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Iran and the ‘Bomber Boys’

Is the chance of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran more than 50-50? Steve Clemons argues that no, cooler heads will prevail.

In an important article to be published in The Atlantic tomorrow, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg recounts something many people didn't realize at the time and still have a hard time believing. President George W. Bush knocked back Dick Cheney's wing of the foreign policy establishment—both inside and out of his administration—that wanted to launch a bombing campaign against Iran.  

In a snippet I hadn’t seen before, Bush mockingly referred to bombing advocates Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as ‘the bomber boys.’

Bush was showing his inner realist not allowing his own trigger-happy Curtis LeMays pile on to the national security messes the United States already owned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that was several years ago. Today, there’s a new US President, more Iranian centrifuges, and a different Israeli Prime Minister—and Bibi Netanyahu seems closer to a Curtis LeMay, John Bolton or Frank Gaffney than he does to the more containment-oriented Eisenhowers and George Kennans who in their day forged a global equilibrium out of superpower rivalry and hatred.

Goldberg, after conducting dozens of interviews with senior members of Israel's national security establishment as well as many top personalities in the Obama White House, concludes in his must-read piece that the likelihood of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran to curtail a potential nuclear weapon breakout capacity is north of 50-50.

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In short, Goldberg paints a picture that despite the likelihood of very high cost blowback from Iran in the wake of a unilateral strike by Israel, or a coordinated attack with the United States, there are numerous tilts toward bombing embedded in the current political orders in both Jerusalem and Washington.

Goldberg's slice of the pie—that he has taken in both places—is credible, though he’s careful to acknowledge that what may really drive Israel to strike is its lack of confidence in Obama's will to do so. Obama's team knows that the world sees Israel as a client state of the United States and simply won't believe that Israel acted alone, thus compelling the US to consider serious war options—even if, as Goldberg writes—Obama doesn't want the initiation of a third war in the Middle East to define his foreign policy legacy.

The quandary in trying to divine what Obama would and wouldn't really do to try and forestall Iran's nuclear pretensions is that while Obama is holding out an open hand and trying to encourage a constructive dialogue with Iran, he is also allowing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to play her ‘coercive diplomacy’ cards in high-pitched speeches that come close to John McCain's view of Iran.  The White House wants the world, and Iran, and Jeffrey Goldberg to think it could bomb, and may bomb, if other options don't work—but Goldberg's interlocutors seem to be demanding a binary, all in or all out, deal from the White House and fundamentally don't trust the President's non-military track.

In his essay, Jeffrey Goldberg reports on sitting in the office of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel along with senior members of the National Security Council while they emphasized ‘all options are on the table.’ And they kept emphasizing and emphasizing. Goldberg isn’t wrong to surmise that the White House was trying to sell him on the notion that yes, even a Barack Obama can take military action if Iran doesn't change course.

What drives deterrence, and resulting stability, is that two warring parties can create unacceptably high costs for the other.  And the United States, in order to try and secure stability in the Middle East and offering an opening for Iran to come into the international community with US support if it changes course, feels that it needs to threaten military action.

While I am uncomfortable with and oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, the country has shown itself to be a strategic, rational, albeit ruthless, calculator of its interests—not an irrational, suicidal nation.  It has been at odds with the United States for decades and displays more the attributes of a severely abused child whose view of the world and its options have been distorted and mal-shaped from being under regime change siege for so long.  There’s no likely quick fix to the absence of trust between Iran and the US and its allies.

The good thing though is that Iran prides itself on its rationality and complexity. Former Iranian top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani once said to me in response to a question, ‘You Americans play baseball. We play chess. Chess beats baseball.’

Goldberg acknowledges that over the next twelve months, sanctions could possibly change the calculations of Iran's political leadership, or the reformist Green Movement could ‘temper the regime's ideological extremism,’ or that covert ‘foiling operations’ could sabotage and undermine Iran's nuclear programme—but that chances for success on these fronts are seen by many as slim.  

He continues:

. . .least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the middle east is not a foreign policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran — seems, at this moment, terribly likely.

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What’s more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national security adviser, Uzi Arad, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15es, F-16is, F-16cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli Air Force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq's airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It's so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. according to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down).

Goldberg's essay weaves together an array of Israeli takes on Iran. He offers a fascinating psychological profile of Bibi Netanyahu and his thirst for affirmation from a strong, now 100-year old father who frowned on the peace gestures and territorial withdrawals made by Bibi during his last go as PM. It's clear that Goldberg surveyed a wide range of political personalities in Israel from the far left to the far right—but their diversity is manifested more in divergent postures on Greater Israel, settlement expansion, and how to deal with Palestine than differences of views on the consequences of a nuclear weapons-armed Iran.

