Two Minutes to Midnight? Cutting Through the Media's Bogus Bomb-Iran Debate

By Tony Karon · 26 Aug 2010

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Picture credit: jtjdt
Picture credit: jtjdt

America's march to a disastrous war in Iraq began in the media, where an unprovoked U.S. 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 Obama administration sources had told him bombing Iran's nuclear facilities was "back on the table."  In an interview with CNN, former 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 George W. Bush. The pièce de résistance in the most recent drum roll of bomb-Iran alerts, however, came from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly.  A journalist influential in U.S. 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 back 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" 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 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, of course, there’s the question of the very premises of the to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb “debate.”  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?

1. Does the U.S. 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 U.S. have the right to attack Iran because it is enriching uranium?

The idea that the U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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. Of course, 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 Goldberg-led debate.

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 disappear). 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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S. and Israel, and two of its sometime friends/sometime adversaries, Russia and Pakistan, have substantial nuclear arsenals. 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 U.S. 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.

An Iran that had been bombed to destroy its nuclear power program would likely emerge from the experience far more dangerous to the U.S. and its allies over the decades to come than an Iran that had nuclear weapons within reach. The only way to diminish the danger of an escalating confrontation with Iran is to address the conflict between Tehran and its rivals directly, and seek a modus vivendi that would manage their conflicting interests.

Unfortunately, such a dialogue between Washington and Tehran has scarcely begun, even as, amid alarmist warnings, Goldberg and others insist it must be curtailed so as to avoid the Iranians “playing for time.”

3. Is Iran actually developing nuclear weapons?

No, it is not. That's the conclusion of the CIA, the IAEA, whose inspectors are inside Iran's nuclear facilities, and most of the world's intelligence agencies, including the Israelis.  U.S. intelligence believes that Iran is using a civilian nuclear energy program to assemble much of the infrastructure that could, in the future, be used to build a bomb, and that Iran may also be continuing theoretical work on designing such a weapon.

Washington's spooks and its defense establishment do not, however, believe Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons, nor that its leadership has made the ultimate decision to do so. In fact, the consensus appears to be that Iran will not weaponize nuclear material, but will stop short at "breakout capacity" -- the ability, also available, for instance, to Japan, to move relatively quickly to build such a weapon. Currently, as the New York Times reported, the time frame for “breakout,” if all went well (and it might not), would be about a year, after which Iran would have enough fissile material for one bomb.  (The Israelis, by comparison, are believed to have 200 to 400 nuclear weapons in their undeclared program, the Pakistanis between 70 and 90, and the United States more than 5,000.)  In addition, a credible nuclear deterrent would require the production of not one or two bombs, but a number of them, which would allow for testing.

For ex-CIA Director Hayden, such a breakout capacity would be "as destabilizing as their actually having a weapon."  His is a logical leap that’s hard to sustain, unless you believe that it’s worth launching a war to prevent Iran from, at worst, acquiring a defensive trump card that might prevent it from being attacked.

Iran's enrichment activities are, of course, a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by sanctions. Those were imposed to demand that Iran suspend its enrichment program until it satisfied concerns raised by IAEA inspectors over its compliance with the disclosure and transparency requirements of the NPT -- especially when it came to aspects of its program which have been developed in secret, raising suspicions over their future use.

Three years before North Korea was in a position to test a nuclear weapon, it had to withdraw from the NPT and kick out IAEA inspectors. Iran remains within the treaty. Even as the standoff over its nuclear program continues, renewed efforts are underway to broker a confidence-building deal to exchange Iranian enriched uranium for fuel rods produced outside the country to power a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes.

None of this will be easy, of course. The two main parties are trying to impose their own, mutually exclusive terms on any deal: Washington wants Iran to forego its treaty-guaranteed right to enrich its own uranium because that also gives it the potential means to produce bomb materiel; Iran has no intention of foregoing that right. Such longstanding pillars of foreign policy sobriety as Senator John Kerry  and Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, have publicly deemed the U.S. position untenable.

To suggest that Iran's present nuclear program represents the security equivalent of a clock ticking down to midnight is calculated hysteria that bears no relation to reality. Ah, says Goldberg, but the point is that the Israelis believe it to be so. Yes, replies former National Security Council Iran analyst Gary Sick, now at Columbia University, but the Israelis and some Americans have been claiming Iran is just a few years away from a nucl

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