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US, UK, Israel Prep War Against Iran?

As if the European crisis wasn’t enough to keep the world busy this week, reports of an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities were being discussed all over the press and the blogosphere.  In a jaw dropping display of disarray, senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials appeared to be overtly leaking deliberations to short circuit a potential attack.

The NYT reports:

The most recent debate [within Netanyahu’s government] has been prompted by the confluence of three events that has made the issue seem especially urgent in Israel, according to American officials who have been worried about whether Israel might conduct a surprise attack.

The first is Iran’s continued production of low- and medium-enriched uranium: it now has enough fuel for roughly four bombs, though producing them would require more time, more enrichment, and more risk of exposure. The second is Iran’s declaration that it is moving much of its production to a well-protected underground site near the holy city of Qum.

But perhaps the most important event is a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, expected next week. For the first time, the agency is expected to describe, in detail, the evidence it has collected suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with warhead designs, nuclear detonation systems and specialized triggering devices that can be explained only as work on a nuclear weapon.

In addition to those issues, faint rumors reached Via Meadia that another factor is at work: that some in the Israeli government believe that Iran’s program may be much more vulnerable than previously thought.  US and Israeli intelligence appears to be much improved in recent years, perhaps because growing unhappiness with the mullocracy among educated Iranians has made cooperation with foreigners against the regime more acceptable.  Via Meadia has to wait like everybody else for the secret cables to come out on Wikileaks, but over the last couple of years the military in both the US and Israel has sounded more positive about the chance that attacks might ‘work’ in the sense of inflicting very serious damage to the Iranian program.  What happens after that remains anyone’s guess; I am reminded about the football saying that once you’ve put the ball in the air, only three things can happen, and two of them are bad.

A story in the Guardian that the British are gearing up their preparations to go into Iran with the US contributed to the flutter of nerves though, interestingly, financial markets seemed more fixated on Europe and US jobs news.  Whether that is because traders are too small brained to fix on more than one topic at a time or whether the smart money has good reason to discount these stories, Via Meadia cannot say.

In general, I am still persuaded by what Martin Indyk and others say about Israeli intentions: when the Israelis are talking and squabbling about something, don’t worry.  It’s when they go suddenly and totally quiet that you should watch out.  Of course, they could be going for the double fake-out…  If nobody thinks they are preparing an attack when they are talking about an attack — that would be the perfect moment for a surprise.

Rumors aside, few doubt Israel’s willingness to attack Iranian facilities if necessary. Too few believe it of Obama. So far the US President has restrained himself to tough economic sanctions and (some say) the covert stuxnet virus – but this doesn’t mean he spends his spare time beating swords into ploughshares. In an earlier post I discussed the Iranian threat to Obama’s foreign policy:

Ideas and ideals move this president more than the regional balance of power or the price of crude.  In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world. […]

The consequences of the Iranian nuclear drive for the President’s Wilsonian project are deadly; the Iranian nuclear program can fairly be called an existential threat to the Wilsonian ideal.  In particular a nuclear Iran will kill the two dreams at the heart of President Obama’s foreign policy and indeed of his view of the world: the dream that the genie of nuclear weapons can be forced back into the bottle and the dream that the nations of the world can build a post-Westphalian international order in which the world’s governments are bound by deepening networks of laws.

The President, I am sure, does not want another war in the Middle East.  But neither does he want history to remember him as the leader who threw away the world’s last chance to control nuclear weapons.  The world now understands that Barack Obama has no problems with killing when he thinks it needs to be done; we’ll have to see how things work out with Iran.

The political calculation reinforces my sense that the President is closer to acting than some think.  His tough foreign policy has been a net plus for the administration; arguably he has been much more successful abroad than at home.  A decisive strike against the Iranian nuclear program would, assuming reasonable success, bolster his popularity among swing voters and make him look, as they say, ‘presidential’.  Failure of course could backfire as it did when Jimmy Carter’s hostage rescue mission miscarried, but if President Obama believes that the plans are solid, his political advisers will likely not try to hold him back.

Meanwhile, the policy of keeping the pressure on and ratcheting sanctions up seems to be a partial success.  Iran hasn’t given up the weapons program, but the international consensus against letting it succeed is visibly stronger and more engaged than it was two years ago.  One way or another, this standoff will have to end.  It looks less and less likely to end with a global acquiescence to Iranian nukes.

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  • raf

    Or, perhaps, it is being leaked as a credible warning to Iran?

