Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Opinion | The Covert War on Iran ... And the Open Conflict that Could Follow

The hazard, hubris, and hypocrisy of a potential attack on the Islamic Republic.


Lately there has been much talk of Israel and/or the United States attacking Iran. The most recent conversation started with a column published (in Hebrew) on October 28 by Israel's most influential journalist, Nahum Barnea (though as far back as 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that the Bush administration was planning to attack Iran). Barnea contends that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are conspiring to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Haaretz later reported that Netanyahu and Barak recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had previously opposed attacking Iran, to support a military strike. There's currently only a "small majority" left in the Israeli cabinet who oppose such a move.

Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, who opposes a war with Iran, said, "I decided to speak out because, when I was in office, [former security service chief Yuval] Diskin, [former armed forces commander Gabi] Ashkenazi, and I could block any dangerous adventure. Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi [Netanyahu] and Barak."

Parts of the American media establishment have already begun a campaign urging war with the Islamic Republic. Foreign Affairs recently published articles with titles such as "Time to Attack Iran" and "Why Obama Should Take Out Iran's Nuclear Program."

Salon blogger and lawyer Glenn Greenwald notes how the media evidently didn't learn their lesson after the invasion of Iraq not to rely upon "anonymous government sources" to disseminate "unverified fear-mongering accusations." He points out how the Washington Post is doing exactly that, which they've been criticized for in the past. The New York Times is often no better. As Greenwald writes, "[T]here is a concerted campaign under way in Washington to demonize the Iranians and to blame them for almost every world evil, real and imagined." The utterly ridiculous "Iranian Plot" is a perfect example of this.

Many other articles have been published recently arguing that a "covert" attack on Iran has in fact already begun.

Timeline of the covert war

In the winter of 2010, Iran's Natanz nuclear facilities were attacked by the American-Israeli designed Stuxnet worm, "the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed," which destroyed about one-third of Iran's centrifuges. Israel's role was privately confirmed by Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi.

Last July, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated, which marked the fourth such attack. According to Haaretz, "The attacks seem to be focused on taking out key people involved in the last and most important step on the road to nuclear weapons -- the group known as the weapons group." An article in Der Spiegel claims, "There is little doubt in the shadowy world of intelligence agencies that Israel is behind the assassination."

On November 12, a Revolutionary Guard ballistic missile base in Iran's Isfahan province was bombed, killing 17 people, including Major General Hassan Moghaddam, who was a pioneer of missile development in the Islamic Republic. A Western intelligence source said Israel was behind the attack. On the 28th, another mysterious explosion in Isfahan was reported.

On November 13, Ahmad Rezaei, the son of Mohsen Rezaei -- the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and a presidential contender -- was found dead at a hotel in Dubai. The death was described as suspicious and reportedly caused by electric shocks.

Also in November, the United States, Great Britain, European Union, and Canada each announced they were imposing more (futile) sanctions on Iran. In response, Iranian protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran. The U.K. then expelled all Iranian diplomats from Britain.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain have all urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

Seymour Hersh writes that "Israeli fighter pilots have been training for years at the Hatzerim airbase, in the Negev, and at a foreign site, for a potential raid on known and suspected nuclear-weapons facilities in Iran."

Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, says that "[the Americans] are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran. U.S. bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours."

Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes that "it would take tremendous naïveté to believe these events are not the result of a covert American-Israeli drive to sabotage Iran's efforts to develop a military nuclear capacity."

Jordan Michael Smith, at Salon, warns, "A full-scale war is inevitable if things don't change."

International relations theorist Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy asks, "What will happen if Iran tries to fight back against these covert strikes? They'll be accused of starting it."

Iran and nuclear weapons

Many have been saying for decades that Iran is on the brink of having nuclear weapons. In 1992, Netanyahu claimed Iran would have nuclear weapons in three to five years. Shimon Peres insisted Iran would have nukes by 1999. In 1995, the New York Times claimed Iran was only five years away from obtaining them.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Iran, "You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control." However, the United States, as well as Britain and France, are all in violation of the 1995 U.N. nuclear nonproliferation treaty that mandated eliminating all nuclear weapons within five years.

On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report that is being used by many hawks in the United States and Israel to call for war. The report says that Iran has carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device," but does not explicitly state that Iran is currently trying to build nuclear weapons.

Journalist Gwynne Dyer points out the political nature of the report, which is based on information from Western intelligence sources: "The same intelligence agencies are producing the same sort of reports about Iran that we heard eight years ago about Iraq's nuclear ambitions, and interpreting the information in the same highly prejudiced way." He also points out the hypocrisy that "[IAEA head Yukiya] Amano will never publish a report about America's nuclear weapons. [...] He hasn't said anything about Israel's, Britain's and France's weapons of mass destruction either."

