Page 1 of 2 Two minutes to midnight?
By Tony Karon
America's march to a disastrous war in Iraq began in the media, where an
unprovoked United States invasion of an Arab country was introduced as a
legitimate policy option, then debated as a prudent and necessary one. Now, a
similarly flawed media conversation on Iran is gaining momentum.
Last month, TIME's Joe Klein warned that Barack Obama administration sources
had told him bombing Iran's nuclear facilities was "back on the table". In an
interview with CNN, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Admiral
Mike Hayden next spoke of an "inexorable" dynamic toward confrontation,
claiming that bombing was a more viable option for the Obama
administration than it had been for his predecessor, George W Bush.
The piece de resistance in the most recent drum roll of bomb-Iran
alerts, however, came from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly. A
journalist influential in US pro-Israeli circles, he also has access to
Israel's corridors of power. Because sanctions were unlikely to force Iran to
back down on its uranium enrichment project, Goldberg invited readers to
believe that there was a more than even chance Israel would launch a military
strike on the country by next summer.
His piece, which sparked considerable debate in both the blogosphere and the
traditional media, was certainly an odd one. After all, despite the dramatics
he deployed, including vivid descriptions of the Israeli battle plan, and his
tendency to paint Iran as a new Auschwitz, he also made clear that many of his
top Israeli sources simply didn't believe Iran would launch nuclear weapons
against Israel, even if it acquired them.
Nonetheless, Goldberg warned, absent an Iranian white flag soon, Israel would
indeed launch that war in summer 2011, and it, in turn, was guaranteed to
plunge the region into chaos. The message: the Obama administration better do
more to confront Iran or Israel will act crazy.
It's not lost on many of his progressive critics that, when it came to
supporting a prospective invasion of Iraq in 2002, Goldberg proved effective in
lobbying liberal America, especially through his reports of "evidence" linking
Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Then and now, he presents himself as an
interlocutor who has no point of view. In his most recent Atlantic piece, he
professed a "profound, paralyzing ambivalence" on the question of a military
strike on Iran and subsequently, in radio interviews, claimed to be "personally
opposed" to military action.
His piece, however, conveniently skipped over the obvious inconsistencies in
what his Israeli sources were telling him. In addition, he excluded
perspectives from Israeli leaders that might have challenged his narrative in
which an embattled Jewish state feels it has no alternative but to launch a
quixotic military strike.
Such an attack, as he presented it, would have limited hope of doing more than
briefly setting back the Iranian nuclear program, perhaps at catastrophic cost,
and so Israeli leaders would act only because they believe the "goyim"
(non-Jews) won't stop another Auschwitz. Or as my friend Paul Woodward, editor
of the War in Context website, so brilliantly summed up the Israeli message to
America: "You must do what we can't, because if you don't, we will."
Goldberg insists that he is merely initiating a debate about how to tackle Iran
and that debate is already underway on his terms - that is, like its Iraq War
predecessor, based on a fabricated sense of crisis and arbitrary deadlines.
Last Friday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had
convinced Israel that there was no need to rush on the issue. Should Iran
decide to build a nuclear weapon (which it has not done), it would,
administration officials pointed out, quickly make its intentions clear by
expelling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who
routinely monitor its nuclear work, and breaking out of the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After that, it would still need another year or
more to assemble its first weapon.
In other words, despite Goldberg's breathless two-minutes-to-midnight schedule,
there's no urgency whatsoever about debating military action against Iran. And
then there's the question of the very premises of the to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb
Perhaps, after all these years of obsessive Iran nuclear mania, it's too much
to request a moment of sanity on the issue of Iran and the bomb. If, however,
we really have a couple of years to think this over, what about starting by
asking three crucial questions, each of which our debaters would prefer to
avoid or ignore?
The right to fight
1. Does the US have a right to launch wars of aggression without provocation,
in defiance of international law and an international consensus, simply on the
basis of its own suspicions about another country's future intentions?
