of a third world war in relation if Iran was not prevented from obtaining the necessary knowledge to make a nuclear weapon.

Asked if he had been “hyping” the threat from Iran, Bush said he was only made aware of the NIE last week and insisted it had changed nothing. “I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn’t changed.”

Of course, as noted by BBC News, despite the lack of repentance in the president’s still-bellicose rhetoric, the urgency has been muted, with the president having “gone from raising the spectre of World War III, to saying that Iran could be a danger to the world if it had the knowledge to develop nuclear weapons.

The most entertaining (if not at all unexpected) hawkish responses to the report come from Michael Ledeen (shorter: “they is TOO batshit crazy!!11”) and Norman Podhoretz, who at some point apparently purchased stock in a tinfoil manufacturer:

I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.

But I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding. How better, then, to stop Bush in his tracks than by telling him and the world that such pressures have already been effective and that keeping them up could well bring about “a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”—especially if the negotiations and sanctions were combined with a goodly dose of appeasement or, in the NIE’s own euphemistic formulation, “with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.”

Yes, how dare the (liberalcommieterrorist-appeasing) US intelligence community undermine the long-standing scheme to bomb bomb Iran by nefariously reporting that, despite the best efforts of the VP’s office, (half-assed) diplomatic measures have actually proven to be effective!

One hopes this nonsense still isn’t being whispered into the President’s ear.

Yeah, well, wish in one hand, shit in the other. As John Bolton puts it, “[w]hile I was in the administration, I saw intelligence march up the hill and down the hill in short periods of time with no reason for them to change their mind… . I’ve never based my view on this week’s intelligence.” In other words, diplomacy is dead–buy my new book! surrender is still not an option.

Last word goes to Glenn Greenwald:

In a minimally rational society, the Fred Hiatts and John Boltons and Norm Podhoretzs and Rudy Giulianis and Joe Liebermans would be considered laughingstocks. In light of this track record, what rational person would trust a single thing they say? Yet as always in our political culture, those hungry for American wars — both old and new — are, by definition, Serious and Respectable, and those who try to stop such wars (such as ElBaredei) are losers and “apologists” whose judgment and allegiances are equally suspect. Just compare the Very Serious Fred Hiatt’s fact-free, war-pursuing attacks on Mohamed ElBaradei in both 2002 and 2007 with the fact that ElBaradei — both times — was absolutely right on the most vital matters of the day, and one finds all one needs to know about how sad and broken our political establishment is.

More on the NIE fallout from Cernig, Dave @ the Beav, Steve Taylor, Eric Martin, Brad Plumer, Blake Hounshell and many, many more @ Memeorandum

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