To War?

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned . . . everywhere is war.” — Bob Marley, “War,” 1976 (lyrics adapted from a speech by Haile Selassie I at the UN in 1963)

Every few months the specter of a new American war in the Middle East is raised, and just as predictably, time passes without the firing of guns on a new front.  So it has been since 9/11 ushered in the era of “war on terrorism” or, better put, “permanent war”; for if the West is intent on waging war against a strategy, or a concept (which terrorism most certainly is), and one that has been with humans since the dawn of time, then that “war” is by definition unending (much like Ronald Reagan’s once vaunted but now forgotten “war on drugs”).  In the name of that greater war, two countries have been invaded and two governments overthrown, only one of which (Afghanistan) had any legitimate connection to international terrorism.  A third country, Iran, has been in the sights of those who advocate preemptive war since 9/11 itself, ostensibly to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability which would allow it to either terrorize the Western world (and Israel), or use its proxies to do so.  Thus, a war on Iran fits — in the minds of those advocating it — comfortably within the confines of the “war on terror.”  Although the war on terror is not defined in racial or even national terms, the undertones — war on “radical” Islam — do reflect an ethnic bias, and the definition of radical seems to depend on whether the people and “inferior” nation obey the “superior” West (Saudi Arabia, Yemen) — or not (Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Iran).

The war chatter reaches deafening proportions whenever there appears to be an impasse in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, whenever it appears that Iran is getting closer to perfecting its uranium enrichment technology, or whenever its stockpile of enriched uranium reaches a threshold that Western governments (and media) can claim can be used for a number of nuclear bombs, whether that number is one, two, or more, and regardless of whether Iran has the will or even the capability to build, develop, a functioning delivery system for, and then deploy, a nuclear weapon.  Given that today nuclear negotiations with Iran are at an impasse, that Iran is enriching uranium to the higher level of 20%, and that its stockpile of enriched uranium is growing by the day, the question of whether a U.S. or Israeli war on Iran is imminent is a rather good one.

A casual observer of the scene might conclude that war is indeed inevitable, if not imminent.  Washington is chock-a-block with conservative and neo-conservative think tanks, some of which are openly calling for the war option, others more subtly so, and the Western media is full of stories, some more credible than others, of American preparations for war, or opinion columns that argue a military option is the only viable one to confront Iran with.  And the main Israeli lobby in the U.S., AIPAC, is adept at using its not inconsiderable influence in keeping the military option front and center as it promotes the Israeli policy of preference for a showdown with Iran over the pressing issue of peace with the Palestinians (or its blockade of Gaza).  But how seriously should one take all this talk of war?  A better question to ask is how seriously does the U.S. administration take all this talk of war?  Not very, one might argue.  President Obama and his foreign policy team are not easily led by the Israeli lobby or by conservative think tanks, nor are they likely to take the advice of former Bush administration officials and military men (some of whom are employed by these think tanks), or notorious neo-cons such as Michael Ledeen or William Kristol (of The Weekly Standard).

One such think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, with an innocuous enough name, is actually an institution founded by AIPAC, in 1985.  That it should have hosted Reza Kahlili (pseudonym) on July 9, an Iranian who claims he was a CIA agent while he was in the IRGC (Sepah) during the eighties and early nineties and has written a book called A Time to Betray should come as no surprise, nor should the publicity generated by his speech.  Kahlili appearing at the Institute in a mask and with a voice modulator to disguise his identity — which he claims is necessary because of concern for his own safety and his family still in Iran — argued that Iran is intent not just on developing nuclear weapons but on using them, and not just on Israel but on Europe, too (!).  This we learn from someone who fled Iran over fifteen years ago, and who claims he “reactivated” his contacts in Iran after 9/11.  (The CIA admits that the text of his book was vetted by the agency, which confirms that he was at one time employed by them, but has issued no further comments, as is to be expected.  However, if Kahlili is indeed a current source for the CIA, he would not be appearing in the media promoting a book, and if his intelligence was in any way actionable, he would not be permitted to speak about it.)