Or to put it bluntly, as former National Security Council staffers Flint
Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have: Does the US have the right to attack
Iran because it is enriching uranium?
The idea that the US has the right to take such a catastrophic step based on
the fevered imaginations of Biblically inspired Israeli extremists - Goldberg
has previously suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes Iran
to be the reincarnation of the Biblical Amalekites, mortal enemies the ancient
Hebrews were to smite - or simply to preserve an Israeli monopoly on nuclear
force in the Middle East is as bizarre as it is reckless.
Even debating the possibility of launching a military strike on Iranian nuclear
facilities as a matter of rational policy, absent any Iranian aggression or
even solid evidence that the Iranian leadership intends to wage its own version
of aggressive war, gives an undeserved respectability to what would otherwise
be considered steps beyond the bounds of rational foreign policy discussion.
Perhaps someone in our media hothouse could take just a moment to ask why,
outside of the United States and Israel, there is no support - nada, zero, zip
- for military action against Iran. In Goldberg's world, this may be nothing
more than the eternal beast of anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in the form
of disdain for the rise of yet another Amalek/Haman/Torquemada/Hitler. A more
sober reading of the international situation would, however, suggest that most
of the international community simply doesn't share an alarmist view of what
Iran's nuclear program represents.
Indeed, it is notable that, in Goldberg's world, Arabs and Iranians never get
to speak. The Arabs, we are told, secretly want Israel or the US to bomb Iran's
nuclear facilities out of fear that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would
embolden their Persian rivals. They are, so the story goes, just not able to
say so in public. When Arab leaders do publicly express their opposition to the
idea of another war being launched in the Middle East, they are ignored in the
Similarly, their rejection of Washington's long-held premise that Israel's
special security must be exempted from any discussion of the creation of a
nuclear-free Middle East remains outside the bounds of the Iran-debate story.
And don't expect to see any mention of the authoritative University of Maryland
annual survey of Arab public opinion either. After all, it recently reported
that, contrary to claims of an Arab world cowering under the threat of Iranian
nukes, 57% of the Arab public actually believe a nuclear-armed Iran would be
good for the Middle East!
The idea that Iran's regime might exist for any purpose other than to destroy
Israel is largely ignored as well. Bizarrely enough, Iranians don't actually
feature much in the American "debate" at all (beyond citations of
mad-mullah-like pronouncements by some Iranian leaders who wish Israel would
The long, nuanced relationship between Israel and the Islamic Republic, as
explained by Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of
Israel, Iran, and the United States, is simply ignored. So, too, is
every indication Iran's leaders have given that they have no intention of
attacking Israel or any other country. In fact, in the Goldberg debate,
domestic politics in both the US and Israel is understood as an important
factor in future decisions; Iran, with the Green movement presently suppressed,
is considered to have no domestic politics at all, just those mad mullahs.
The reason to fight
2. Even if Iran were to acquire the means to build a nuclear weapon, would that
be a legitimate or prudent reason for launching a war?
If Iran is actually pursuing the capability to build nuclear weapons, its
leaders would be doing so in response to a strategic environment in which two
of its key adversaries, the US and Israel, and two of its sometime
friends/sometime adversaries, Russia and Pakistan, have substantial nuclear
By all sober accounts, Iran's security posture is primarily focused on the
survival of its regime. Some Israeli military and intelligence officials have
been quoted in Israel's media as saying that Iran's motivation in seeking a
nuclear weapon would be primarily to head off a threat of US intervention aimed
at regime change.
Most states do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves, and most
states are hardwired to prioritize their own survival. It is to that end that
they acquire weapons systems - to protect, enhance, or advance their own
strategic position, or up the odds against more powerful rivals. In other
words, the conflicts that fuel the drive for nuclear weapons are more dangerous
than the weapons themselves, and the problem of those weapons can't be
addressed separately from those conflicts.