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“A Catastrophically Bad Idea”: The False Debate About Attacking Iran

I wonder if we in the news media aren’t inadvertently leaving the impression that there is a genuine debate among experts about whether an Israeli military strike on Iran makes sense this year.

There really isn’t such a debate. Or rather, it’s the same kind of debate as the one about climate change — credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side.

Here’s what a few of them told me:

“I don’t know any security expert who is recommending a military strike on Iran at this point,” noted Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor who was a senior State Department official earlier in the Obama administration.

“Unless you’re so far over on the neocon side that you’re blind to geopolitical realities, there’s an overwhelming consensus that this is a bad idea,” said W. Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle East affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Most security experts agree that it’s premature to go to a military option,” said Michèle Flournoy, who has just stepped down as the No. 3 official in the Defense Department. “We are in the middle of increasing sanctions on Iran. Iran is already under the most onerous sanctions it has ever experienced, and now we’re turning the screws further with sanctions that will touch their central bank, sanctions that will touch their oil products and so forth.

“So it has been bad for them and it’s about to get worse,” Flournoy added. “The overwhelming consensus is we should give some time to let that work.”

Granted, American officials are deeply alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program, although the fear is not so much that Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel or anyone else. Iran apparently developed chemical weapons to respond to Iraq’s chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, and it showed restraint with them. Rather, the biggest fear is that if Iran tests and deploys nuclear weapons, other countries will follow. These could include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, setting off another round of nuclear proliferation.

Officials and security experts make several broad points about why a military strike on Iran anytime soon would be an abominable idea.

First, it would set back Iran’s program by only one to three years — and then it presumably would go ahead more covertly and with more domestic support than ever.

Second, this wouldn’t be a single strike but would require sorties over many days to attack many locations. And the aim would be in part to kill the scientists running the program, so there would be civilian casualties. Day by day, anger in the Muslim world and around the world would grow at Israel — and at America. The coalition pressuring Iran through sanctions might well dissolve.

Third, a regional war in the Middle East could result, sucking in the United States. Iran could sponsor attacks on American targets around the world, and it could use proxies to escalate attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.

Fourth, oil supplies through the Persian Gulf could be interrupted, sending oil and gas prices soaring, and damaging the global economy.

Fifth, sanctions and covert methods like the Stuxnet computer worm have already slowed Iran’s progress, and tougher sanctions and covert sabotage will continue to delay the program in a low-risk way.

Granted, everything I say here may be wrong. Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and its 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear project both went smoothly, without retaliation. The attacks set back those countries’ nuclear programs much more than skeptics had expected.

Yet there’s good reason to think that Iran is different, partly because its program is so dispersed and protected. More broadly, war is inherently unpredictable, and Israel has often been horrendously shortsighted in its interventions. Its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 turned into a quagmire that helped lead to the emergence of Hezbollah, while its de facto support for Hamas in Gaza in its early days harmed everyone (except Iran).

Let’s also remember that as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bangs the drums of war, that may empower Iranian hawks. “The continual threat of a military strike is as likely to convince them to move ahead as to deter them,” Slaughter notes.

Whether Israel will attack Iranian nuclear sites is one of this year’s crucial questions, and people in the know seem to think the odds are about 50-50. We don’t know that the economy would be harmed or that a war would unfold, but anyone who is confident about what would happen is a fool.

So as we hear talk about military action against Iran, let’s be clear about one thing. Outside Netanyahu’s aides and a fringe of raptors, just about every expert thinks that a military strike at this time would be a catastrophically bad idea. That’s not a debate, but a consensus.

March 25, 2012 - Posted by | Election 2012, Foreign Policy | , , , , , , ,

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