The media in the U.S. has been unquestioning of Kahlili’s claims and has fallen prey to the drama of his disguises and mysteriousness, rarely (with few exceptions) wondering how credible it is that the Iranian government 1) doesn’t know who he is, and 2) is unable to find his “sources” inside Iran.  (Where is the Iranian foreign ministry’s Public Diplomacy apparatus in all of this?)  If Kahlili was a senior official with the Guards, after all, one has to presume that the Guards would know which one of their officers is missing (and where his family lives).  And if he wasn’t senior — perhaps just a lowly office worker whose disappearance after completion of a tour of duty wouldn’t be noticed — then the intelligence he could deliver would be questionable at best.  The media may have failed to ask these questions (and continues to give his provocative assertions, including his most recent, prominent print space and air time), but it is obvious that the CIA has, and that neither the agency nor the White House takes any notice of the likes of Kahlili.  Perhaps that is why Kahlili is so dismissive of Obama, much like his hosts at the WINEP are.

There are other Iranians, of course, in the media and in think tanks, some with influence in government, who more subtly urge the U.S. to take action against Iran, either by imposing ever stricter sanctions or to consider “regime-change,” which, although unsaid by most, is generally acknowledged to be only possible by military means.  (Some advocate an oil embargo, which would by necessity involve a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf, which itself is an act of war.)  Since the Iranian presidential election of 2009, these voices have grown louder, and there might be legitimate concerns among anti-war groups and inside Iran that the Obama White House could be influenced by them (along with the pro-war American and Israeli contingent).  But a number of facts should be considered before concluding that war is probable, or even possible, regardless of the level of chatter in Washington.  First, President Obama, one of the few American politicians who stood against the war in Iraq from the beginning (when it was actually popular), is unlikely to be persuaded that war is the only option left to him in dealing with the Iran question.  Second, even the Pentagon has acknowledged that simple military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would delay Iran’s nuclear program by only a few years, implying that to stop Iran altogether, a full-fledged invasion would be necessary: see point one, above.  Does Barack Obama, who is trying to extricate the U.S. from two wars, really want to see U.S. troops occupying yet another country?

The midterm congressional elections in the U.S. are almost upon us (and Florida and Pennsylvania are key states the Democrats must win, states where the Jewish vote is a significant factor); after November, politics in the U.S. will be dominated by the upcoming presidential campaign and election of 2012.  Contrary to what non-Americans might think (or hope), foreign policy plays hardly any role in U.S. presidential elections, except, of course, when U.S. troops are involved in a war.  For Obama to get re-elected, outside of approval of his domestic policy, he needs only to show toughness on Iran (which he has done, with the sanctions resolution at the UN and in Congress) and a commitment to the security of Israel (see Florida and Pennsylvania from above), but he does not need or want another war that would, despite all the clamor from conservatives, draw a tremendous amount of criticism from liberals and pragmatists across the country, and a war that would undoubtedly result in the vote-shedding loss of American lives.  Given his nature (to say nothing of his Nobel Peace Prize), it is also highly unlikely that Obama would unilaterally commit to a war with Iran, and that he wouldn’t first seek the legitimacy of a UN approval, something that is hardly likely under current circumstances.

Some Iranians may be disappointed in Obama’s apparent rejection of negotiations in favor of severe sanctions, and may interpret his moves as preparation for further conflict or military action.  Sanctions, after all, are acknowledged by even members of his administration (such as Leon Panetta, CIA chief) as having little chance of success in changing Iran’s behavior — so what else could be the U.S.’ next step?  While the possibility of war cannot be ruled out (particularly if there were an accidental incident in the Persian Gulf, a casus belli), there is little evidence that there is an appetite for military action in the White House.  Acting tough on Iran, as already indicated, is critical to Obama’s and the Democrat’s chances for continued control of Congress and the White House, if only to appease voters concerned with Israel’s security.  While Iranians are quick to dismiss their leaders’ inflammatory rhetoric (and sometimes actions) as just that, and targeted to a domestic or regional audience, they are slower to recognize that the U.S. also employs rhetoric (and actions) designed for a domestic audience, particularly when utilized by leaders mindful of voters’ (and media) sentiments.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real concerns at the highest level of the U.S. government; it just means that there are factors at play that may not be immediately obvious to an outsider.

