A new fight over the Iran 'threat'
By Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - A potentially major clash appears to be developing between
powerful factions inside and outside the United States government, pitting
those who see the Afghanistan/Pakistan (AfPak) theater as the greatest
potential threat to US national security against those who believe that the
danger posed by a nuclear Iran must be given priority.
The Iran hawks, concentrated within the Israeli government and its US
supporters in the so-called "Israel lobby" in the US, want to take aggressive
action against Iran's nuclear program by moving quickly to a stepped-up
Many suggest that Israel or the US may ultimately have to use military force
against Tehran if President Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts at engagement do
not result at least in a
verifiable freeze - if not a rollback - of the program by the end of the year.
Their opponents appear to be concentrated at the Pentagon, where top leaders
are more concerned with providing a level of regional stability that will allow
the US to wind down its operations in Iraq, step up its counter-insurgency
effort in Afghanistan, and, above all, ensure the security of the Pakistani
state and its nuclear weapons.
In their view, any attack on Iran would almost certainly throw the entire
region into even greater upheaval. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly and
publicly warned over the past year against any moves that would further
destabilize the region.
Other key administration players are believed to share this view, including
senior military officers such as Director of National Intelligence (DNI)
Admiral Dennis Blair and General Douglas Lute, the "war czar" whose White House
portfolio includes both Iraq and South Asia.
The divide between these factions was on vivid display this past week, when
Washington played host to two high-profile - and dissonant - events.
First, top US and Israeli leaders were out in force at the annual conference of
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful and hawkish
lobby group, where attendees heard a steady drumbeat of dire warnings about the
"existential threat" to Israel of an Iranian bomb and calls for increased
sanctions - and occasionally even military force - against Tehran.
Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were rarely mentioned at the conference, which
instead stressed hopes for building a US-led coalition against Tehran that
would include both Israel and "moderate" Sunni-led Arab states.
But just as more than 6,000 AIPAC delegates fanned out on Wednesday across
Capitol Hill to press their lawmakers to sign on for tough anti-Iran sanctions
legislation, the arrival of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani
President Asif Ali Zardari for summit talks with Obama and other top officials
focused attention on the deteriorating situation in both countries.
The surface cordiality of Karzai's and Zardari's visits masked the fact that
the US has grown increasingly worried about the ability of either leader to
combat their respective Taliban insurgencies.
Most indications are that the Obama administration, including Obama himself and
Vice President Joe Biden, sides with the Pentagon, at least for now.
But the AIPAC conference, which was attended by more than half of the members
of the US Congress and featured speeches by the top congressional leadership of
both parties, served as a reminder that Iran hawks within the Israel lobby have
a strong foothold in the legislative branch, and may be able to push Iran to
the top of the foreign-policy agenda whether the administration likes it or
Obama pledged during the presidential campaign that he would give AfPak - which
he then called the "central front in the war on terror" - top priority, and,
since taking office, he has made good on that promise.
He appointed a powerful special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, with a broad mandate
to take charge of US diplomacy in the region. Holbrooke, who met briefly with a
senior Iranian official during a conference at The Hague in late March, has
said several times that Tehran has an important role to play in stabilizing
At the same time, Mullen, the US military chief, has been virtually "commuting"
to and from the region to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq
Kiani, Holbrooke noted in congressional testimony this week.
Given its preoccupation with AfPak and with stabilizing the region as a whole,
the Pentagon has naturally been disinclined to increase tensions with Iran,
which shares lengthy borders with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and could
easily make life significantly more difficult for the US in each of the three
But the new Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is
pushing the US to confront Iran over its nuclear program, and his allies in the
US have similarly argued that Iran should be a top priority.
For the moment, the Iran hawks have mostly expressed muted - if highly
skeptical - support for Obama's diplomatic outreach to Tehran. But they have
warned that this outreach must have a "short and hard end date", as Republican
Senator Jon Kyl put it at the AIPAC conference, at which point the US must turn
to harsher measures.
AIPAC's current top legislative priority is a bill, co-sponsored by Kyl and key
Democrats, that would require Obama to impose sanctions on foreign firms that
export refined petroleum products to Iran.
In recent congressional testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that
the administration would support such "crippling" sanctions against Tehran if
diplomacy did not work, but she declined to say how long the administration
would permit diplomatic efforts to play out before taking stronger action.
While sanctions seem to be the topic du jour, the possibility of
military action against Tehran remains on everybody's mind, as does the
question of whether Israel would be willing to strike Iranian nuclear
facilities without Washington's approval.
In March, Netanyahu told The Atlantic that "if we have to act, we will act,
even if America won't".
Asked at the AIPAC conference whether Israel would attack Iran without a "green
light" from the US, former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh joked
that in Israel, stoplight signals are "just a recommendation".
By contrast, Pentagon officials have made little secret of their opposition. In
late April, Gates told the Senate Appropriations committee that a military
strike would only delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capability while
"send[ing] the program deeper and more covert".
Last month, Mullen told the Wall Street Journal that an Israeli attack would
pose "exceptionally high risks" to US interests in the region. (Although the
newspaper chose not to publish this part of the interview, Mullen's office
provided a record to Inter Press Service.)
Similarly, Biden told CNN in April that an Israeli military strike against
Tehran would be "ill-advised". And former National Security Advisor (NSA) Brent
Scowcroft, who is close to both Gates and the current NSA, retired General
James Jones, told a conference in Washington late last month that such an
attack would be a "disaster for everybody".
For the moment, the top Pentagon leadership's resistance to an attack on Iran
appears to be playing a major role in shaping the debate in Washington.
Gates "is a bulwark against those who want to go to war in Iran or give the
green light for Israel to go to war", said former national security advisor
Zbigniew Brzezinski last month.
Others dispute the idea, proposed by Netanyahu in his speech to AIPAC, that the
Iranian threat could unite Israel and Arab states.
"The Israeli notion making the rounds these days that Arab fears of Iran might
be the foundation for an alignment of interest is almost certainly wrong,"
wrote Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, on the Foreign
"Nothing would unite Arab opinion faster than an Israeli attack on Iran. The
only thing which might change that would be serious movement towards a
two-state solution [in Israel-Palestine]."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.