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    Middle East
     Mar 13, 2012

When Meir Dagan speaks ...
By Brian M Downing

Washington is still working through recent events pertaining to Iran's nuclear program and calls for attack. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to town recently to make his pro-war case to President Barack Obama and also to gatherings of pro-Israel groups.

He cannot have come away terribly pleased as Obama rebuffed him and insisted on more diplomacy. But the debate continues in the US media and in the ongoing presidential campaign. Netanyahu is mobilizing his forces to press the US into attacking Iran or supporting an Israeli strike. This, he argues, must be done before Iran's uranium enrichment facilities are transferred to sites burrowed well into mountains where they may be invulnerable to attack.

Nor can Netanyahu be pleased that former Mossad chief Meir


Dagan is speaking out in the US media - and in a manner more consistent with Obama's position of continued sanctions and diplomacy. Dagan is a seasoned observer of geopolitics and his words carry weight.

A few minutes with a Mossad chief
Meir Dagan appeared Sunday on the popular US program and political sounding board 60 Minutes, where he took on Netanyahu and much of the US and Israeli right, albeit obliquely. The interview was interspersed with photos and anecdotes establishing Dagan's strong military and security credentials and his likely association with a number of assassinations across the Middle East. He had already spoken out last year against war with Iran, calling it "the stupidest thing I have ever heard".

The former Mossad chief noted, with some qualifications, the "rationality" of the Iranian leadership. Dagan is not lecturing the American public on Cartesian philosophy or game theory. He is breaking with Israelis and Americans who claim - perhaps even believe - that Iran is ruled by crazed clerics intent on ending the world who cannot be deterred from using nuclear arms. Mutually assured destruction, Dagan believes, can be obtained in the Middle East. It was the basis of the US-USSR standoff for many decades, which kept conflict in check until the fall of the communist regime.

Dagan has followed relations with Iran for decades. He knows that Israel had strong ties with Iran under the shah and also for many years after the mullahs came to power in 1979, as Israel helped in the long war against Iraq (1980-88). The breakdown in relations did not come from a change in ideology or policy in Tehran; it came from a political shift in Jerusalem that, following the destruction of Saddam's army in the First Gulf War, suddenly - and perhaps erroneously - saw Iran as unchecked and dangerous. Iran soon became an enemy.

The former Mossad chief does not rule out an eventual need to attack Iran but feels that Iran may be three years away from having a nuclear weapon. He may prefer the US position of drawing the "red line" at actual weapons production, not a shift to mountain enrichment facilities - offering an honorable way for Iran to back away from war. For now, however, he calls for continuing sanctions and diplomacy and encouraging regime change in Iran.

The significance of his television appearance yesterday is considerable. It would be as if a respected former CIA or military chief had come forward in early 2003 and expressed deep skepticism over the case for invading Iraq and a major network gave him the opportunity to do so.

Perhaps Dagan has this in mind. He recently offered that war with Iran could lead to devastating missile attacks on Israeli cities and to a regional war whose "security challenge would become unbearable".

The Likud and Israel
The US public has come to see statements on Israeli national security, whether uttered by an Israeli prime minister or an authoritative US body such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as non-partisan and all but above debate. Dagan's words will weaken that assumption greatly, as will Netanyahu's continued calls for war.

National security assessments are evaluations, estimates, and often a little guesswork. They are shaped as much by prior beliefs as they are by empirical evidence. Is that dark area in a satellite image a fertilizer processor or a missile silo? Opinions can vary across personalities and institutions.

The outlooks of all Israelis have of course been shaped by the Holocaust - an event with obvious if overstated parallels to present-day concerns. Netanyahu's Likud and the other conservative parties in his coalition were also shaped by their small nation's miraculous victory over the larger Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War.

Surely, many thought, this was a sign that divine providence was guiding the nation's actions - a parochial conceit found in other countries and faiths. Religious fundamentalism alloyed with reason of state - each quite dogmatic in its way - which reduced the influence of politicians informed more by Talmudic morality and nuanced reasoning.

Netanyahu's hawkish stance is not based on a broad consensus of Israeli opinion. Indeed, a recent poll found that only 19% of Israelis favor unilateral attack on Iran, which in light of Obama's opposition makes it the only attack scenario just now.

Nor, it might be noted amid the Iran debate, does his party and its coalition partners have an impressive record in foreign policy. In the 35 years since Menachem Begin formed the first Likud government, it has miscalculated badly on several occasions.

Forays into Lebanon against Palestine Liberation Organization militants led to Shi'ite opposition and the rise of Hezbollah. Efforts to weaken Fatah strengthened Hamas. Disproportionate responses to Palestinian attacks weakened Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt. Settlements on the West Bank bring reproaches from much of the world and are coalescing support for a boycott. Perhaps more to the point, Israel's break with Iran in the mid-'90s (a joint Labor-Likud venture) played no small role in bringing about the crisis at hand.

War drums and the US public
Dagan's statements come at an auspicious time. In many quarters, they will be warmly embraced and repeatedly quoted along with his 2011 comment on the fatuousness of attacking Iran. The US public has been quick to support most military actions since World War II, but today it is concerned with the economy and debt. From recent hard experience, Americans are skeptical of scenarios involving surgical strikes and manageable consequences.

Iran has become a partisan issue, with conservative politicians and media outlets steadily drumming for war - or for surgical strikes with unstated consequences. Obama has presented his case continued diplomacy and sanctions and polling data favor him. A February poll on the Iranian situation found that 60% of respondents favored continued diplomacy and sanctions, 20% favored no action, and 17% favored military action.

Obama's position will be strengthened by the seemingly unrelated matters of encouraging economic trends and the unattractiveness of conservative presidential candidates whose artless calls for action are not resonating outside the ranks of party enthusiasts. Pressing for war between now and the November elections may underscore the partisan and impractical nature of Netanyahu's agenda - in the US and Israeli public alike.

Meier Dagan has come in from the cold and, in conjunction with an American network, has spoken to the American public amid a debate over an impending war. His words will reverberate through think tanks and security bureaus in coming months, perhaps also inside the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. We'll see if Dagan's words carry more weight than Bibi's.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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