What simultaneously disturbs and fascinates about this essay by Goldberg, who in past conversations has told me that he’s ambivalent personally when it comes to bombing or containing Iran, is that it lays out a fairly comprehensive roster of the probable high costs for Israel (and the United States) of a military attack—and yet Israel's national leadership, for the most part, as reflected in their interviews, maintains a consequences-be-damned posture on a military strike – as opposed to a containment strategy.

In other words, doubts about the sanity and rationality of Iran's leadership may be driving Israel's leaders to abandon pragmatic rationality and serious scrutiny of costs and benefits as well.  Is this all real?  Or are both sides puffing up, acting like ‘crazy Ivans’, as part of a military strategy that could be bluff, or could be devastatingly severe?  

Goldberg, to his credit, doesn't hyperventilate in the article—and doesn't do more than give his best gut read that more and more leaders in Israel, in Obama's White House, and in Arab states in the region are considering a military strike by Israel to be more and more likely.  But he does hedge a bit by acknowledging that this palpable sense of a military strike could be part of a campaign to change Iran's calculations.

I’ve previously outlined my doubts about America's and Israel's willingness—in the end—to take military action against Iran.  In short, the costs and blowback could be astonishingly, strategically high for the United States and Israel runs the risk of rupturing relations with its only key ally in the world by making a unilateral strategic choice for the United States.  I think that in a world today in which American power is doubted, in which the US military is bogged down in Afghanistan and potentially vulnerable in Iraq, Iran—which has for decades been fearful of regime change efforts by the West—is moving its interests forward as fast as it can before having to yield some ground when power shifts back to the United States.

According to Goldberg, Israel's advocates of a military strike would be fine with even minimal success from a bombing run.  Postponement of a few years would work for many Israelis—even if this assures an Iran dedicated more than ever to nuclear warhead acquisition.

Meanwhile, according to Goldberg, Israelis have a clear-eyed sense of the risks.

He tallies the consequences as:

‘Sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally, of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel's conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper of nations.’

This list of downsides is hardly trivial.  

I'd add to this list on the US ledger that China and Russia may exploit the incident and provide a back door to Iran—thus potentially breaking the back of US dominance of the world's oil and natural gas regimes. Supply of Iranian oil to Japan and Europe may be curtailed without immediate clear and easy supply offsets—thus potentially putting serious pressure on America's other alliances.   

Iran could also animate assets it controls inside Afghanistan and Iraq to threaten and undermine US military operations in those theaters. Also, according to a new poll funded by the Carnegie Corporation and conducted by the University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami, the Arab street may actually support Iran's nuclear programme and could after an Israeli strike for which their leaders were ‘secretly sympathetic’, as Goldberg writes, begin agitating against and even toppling their regimes.  Wars are full of unanticipated, unexpected blowback—consequences perhaps above and beyond what’s already expected.

My own hunch is that whether Israel is serious about striking Iran, or not it wants the world, Iran's Mullahs, and President Obama to think it will.  

After the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was publicly released stating that in the view of the US intel community that Iran had as of 2003 given up its nuclear weaponization program, I shared the news personally with former Labor Party Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who Goldberg interviewed for this essay. Sneh immediately erupted and made on the record comments that the United States was forfeiting its global responsibilities and that Israel would take action on its own.  Defense Minister Ehud Barak said much the same thing the next day. Thus, concern about Iran has been running at a high pitch for some time.

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On the other hand, what makes me doubt the veracity of some of the Israeli leadership's security views and Iran’s posture is the absence of progress on other fronts that arguably would enhance Israel's security and ‘remake the Middle East’ in more constructive ways.

The obvious question is why, if Iran is posing a true existential threat in the minds of Israelis and that there’s so much doubt in Obama's reliability on Iran as Goldberg lays out, Israel doesn't deliver on an Arab-Israel peace deal that gives Palestinians a state and normalizes Israeli relations with 57 other Arab and Muslim-dominant nations.  This would lay the foundation for more direct, if arms length, security coordination and would go some way in neutralizing the Palestinian cause as a rallying point throughout the region for Iran.  

Furthermore, delivering on a two-state arrangement and embracing the key points of the Arab Peace Initiative could produce two possible, useful scenarios.  The first is that those Arab regimes that are in the ‘all options on the table’ camp could be more supportive of military strategies against Iran if Palestine was on the drawing boards.  The mere possibility of an Israel-Saudi-Jordan-Egypt condominium against growing Iranian power in the regime may dramatically alter the calculations of Iran's leadership.  This ‘show of strength’ is possibly more constructive and compelling to Iran's leaders than the ‘we're really going to unilaterally bomb them’ approach Israel is flirting with.