WikiLeaks documents reveal that Amano is extremely pro-American, and is "solidly in the U.S. court" when it comes to "the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program."

Journalist Eric Margolis points out that the United States pays a quarter of the costs of the IAEA and has put its own people in positions of influence in the agency.

There is indeed ample reason to believe that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program, but there's also reason to believe they're not, and the latter is receiving almost no media exposure, thus warranting an examination.

Academic Fareed Zakaria notes that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest political and religious authority in the country, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral, and later said that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were "un-Islamic." Zakaria acknowledges that they could simply be lying, but ponders how "it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini's statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes."

The two most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimates both concluded that there is no firm evidence that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear bomb since 2003. The Defense Intelligence Agency said that when Iran did have a nuclear weapons program before 2003, it was aimed at Iraq, not Israel, the United States, or Europe.

The Iranian enrichment program is monitored by the IAEA, and Natanz and all of Iran's major nuclear installations are under extensive video surveillance. Inspectors "have been unable to find any evidence that enriched uranium has been diverted to an illicit weapons program."

Seymour Hersh writes that "despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran."

A more likely goal

Some more thoughtful commentators have reached a different conclusion about Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying that Iran probably wants a "latent" nuclear capability. In other words, Iran wants the capability to quickly produce nuclear weapons without actually building them. This would create a powerful deterrent against an attack, and would also be cheaper than actually producing the bomb.

Gwynne Dyer postulates that "Iran wants the knowledge and equipment that would let it build a nuclear weapon very quickly if necessary: an Israeli nuclear threat, a military coup in nuclear-armed Pakistan that brings young Shia-hating officers to power, whatever." Dyer also points out that this is entirely legal under IAEA rules.

Stephen Walt writes that Iran could do this "while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line," so as to avoid an arms race or sanctions.

The rationality of Iranian actions

Even if Iran is developing nuclear weapons, many would say this is a very rational policy for a state in its position. Despite its constant vitriolic, anti-Semitic rhetoric, which is used to pander to domestic voters, and its grimly oppressive domestic policies, Iran's international actions are actually quite rational and not particularly aggressive.

As Stephen Walt writes, the United States and Israel "ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them [...] and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program."

Journalist Mehdi Hasan explains the perspective of the Iranians:

On your eastern border, the United States has 100,000 troops serving in Afghanistan. On your western border, the US has been occupying Iraq since 2003 and plans to retain a small force of military contractors and CIA operatives even after its official withdrawal next month. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, is to the south-east; Turkey, America's Nato ally, to the north-west; Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refuelling base for US military transport planes since 2002, to the north-east. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, you see a cluster of US client states: Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet; Qatar, host to a forward headquarters of US Central Command; Saudi Arabia, whose king has exhorted America to "attack Iran" and "cut off the head of the snake."

Then, of course, less than a thousand miles to the west, there is Israel, your mortal enemy, in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of pre-emptive aggression against its opponents.

According to the Global Peace Index, a list of the most peaceful countries in the world published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Iran (ranked 119) actually scores quite a bit higher than Israel (145).

Glenn Greenwald points out that "in the past decade, the U.S. and/or Israel have invaded, air attacked, and/or occupied Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip." During this same time period, Iran hasn't invaded, occupied, or attacked anyone. In fact, Iran hasn't invaded anyone in over 200 years, and the current regime has absolutely no history of attacking its neighbors. As one scholar writes, "Iran's foreign policy has been fairly risk-averse since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989."

Greenwald asks his readers to "just imagine the massive retaliatory response that would be triggered if Iran were found to be flying drones over American soil, let alone simultaneously killing U.S. scientists, causing explosions on U.S. soil, backing U.S. terrorist groups, and launching cyber attacks on U.S. nuclear facilities, all while occupying Canada and Mexico with more than 150,000 troops." No wonder Iran wants to protect itself.

Even the Council on Foreign Relations, composed largely of U.S. government officials, says that it's entirely reasonable for Iran to want nukes:

[N]ow that Washington has proved willing to put its provocative doctrine of military pre-emption into practice, Iran's desire for nuclear weapons makes strategic sense. And Tehran cannot be entirely faulted for rushing to acquire them. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, which was not yet nuclearized, and avoided using force against North Korea, which already was, Iranians came to see nuclear weapons as the only viable deterrent to U.S. military action.

Even Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, himself recently said that if he were an Iranian leader he would want nuclear weapons.

Would a nuclear Iran be the end of the world?

