By Tony Karon
Yes, you heard right: Britain is preparing to bomb Iran. Well, that’s if the latest reported leaks from the British government are to be believed. The Guardian — not known, like some of its British rivals are, for frequent breathless front-page claims of imminent military strikes on Iran — reported Wednesday that Britain’s Defense Ministry has stepped up plans for military action against Iran. Not that the Brits would kick things off, of course; their contingency planning is ostensibly geared towards playing a largely symbolic support role (think “Coalition of the Willing”) should the Obama Administration “decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities.”
Beneath the attention-grabbing headline, the story is a familiar one: British officials believe that while President Barack Obama “has no wish to embark on a new and provocative military venture before next November’s U.S. election … the calculus could change because of mounting anxiety over intelligence gathered by Western agencies, and the more belligerent posture that Iran appears to have been taking.”
The Guardian’s sources create the impression of dramatic new developments and a ticking clock, although the consensus among the world’s intelligence agencies that Iran remains some years away from having nuclear weapons, and has not yet decided to actually build them even though it is assembling the means to do so. But the alarmist messaging certainly jibes with an Israeli diplomatic campaign launched to persuade reluctant governments to impose tough new sanctions on Iran if they hope to avoid a potentially catastrophic war. Israel underscored the point, Wednesday, announcing it had successfully tested a missile capable of reaching Iran — at the same time as Israeli papers were filled with stories claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking cabinet approval for bombing Iran.
That, too, is an old story warmed over, and former Israeli intelligence chiefs have publicly denounced the idea of a military strike on Iran as misguided and potentially disastrous for Israel — it could at best only succeed in delaying Iran’s program (and ensure that it pursues a nuclear deterrent) but it would unleash a protracted regional war that Israel couldn’t win, warned former Mossad chief Meir Dagan earlier this year. But regardless of its real intentions, dangling a threat to bomb Iran has been a central part of Israel’s strategy in recent years.
President Obama’s point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, had written before joining the Administration that if governments reluctant to impose harsh measures on Iran believed the alternative was Israel starting a war, they would be more inclined to back new sanctions. And there’s certain a new sanctions push in the works, right now. The “intelligence” being cited by the Guardian’s sources to suggest a new urgency is hardly new — it’s material collected some time ago by Western agencies that purports to show that Iran has been doing theoretical work on designs for a nuclear warhead. What’s new is the fact that the U.S. has been pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to include those allegations in its latest report on Iran, scheduled for release later this month. The IAEA has questioned Iran’s intent and raised questions about many of is activities, but it has not until now accused Iran of running an active nuclear weapons program. A Western official told the Guardian that revelations about bomb-design work will be a “game-changer” that forces Russia and China to get on board with U.S. sanctions efforts.
It’s not clear, though, whether those charges will make it into the IAEA report — China and Russia are lobbying against what they see as an attempt to enlist the nuclear watchdog in the service of a U.S. agenda — but even if they’re in the report, Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to join he sanctions push. It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. had assumed that some new ‘gotcha’ piece of intelligence would change the game, only to be disappointed. Indeed, former Bush Administration national security staffer Michael Singh argued in Foreign Policy this week that the only way to change China’s position on sanctions would be to prepare for a military attack, which, if it went ahead, would disrupt China’s energy supplies. A familiar argument, that one.
As to the claim by the Guardian’s sources that Iran had lately adopted a more belligerent posture, the evidence offered was the bizarre Saudi embassy bombing plot, which much of the international community remains to be convinced was actually an official Iranian effort. For the rest, there’s not much new: Iran is restoring its uranium enrichment capability damaged by the Stuxnet computer worm and protecting it in hardened facilities. But none of that provides anything close to a casus belli that might be deemed credible by most of the international community. The chances of getting legal authorization for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities from the U.N. Security Council right now are slender, at best.
The Guardian piece, in fact, deflates its own alarmist premise when a government source notes that there has been “no acceleration toward military action by the U.S. but that could change.” Well, yes, although it’s hard to imagine why a government source would require anonymity for sharing a truism. There’s no obvious reason for the urgency of the timetables suggested by the officials briefing the Guardian — they suggested Obama would have to make a fateful decision next spring — other than the fact that the Iranians haven’t changed tack, despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions plus a raft of additional measures adopted unilaterally by Western powers, and considerable saber rattling by the Israelis. The urgency would need to be politically generated, however, because of the assumption that Iran wins the long game absent some dramatic game-changing action on the part of its adversaries. And then there’s the fact that the U.S. is entering an election year.
In a companion piece to its UK preparations for military action story, the Guardian notes that despite Obama’s reluctance to drag the U.S. into another Middle East war with potentially disastrous consequences, he enters his reelection year under pressure from Israel over Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu could even force Obama’s hand by initiating an attack on Iran that the U.S. might feel compelled to join in order to ensure its success. (The Israeli leader has certainly shown a willingness to defy Obama on issues where he believes he has the support of Capitol Hill, and attacking Iran would certainly be one of those.) Obama is no closer to persuading or pressuring Iran into backing down on its nuclear program han when he ran for office four years ago, promising the engagement he said had been missing from the Bush approach. Washington hawks say engagement was tried and failed, and it’s time to ratchet up the pressure. Doves argue that engagement wasn’t given a serious go or was disrupted by Iran’s internal power struggle, and should be resumed.
Electoral calculations, however, would more likely prompt Obama to toughen up his stance. The problem, of course, is that a harder line appears no more likely to persuade Iran to back down than a softer one, but more bellicose rhetoric from Obama could have the unintended effect of narrowing his options. A U.S. military strike on Iran would not mark the first time in history that a country had found itself marching to war without having really intended to do so.