For those worried about the potential for war, it should be remembered that proponents of war with Iraq did not suddenly surface after 9/11: they merely then stumbled upon their casus belli.  For years (from 1997 on, during the Clinton presidency) PNAC (Project for a New American Century, founded by William Kristol) had been advocating war against Saddam with open letters, editorials, and public relations efforts; their influence may have contributed to Clinton’s harsh view of Iraq, but even George Bush’s election to the presidency didn’t guarantee that their Iraq policy would be executed, not until Osama bin Laden gifted them the rubble of the Twin Towers.  Despite the two wars America is involved in at present, Americans are not, at least not since the Vietnam era, predisposed to committing to war unless it can be fast, painless, and have a legitimate rationale.  It is widely accepted that none of those criteria would apply to war with Iran.  It should also be remembered that although (post-June of 2009) some Iranians and anti-Islamic regime Americans who advocate a confrontational stance with Iran have had their voices heard by the White House, the U.S. administration has hardly been welcoming of their views.  “Reza Kahlili” is certainly not on the Oval Office guest list, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Iranian filmmaker who has spoken to the European Parliament about the dangers of the Iranian regime in possession of nuclear technology, was famously not granted a White House audience in 2009 despite the efforts of supporters at think tanks who have government access.  In fact, none of the Iranian supporters of “regime-change,” or American supporters of war against Iran — all well known in Iran through news reports or satellite television broadcasts — as far as we know, has ever been included in any discussions of Iran policy, whether at the State Department or the White House.

It is, of course, difficult to ascertain whether those Iran policy discussions at the White House include American contingency plans for the possibility of Israel, acting unilaterally, attacking Iran’s nuclear and military installations.  It is safe to assume that they do, although it is also likely that President Obama and his team believe they can hold Israel back from taking such action in the immediate future.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements to the American network Fox News on July 11th notwithstanding — where he maintained that sanctions would not prevent Iran from getting the bomb, only the threat of military action might — it is almost inconceivable that the Israeli government would stick a finger in the eye of a U.S. president who still enjoys the support of a majority of Americans, including that of American Jews.  (Poll numbers on presidential “performance” can be misleading, and many U.S. presidents have had weak poll approval ratings even as they have won re-election.)  While a vocal minority of conservative American Jews and their supporters believe that the U.S. should support any action by Israel, right or wrong (and may be disillusioned by Obama), the Israeli government is also well aware that American Jews, traditionally overwhelmingly Democratic voters, are unlikely to dump their support for the Democratic president when it most matters (in November of 2012), and are unlikely to be pleased with an Israeli government that doesn’t take U.S. concerns seriously.  Iran, most Americans — Jewish and otherwise and those in the White House — ultimately realize, is neither the Iraq of Osirak, nor the Syria of 2007 (when its suspected nuclear site was taken out by Israeli warplanes).

No, there is no military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, not by the U.S. and not by Israel, despite all the chatter.  One might then wonder why the U.S. insists on keeping the option “on the table.”  There are many good reasons not to, as put forth in the past by analysts and writers (including myself).  The White House may even recognize the advantages in removing the military option in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but the U.S. president cannot make any deal with Iran, even if it is advantageous to the U.S., from a perceived position of weakness.  And removing the threat of war is perceived as weakness, whether we like it or not.  Rhetorically “all options are on the table,” yes, but the reality is that war with Iran is probably not.  At least not in President Obama’s first term of office.

Hooman Majd is author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.  This article was first published in Iranian Diplomacy on 14 July 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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