If Iran did obtain nuclear weapons, it would not necessarily lead to an arms race. When Israel got their bomb, it didn't lead to an arms race, and neither did North Korea's nukes. The nuclear domino myth could also become a self-fulfilling prophecy if simply taken at face value as being self-evident.

It's also worth pointing out that nuclear arms are defensive weapons, not offensive. As Stephen Walt tells us, Iran "could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else." He also explains that "nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else."

Another scholar writes that Iran "is unlikely to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon because Israel's atomic arsenal is orders of magnitude larger than whatever infant capability Iran could muster in the foreseeable future. Moreover, Israel is believed to possess a secure submarine-based second-strike capability that could devastate Iran" even in the wildly unlikely event that Iran could destroy all of Israel's nukes on the ground.

According to an April 2010 report to the U.S. Congress from the Defense Intelligence Agency, Iranian military doctrine is strictly "defensive, designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities," and Iran has only "a limited capability to project force beyond its borders." Regarding their nuclear strategy, "Iran's nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy" [emphasis added].

It's also baseless to conclude that Iran would hand over a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group such as Hezbollah. As one scholar writes in Foreign Affairs, "No nuclear state has ever turned over its most prized military asset to a subsidiary actor or surrendered its exclusive control over a weapon that it worked so hard to obtain. More important, if Hezbollah were to acquire and use a nuclear weapon against Israel, there would be no doubt about the weapon's provenance and Iran would immediately face devastating retaliation." Another writes that "it is hard to think of a scenario in which Iran would benefit from a terrorist client possessing a bomb."

The perils of an attack on Iran

Many experts agree that an attack on Iran would not be a simple matter of a few quick airstrikes, and would have devastating consequences.

Stratfor predicts that an Israeli airstrike would result in Iran mining the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide passes. The United States would have to get involved, because only they could engage the Iranian Navy and clear the strait of mines.

Journalist and Middle East expert Robert Dreyfuss writes in the Nation about what an attack on Iran would likely look like:

[A]n Israeli attack would lead to a regional conflagration, in which Iran would use its proxies and allies and, most likely, terrorist units against US and Israeli targets across the region and even worldwide. Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, would strike Israel, leading to what would end up being an Israeli war against both Syria and Lebanon. Iran's allies in Iraq and Afghanistan could launch attacks against US and NATO forces there, and there's a strong likelihood that Iran would try to attack the oil facilities of the Arab countries across the Persian Gulf. The ripples would spread from there, including soaring oil prices (in the range of $150 to $200 per barrel). For all these reasons, without definitive proof that Iran has actually acquired a bomb and that Iran is planning to use it, an attack by either the United States or Israel makes no strategic sense, especially since many analysts believe that even a sustained attack might not succeed in doing anything more than delaying Iran's program while convincing Tehran to accelerate it and to move its facilities underground into hardened sites, as it appears to be doing in its new facility outside Qom.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said attacking Iran would set back Iran's alleged nuclear program only a year or two, garner the Islamic Republic much-needed regional support, and have a devastating effect on an already weak global economy.

Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of the Mossad, said last January that an attack on Iran was "the stupidest idea" he had ever heard, and that it would set off a "regional war."

Stephen Walt writes that a military strike against Iran would "solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region."

Middle East scholar Juan Cole also points out that "an Israeli attack on Iran would willy-nilly push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into the arms of Tehran."

Eurasia Group president and political scientist Ian Bremmer said, "It is extremely unlikely that Iran's nuclear program could be destroyed" with air strikes alone.


If Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it would have much the same effect as every other country that has gone nuclear, which is to say, very little. The North Koreans haven't used theirs, and neither has any other nuclear power, except of course the United States. That is because they are not offensive weapons, and no one would be foolish enough to compel a nuclear power to use their nukes defensively.

Besides, conventional weapons can be just as destructive as nukes, and no one is getting rid of those. Iran's ability to exert any pressure internationally comes from its conventional forces, just like Israel, and would be little changed with a few nuclear weapons. It is war that's destructive, not weapons, and therefore it is war that should be diligently avoided, through robust diplomacy and engagement. If such diplomacy is perceived domestically as "being weak" and loses a few votes at home, so be it.

This diplomacy can't be done with condescension -- it would be political suicide for the Iranian regime to negotiate with the already unpopular and mistrusted Americans (Iranians still remember the overthrow of Mosaddegh) who tell them they "aren't allowed" to have nuclear weapons, and who hypocritically criticize their domestic policies while remaining silent about allies such as Saudi Arabia. They would simply lose too much political capital. Negotiations should be pursued through Turkey, a close U.S. ally that has an amicable relationship with Iran as well. Military strikes must be avoided at all costs.

A version of this article was published at Advokat Dyavola on January 2.

Copyright © 2012 IDÉ

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