  • Kenny

    “British are gearing up their preparations to go into Iran.”

    This is a joke, right?

    The Brits can’t even protect the streets of London and we’re suppose to believe that they’ll engage in combat with Iran. Ha!

    And for the record, the Brits were more of a hinderence militarily speaking than anything else in Iraq. They were there merely for the political cover they gave to George Bush in his war effort.

  • John Barker

    Does anyone see a connection between withdrawal of troops from Iraq and preparations for war with Iran?

  • Luke Lea

    Let Israel take the lead.

  • Jordan

    “The world now understands that Barack Obama has no problems with killing when he thinks it needs to be done…”

    He just wants to burnish his credentials as Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

  • Micha

    1) Does Israel have the technical capacity to effectively strike Iran’s nuclear program?

    2) Does the US?

    2) Is Israel capable and willing to withstand the retaliation from Iran and possibly Gaza, Lebanon and maybe Syria?

    3) Is the US capable and willing to withstand retaliation against its interests in the Gulf, Afghanistan and other places around the world?

    4) Is the Israeli army capable and willing to react effectively if Iran, the Hamas, the Hizballa and/or Syria attack it in retaliation?

    5) Is the Israeli foreign office capable of withstanding the heavy diplomatic assault following an attack?

    I’d like to think that the answer is yes, regardless of whether an attack is planned. but I’m not sure. If the answer to any of the questions is no then an attack is unlikely.

  • Micha

    I’d like to imagine a scenario in which the Israeli air force strikes perfectly and effectively, and when Iran retaliates, its missiles are easily intercepted by Israelis arrow missiles, and even when not, no Israelis are hurt thanks to effective civil-defense. I’d also like to imagine that when Iran calls on her allies is Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, none of them is willing to risk themselves on behalf of Iran. And if they do, Israel strikes back so quickly and effectively people are reminded of 1967.

    Or alternatively, I’d like to imagine a scenario in which the US leads an effective attack, and its defenses prove a match to any Iranian retaliation that the Iranians quickly give up.

    But it is difficult to imagine such optimistic scenarios.

  • Luke Lea

    And please, dear God, no U.S. troops on the ground!

  • Dr. P. Sword

    The UK armed forces were exceedingly useful in the Iraq/Afghanistan campaigns, you ungracious [person] Kenny.

    Anyway, back to the main point: Iran needs to be taken back to a point in time where their religion fits better: not in the 21st century with high-tech weaponry, but 1600 years in the past, if not the stone-age itself! The best way to achieve that would be to ‘decommission’ our old nukes over their weapons development sites, military and all major population centres, using cruise missiles to take out all roads and bridges etc. Any survivors must stay there. No one should survive. Better dead than to exist under the tyranny of Islam! We’d be doing them a favour!

  • Mrs. Davis

    Just looked at the globe again to be sure. And I gotta wonder why, in articles like this, the Big Winner in a raid on Iran never gets mentioned. Saudi Arabia. Because there’s no raids of the volume necessary without Saudi or Turkish airspace and probably bases.

  • Eddie F.

    Prof. Mead — thank you for making this post. I am increasingly convinced that the general public is suffering from a serious failure of imagination on the Iran issue. It may seem “unthinkable” that the U.S. might coordinate an attack on the Iranian nuclear program, but all indicators suggest that it is even more unthinkable that Pres. Obama would allow Iran to go nuclear under his watch.

    As for the argument that these leaks (and recent military exercises) may be part of a public pressure campaign, I think that this is possible, but the public is misunderstanding what the aim of such a strategy would be. It would not, as some suggest, aim to push the United States into upping its pressure on Iran — the U.S., it appears, is already of the same mind as the Israelis regarding the nature of the threat and the necessity of a serious response. On the contrary, if this is a public information campaign, it is almost certainly aimed at Europe, Russia, and China, who have been (to varying degrees) reluctant on sanctions hitherto, but desperately want to avoid a conflagration in the Gulf. If the forthcoming IAEA report is as dramatic as advertised, the Iran issue could come to a head much more rapidly than most people want to believe.

  • 36 Signals

    Kenny you need to stop spouting your mouth about things you clearly have no understanding of, if for no other reason out of respect for the hundreds of British troops that have been killed serving in Iraq and Afganistan, you have just insulted the memory of each one of them.

  • danny

    we dont need a other war is wrong and if let the israel country attack iran not the us come on man. it will live this country with no money and will be a lots of dead pepole .

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