The other possible scenario, seldom discussed, is that Iran's posture itself relaxes as an Israel/Palestine deal is reached.  

It seems to me that before Israel would even countenance the heavy costs that could be visited upon it after bombing Iran—which arguably would just delay and probably harden Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons acquisition—that it would want to shore up its security on other fronts, particularly with Arab regimes that share some of its concerns.

I was in the audience at the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival when Jeffrey Goldberg conducted the astonishing interview he recounts in his article with United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Otaiba who essentially said that if Iran continued on its current course, the UAE would support a military strike against Iran.  What Goldberg failed to mention is that Otaiba also strongly emphasized that the most important radicalizer in the region was the unresolved Palestine-Israel dispute and that the smart strategy to deal with the Iran challenge was to unwind the Israeli occupation.  He and other senior Arab leaders have told me that in their view, this would neutralize much of Iran's growing power in the region.

In one of my own interviews with a very senior UAE diplomat, I was told that the best way for the US and allies to confront Iran was to deliver on Palestine and then to work with the Saudis, UAE, and other oil-producing Arab states in making the price of oil crash to very low levels.  He said that this would generate ‘humbling conditions’ for Iran and ‘knee-cap Iran's ambitions.’  And then he said, Iran would work with us ‘and these games would end.’

What’s disappointing is that it seems from Goldberg's article—which I think captures correctly the prevailing mood and opinion in Jerusalem—that Israeli government officials for the most part are not even thinking about this course while at the same time considering and possibly accepting other high cost collision scenarios with Iran.  

Does Israel not see that its security relationship with the United States is somewhat like a New Orleans levy—working today but not exactly getting better with time?  Israel needs to participate in a recasting of its security circumstances in the region, and it seems to be seriously counterproductive to be launching a war with one threatening nation while not doing more to ameliorate tensions with many other states in its neighborhood—particularly when it could.

Goldberg's piece makes it clear that Israel's national leadership, while not in complete consensus on a strike, is nonetheless dominated by those who believe that the Israeli narrative as a nation, as a ‘safe haven’ and refuge of first resort for Jews from around the world, will be undermined if Iran's nuclear programme is not confronted and rolled back. There’s widespread consensus in Israel that Iran having a nuclear weapon comes as close to repeating the conditions of a shoah, or Holocaust, as Nazi Germany.

But Israel is less and less, if at all, a refuge of first resort today—even without a war with Iran. Russian Jews are increasingly trying to go to Germany instead of Israel, and the ongoing tensions over the unresolved situation with Palestine and the fear of rockets or terrorism keep the nation on edge.

When I first learned a couple of months ago that Jeffrey Goldberg was going to be writing this piece on ‘whither an Israeli strike,’ I thought it would lay out a more compelling logic to bombing than he does in this article.  Goldberg hasn’t undertaken advocacy journalism in this essay—rather, he has given us a snapshot of attitudes, postures, and his gut sense of probabilities while at the same time not pulling punches on what the dire costs could be.

Reading his essay a second, and then a third time, I sense that Israel's and America's leadership won't be ‘bombing boys’ but rather will act like them until a ‘third option’ to bombing or appeasement appears. That third option could be provided by Iran's Supreme Leader himself, or could be normalization between Israel and the Arab Middle East, or something else.  

But it seems to me just as likely, if not more so, that real leadership in this showdown will be exhibited by those who demonstrate strategic restraint and generate possibilities not seen at the moment.  

When Eisenhower reigned in John Foster Dulles and Curtis LeMay and forged a containment strategy of the USSR, he used their flamboyant desire to engage in war as part of his tool kit.

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Both Obama and Netanyahu would be wise to do the same and to think through ways to halt the dysfunctional, paranoiac escalation between Iran and Israel. What Jeffrey Goldberg has put out for us is an early treatment of what may be Barack Obama's ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ moment—in which tensions are high, in which many in the room on all sides are engaged in extreme brinkmanship, and in which disaster looms for all parties.

We don't know what the outcome will be—but my gut instinct pulls a different direction than Goldberg's. I think based on the interviews he has shared with all parties that more rational heads will prevail in finding a way to contain or redirect Iran's course.  

Otherwise, as in a simple game theory exercise, both Israel and the United States may end up in the box of very worst outcomes with none of their basic strategic objectives achieved.

This is an abridged version of a longer article published on The Washington Note, a popular Washington-based blog written by Steve Clemons. Clemons is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo and also directs the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank.