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The Race for Iran

AYATOLLAH KHAMENEI ON THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC AND THE “BIG SIN” OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS

As Israeli-Western hysteria over Iran’s nuclear program continues rising, mainstream media outlets routinely dispense the observation—either on their own or in the form of quotations from U.S. officials—that Tehran’s intentions about the program are murky and it is difficult to discern who is really making decisions about it.  As a counterpoint to this, we were struck by a speech that the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei delivered earlier this month to a gathering of Iranian nuclear scientists, see here.  We also reproduce the text below: 

SUPREME LEADER MEETS WITH NUCLEAR SCIENTISTS

“In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

I am very happy to meet you dear people, the valuable brothers and sisters who are active in an arena of historic significance which is a source of national pride. We have said a lot of good things about you behind your backs and we truly respect you. And today is an opportunity to express our respect face to face. I am thankful to God. Of course, these are blessings from God. All these blessings are from the Creator. “And whatever favor is (bestowed) on you it is from Allah.” [The Holy Quran, 16: 53] It is a divine blessing to have competent, intelligent, scholarly, innovative and motivated manpower. It is a blessing from God. I am grateful to you and I am also thankful to Allah the Exalted for blessing this nation and this system with your existence.

One point is that everybody who is rendering services in a particular area should be well aware of the value of his services. If he appreciates the value of his services, he will continue his work in the best possible way. But if he fails to do so, he will naturally abandon his duty. If a person who is guarding a particular place fails to appreciate the value of his work, he will naturally let down his guard and fall asleep. Therefore, the first point is that we should be aware of the significance of the work we are doing.

Now I would like to say a few things in this regard. There are many different aspects to your work. One aspect of your work is that it instilled a sense of national dignity into this nation and this country, which is very important. Nations face serious trouble only when they lose their dignity, when they serve foreigners for free and forget their own value. This shows the importance of dignity. An oppressed nation – such as the nations in North Africa and other places – rises up only when it feels its dignity has been trampled upon. Then it rises up and no power can stand in the way of such a nation. This has already happened. This shows the importance of dignity. The Revolution instilled a sense of dignity into our nation and our country. They tried to discourage our nation on many occasions. They tried to convince our people that they were incompetent. “Yes, you carried out a revolution, but you cannot run the country by yourselves. You cannot make progress. You cannot keep up with the world.” Every scientific advance is a testimony to the competence of our nation. And your work in nuclear technology instilled a sense of dignity into this nation. This is one dimension of the significance of your work.

The value of such things cannot be measured with materialistic calculations. Of course, all these things are being measured with money in the materialistic world. All human values are finally reduced to money. And this is the affliction of the materialistic world and it will definitely bring materialistic people down. The truth is that there are certain things whose value cannot be measured with money. One may light-heartedly mention money just to make a comparison. I remember I had travelled to one of our provinces. One of the meetings that had been arranged was a meeting with our academics. It was a very enthusiastic meeting. One of the learned professors – whom I knew from before – delivered a speech at the meeting. A few people spoke at the meeting and this learned man was among them. In order to attract the attention of government officials and myself to the problems of the province, he mentioned the capacities that the province enjoyed. For example, he said that certain projects in the province were worth billions and that there was room for such and such investments. I told him that the things he mentioned were materialistic and that he himself was worth several billions more. A learned professor living in a city, in the capital city of a province – can this be compared with the materialistic advantages that the province enjoys? This is the value of ideas and outstanding personalities. You should know that the work you are doing is important.

Of course, as I said, your work has many different aspects. In their propaganda, they have been trying to say that the work on nuclear energy is ideologically motivated – that it has nothing to do with our national interests. This is while your work is directly related to our national interests. The work on nuclear energy is directly related to our national interests. The report that was presented by Dr. Abbasi explained certain aspects of the relationship between nuclear energy and our national interests. The work on nuclear energy is for the sake of the nation, the country and the future.

The arrogant powers of the world – which consider ruling the world as their right – refer to themselves as the global community. This is while they are not the global community. The global community consists of the people and their governments. There are a few countries that refer to themselves as the global community and they issue orders, speak, dismiss and demand on behalf of the global community. These countries have built their global hegemony on their monopoly on science and technology. Some of the uproar that they cause is because they do not want this monopoly to be broken. If the people manage to make progress in nuclear technology, in aerospace, in electronic areas and in different industrial, technological and scientific areas, there will no longer remain a way for them to maintain their bullying and coercive hegemony.

One of the biggest crimes that has been committed against humanity is that over the past two, three centuries – after the Industrial Revolution – knowledge has turned into a means for bullying. The English, who were among the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, used their knowledge to shackle other nations around the world. Do you know what happened during the reign of the English in the vast and rich Indian subcontinent? And the events were not just limited to the Indian subcontinent. The whole of East Asia was under their boots for more than a century and they dominated the people of East Asia by using their knowledge as a tool. The people felt frustrated. Many people were killed. Many wishes were dashed. Many nations fell behind. Many countries were destroyed. This was how they used their knowledge. This is the biggest treachery to knowledge, just as it is the biggest treachery to humanity. They do not want this monopoly to be broken. Any nation that manages to stand on its own feet independently – and not with their permission and approval and under their yoke – will contribute to undermining this monopoly. Fortunately, this work has already started in Iran.

You should pursue this important field and this essential and great work in an absolutely serious way. Rely on Allah, and Allah the Exalted will help you. There are human and natural capacities. Fortunately, today there are political capacities as well. Sometimes there might be human and natural capacities, but political capacities might be lacking in a country: the hegemony of the enemy does not let such a country breathe and utilize its human and natural capacities. The Revolution took place and created these political capacities. You can – and you must – move forward.

The purpose of the uproar they cause is to stop us. They know that we are not after nuclear weapons. They already know this. I do not have any doubts that in the countries that are opposed to us, the organizations in charge of decision-making are fully aware that we are not after nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and fiqhi perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them. They know this, but they stress the issue in order to stop our movement.

We want to prove to the world that nuclear weapons do not bring about power. This is because the nuclear powers are suffering from the biggest problems today. They dominated the world through nuclear threats, but today such threats are no longer effective. We want to say that we are not after nuclear weapons, that we do not believe nuclear weapons bring about power and that we can break the kind of power that is based on nuclear weapons. By Allah’s favor, our nation will do this.

Of course, you know that the pressure they exert on us – the pressure of sanctions, threats, assassinations and other such things – is a sign of their weakness. It shows that whatever they do will only strengthen our nation. Their actions will only convince our people that they have chosen the right goal and that their movement is continuing in an appropriate way. As a result, the enemy has been infuriated.

This movement is not just a nuclear movement. Today their pretext is the nuclear issue. They use the nuclear pretext to impose sanctions on us. How long is it since the nuclear issue was first brought up? The sanctions have been there for thirty years. Why were they imposing sanctions on us when the nuclear issue did not exist? It is just a matter of fighting a nation that has decided to become independent, a nation that has decided to resist oppression, a nation that has decided to expose oppression, a nation that has decided to stand up against oppressors and oppression, a nation that is determined to convey this message to the entire world. We have tried to convey this message and by Allah’s favor, we will try even harder in the future. Sanctions, political pressure and other such things will not be effective. When a nation decides to stand firm, when a nation believes in divine assistance and its domestic power and capacities, nothing can stand in its way.

This is my advice: strengthen your resolve. Increase the motivation to continue this path in your organization and among the people who have taken on this important responsibility. Your work is significant. Your work is important and by Allah’s favor, it will determine the future of this country. The issue is not that we will be able to use the nuclear industry to promote our national interests. The issue is that this movement strengthens the resolve of our youth, our scientists and our people, and it makes them steadfast on their path. This is an important point. Keeping our people steadfast and motivated is more important than the direct rewards of the nuclear industry. You are active in this arena and God willing, Allah the Exalted will help you.

We will pray for you. We will definitely help and support you whenever necessary. We believe that by Allah’s favor, you will move forward and remove the obstacles from your path one after the other. By Allah’s favor, your future will be far better than your present.

Greetings be upon you and Allah’s mercy and blessings.”

For those interested in learning more about Ayatollah Khamenei’s views on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, his website presents a longer (and very rich) exposition, which he presented last year, see here

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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LEVERETT HIGHLIGHTS THE IMPORTANCE OF FACTS AND AMERICA’S REFUSAL TO ACCEPT THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

As the debate over Iran’s nuclear program, the prospects for another round of talks between Tehran and the P5+1, and the possibility of an Israeli military attack rolls on, Hillary made two substantial media appearances earlier this week.  Yesterday, she appeared on Al Jazeera’a Inside Story; the other panelists were Geneive Abdo of the Century Foundation and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, click on the video picture above or here

Hillary opened with an evaluation of Israeli calculations about a potential strike.  She then made the critical point that, even if the Obama Administration does not want an Israeli strike now, the United States (whether under a re-elected President Obama or under a new Republican administration) is on a collision course with the Islamic Republic—because it cannot accept Iran as a truly independent power in the region. 

Michael Rubin is part of that minority camp of neoconservatives who do not necessarily favor a military attack against Iran, but are extremely hawkish with regard to regime change.  (Michael Ledeen is another example of this.)  But, while Rubin may not support military action, he is also extremely skeptical about diplomacy with the Islamic Republic—because, in his view, diplomacy is a product of the Western Enlightenment, and anyone who has not been through and thoroughly internalized the Enlightenment cannot constructively and honestly engage in what Westerners call “diplomacy.” 

This is the sort of essentialist statement that, if applied to Jews, would (rightly) be described as anti-Semitic.  More sweepingly, it is a view which says that the West cannot engage in meaningful diplomacy with the Muslim world write large.  As Hillary points out, this is a “losing proposition” for the United States and its Western partners, especially where nuclear nonproliferation and the “grand bargain” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are concerned.     

Although Geneive Abdo comes across as not favoring another war in the Middle East, she puts forward unsubstantiated assertions that the Islamic Republic has “not been transparent” about its nuclear program, has “changed and shifted its position over the years” and “concealed…for many years” its new enrichment facility at Fordo as justification for Israeli professed concern.  In a further twist, she all but blames Iran for a prospective Israeli attack by saying, “Khamenei has always believed either the United States or Israel would attack Iran, so it’s almost become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

In response, Hillary recounts how, when the Islamic Republic agreed, in early 2003, to open its facilities at Esfahan and Natanz to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, the then-director of Israel’s Mossad and national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew to Washington to convey Israeli concern that the Iran should not be allowed the opportunity to be given a “good housekeeping seal of approval” by the IAEA.  She also points out that, from 2003 to 2005, the Islamic Republic suspended its uranium enrichment activities and voluntarily observed the terms of the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which allows more intrusive inspections by the IAEA; during this period, the IAEA found no evidence that Iran was working on a nuclear weapons program.   

Predictably, Western media are now reporting that Tehran has “denied” IAEA access to its conventional military facility—not a nuclear site—at Parchin, evoking Saddam Husayn’s dance with international inspectors in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  But the fact is, without the Additional Protocol to the NPT in force (the Iranian majles has never ratified it, so it is not binding on the Islamic Republic), the IAEA has no right to visit Parchin.  Indeed, one could argue that it has no right to make such an inherently prejudicial “request,” which is, of course, inevitably made public and then spun in many quarters as some sort of failure by Iran to live up to its obligations.  Tehran believes the IAEA is allowing the confidential information it gleans on Iran (including the names of its scientists, some of whom are then killed) to be passed to the United States and Israel—countries threatening to attack Iran, or in code, “keep all options [except diplomacy] on the table.”   Why would Iran want to provide the United States and Israel with real-time, on-the-ground virtual access to a conventional military site?            

In the course of the discussion, Hillary suggested to Rubin that his problem is not with safeguarded enrichment in Iran, but with the Islamic Republic—a point to which Rubin readily agreed.  In response to Rubin’s charge that Iranians are cut off from the Western world and do not understand American “red lines”, Hillary said that Tehran understands U.S. red lines very well; it just does not agree with them and will not accept being dominated by the West.   

Earlier this week, Hillary also did an interview with Scott Horton for Antiwar Radio, listen here.  Among other things, Hillary and the interviewer, Scott Horton, discuss Michael Rubin’s “fact free” efforts to delegitimate the 2003 Iranian non-paper that was passed to the George W. Bush Administration through Swiss intermediaries.  They also get into Iranian cooperation with the United States against Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan; how the Islamic Republic is a threat to Israel’s regional hegemony, but not its existence; and why plans to use Syria as a conduit to effect regime change in Iran—an important part of “the current Kool-Aid in Washington”—are hitting the “wall of reality.”    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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FLYNT LEVERETT DEBATES RAY TAKEYH ON IRANIAN ENRICHMENT

Watch Could U.S. Accept Iran Having Some Nuclear Technology? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Flynt went on PBS’ NewsHour tonight to talk about the Iranian nuclear issue; see here or click on the video above.  The other panelist was Ray Takeyh, formerly of the Obama Administration and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  The discussion focuses on what we believe remains the critical issue in the P5+1 dialogue with Tehran—whether the United States and its Western partners are prepared to accept the principle and reality of safeguarded uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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HOW, BY NOT LEADING, OBAMA WILL LEAD US TO WAR WITH IRAN

David Bromwich, of Yale University, has written a long but compelling piece, “Obama’s Drift Toward War With Iran,” which we commend to everyone to read in full at Huffington Post by clicking here.  We highlight the following passages:

“…All the recent talk, bristling with expertise, about Israel giving the U.S. a 12-hour warning before an attack, is a diversion to play on popular fears. It keeps prodding the subject to keep the fever high in America — a mood that is useful for many things, if you ever elect to use it. Practically speaking, what Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak hope their actions may accomplish is another kind of breakout. They seek to lure Iran to attack American forces or American assets or Israel. In the latter case, they can claim that unless America does its duty and agrees to a joint attack, or takes the matter out of Israel’s hands, Israel itself will attack.

In the last two years, the U.S. Congress has passed resolution after resolution condemning Iran, urging the president to do something hostile, and warning him against negotiations. The EU capitals, hungry for cheap oil and regional influence, clamor for the United States to do resolutely whatever it means to do. An intricate web has thus been constructed. Only great ingenuity and political talent could extricate an American president today. And while this was passing, how has Barack Obama been spending his time?

The president has made no comment on the situation. He has let it heat up for three years now, while the public mind grows swollen with false facts, and while negotiations, to the extent that there are negotiations, proceed under cover and in secret. As if negotiation were a shameful thing. Time does not tell for Obama. He will always have time. That was his philosophy in drawing out the health care debate for twelve months as his popularity sank from 70% to 45%. It was his policy once again, in catastrophically misjudging the odds for an agreement on the debt ceiling. In that affair, Obama hung back. He left it all in the hands of William Daley before sacking Daley and heading out on the campaign trail.

Obama never gets the jump on his opponents. But Iran, the site of his longest delay (because it is the most disagreeable problem he confronts), is the most important issue of his first term. Probably it is the most important he will ever confront in his life. If he drags the U.S. into another war, a war that will be seen throughout the Arab world as a crusade against Islam itself, this will be the thing Barack Obama is remembered for. Why does he suppose, with such recurrent fantasy, that tactical silence and secret action are superior to an honest grappling with the work of public persuasion? The truth is that all Obama’s big speeches have been about general matters: changes he sides with but cannot effect. Eventual health coverage for all Americans; the preservation of the middle class; peace among all nations. But Iran should be different.

Let us grant the obstacles, both internal and external. Obama is radically unsuited to crisis, in several ways we are now familiar with. He hates to be involved in negotiations; is easily bored, easily rankled, and hasn’t the patience and the power of suspending vanity that are necessary for the work. Also (and this abets inertia), his convictions have surprised him by being weaker than he supposed. He came to the presidency with a sense of himself and the world that was fundamentally immature; his time in office has seen a slow process of public recognition of that fact. He is not a fighter. He is not a “good hater.” He is not particularly loyal to his party. He is only now learning what it is to be a good explainer. Finally — a tremendous error, with Iran — he delegates rather than takes charge. Distaste for the battle of politics (a different thing from the contest of campaigning) is accompanied, in him, by a love of speculative discussions. So Obama waits; and while he waits, on any given question, the public mood drifts in a direction opposite from what he thought he was aiming for.

To whom has he delegated the matter of Iran? Dennis Ross above all — the member of the DC permanent establishment who is most reliably associated with the Israel lobby. And Tom Donilon, who gained the president’s favor by applauding his 2009 middle-range solution on troop escalation in Afghanistan. The major previous achievements of Dennis Ross are the Clinton and Obama approaches to Palestine. The result speaks for itself. Donilon has been as little in evidence as any head of the National Security Council; before Obama elevated him, he was best known for helping to organize the eastward expansion of NATO: a disaster whose consequences the American people have yet to appreciate fully. So these are the men the president trusts — in the first case, because of the impeccability of his renown; in the second, because he falls in with Obama’s own propensity to continue Cheney-Bush policies but do it slowly in a softer tone.

On Iran, Obama has come to a crossroads. He will soon be called on to refute accusations of weakness by an explosive demonstration of “strength.” If things get to that point, there is no doubt that he will do what the war party expects him to do. He will do it to win the election, but he will work hard to convince himself that he does it to save Israel, America, the cause of democracy in Asia, and the future of humanity. The path has been made all the more tempting by the discovery — a surprise perhaps to the president himself — that he is not averse to war. His favored mode of killing is the drone strike. There, the man who shoots the missile is far behind the scenes and the president’s command of the killing is behind the man behind the scenes. Stealth, secrecy, and aloofness from accountability all make drone attacks non-confrontational, in a way well-adapted to Obama’s temperament.

The U.S. is flying drones over Iran. One or two have been brought down, and some Republicans called for revenge. What if more are brought down, and what if several more politicians join the outcry? The Israel lobby and its congressional hosts may then convert the issue into a national cause. This president, who is moving toward war while hiding his negotiations and explaining nothing about Iran to offset the popular fears — is he ready to argue against another war? Or has war with Iran (so long as it can be portrayed as begun by Iran) already in fact been selected as the path of least resistance?

In actual negotiations of all sorts, over the past three years, Barack Obama has seemed to believe that he is well served by staying well out. He may think so still. But all too conceivably, some day in the next few weeks or the next few months he will have maneuvered himself into giving another version of the Great Power speech he has given before; the one that begins, “So Iran has a choice.” And yet, this president — it was the single great difference between him and the other candidates in 2008 — said he would negotiate with Iran. Nothing on any intelligence estimate has changed the nuclear status of Iran since he made that pledge. If he meant what he said, it was his business to lead public opinion to support the idea of negotiation and to educate the American people about the desired result.

While Obama waits, fortifications on the other side are being built up with fantastic brazenness. The New York Times, in almost back-to-back articles, on the front page on January 27 and on the cover of the magazine on January 29, informed its readers that Israel has calculated the risk and feels sure that it will not suffer badly in any retaliation following an attack on Iran. The first of these stories, by Ethan Bronner, for some reason quoted only Israeli sources and took their declared estimates at face value. The second, by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, ended by flatly predicting Israel would attack Iran in 2012. (Jeffrey Goldberg, prompted by the same Israeli government sources, in a similar article two years ago in the Atlantic predicted they would attack in 2010.)

There was a puzzling thing about the Bergman story. A series of paragraphs near the end conveyed the substance of conversations with Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad; and everything that was credibly said by Dagan served to discredit the rest of the article. For those paragraphs establish beyond any doubt: (a) that the crisis is nothing like as desperate or “existential” as Netanyahu and Barak have implied, and (b) that there is no long-term insurance for Israel that bombing Iran tomorrow can be supposed to achieve.

Worse than the Bergman article were the publicity captions for it, done in the Hearst manner. All of the “conditions” have been fulfilled for an Israeli attack, these marginal summaries told us. The question was not “if” but “when”: a word repeated twice, in different places. So the Times cues and the Times Israel reporters, especially the ones favored with front-page stories and cover stories, are saying this is a last chance for Iran. David Sanger said it was the last chance in May 2009 and, to repeat, Jeffrey Goldberg said it in 2010, but both have been saying it again over the past several months. Others, too, are saying it now; and an election is on, with more than the usual champing bellicosity among the actors on the Republican side. The people who are playing with fire are people who like to play with fire….

…What is the prognosis? In foreign policy generally, Obama has done what Bush did or what Bush would have done in similar circumstances. He compensates by doing it slowly and giving it a less unpleasant name. The heavy rhetorical emphasis on multilateralism in NATO’s deposing of Gaddafi is an example — right down to the ad hoc coinage of the unhappy and quickly withdrawn phrase “leading from behind”. Here the exception proves the rule: Obama likes Predator drone strikes and lethal action by the Navy Seals. To say it again, a main reason seems to be that these are acts he can order himself — in secret, based on secret evidence — which go forward without check or oversight. If the actions fail, they need not be publicized. He has never stopped wanting to do big things, but he tends to think about policy in the most generalized way…Under pressure, Obama makes sure that progress is slow in order to keep a path open for turning back.

Nothing could be more disastrous for America and nothing could be less necessary than war with Iran. Obama’s idea, if it is his idea, that he can assist or countenance or be party to an attack by Israel without deep repercussions against the United States and many of its assets and its people the world over, is the most desperate of fantasies. The repercussions, if they are not felt at once, will be felt for a generation and more. Obama has let the war party have their innings until they are sure that they control him. All the signs now, and above all his reluctance to make a case for negotiation or even to hint at the progress of diplomacy that may be under way, suggest that the people who pitched for the Iraq war and have Iran in their sights are counting Obama as one of their own. He is reluctant, yes, but he is almost a committed man. The latest propaganda for war has gone so far that it will be a full-time job to resist the momentum building to a “test” some time this year. As it stands, Iran is headed to become for Obama in 2012 what the economy was in 2010: a controllable crisis which, through personal inaction and conventional acquiescence in failed policies, threatens to pass utterly beyond his control.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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HYPE OR REALITY: WILL ISRAEL ATTACK IRAN BEFORE THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION?

Today, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius devoted his column, see here, to growing concerns within the Obama Administration that “Israel will attack Iran militarily over the next few months.”  Ignatius describes U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as believing “there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June—before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.”  Ignatius goes on to note,

“Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon—and only the U.S. could then stop them militarily.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to leave the fate of Israel dependent on American action, which would be triggered by intelligence that Iran is building a bomb, which it hasn’t done yet.” 

Ignatius’ column comes, of course, on the heels of the publication of Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s article in the current New York Times Sunday Magazine, “Will Israel Attack Iran?”, see here, in which Bergman concludes, “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”  In our own conversations, around Washington and elsewhere, we are hearing many of the same expressions of concern echoed by Ignatius—the American military, in particular, is increasingly inclined to believe that Israel will strike, perhaps even earlier than the time frame suggested by Panetta. 

We will consider below various strategic and political factors affecting an Israeli decision to attack Iran.  The immediate, tactical variable driving Israel’s apparent push toward war is the ongoing installation of centrifuges in the new enrichment facility at Fordo, near Qom.  The Fordo facility is, according to reports, located inside a small mountain, making it very difficult to destroy from the air, at least not without using nuclear weapons.  The installation and operation of centrifuges at Fordo is proceeding under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, but, from an Israeli perspective, that does not matter—for it is Fordo that is creating the “zone of immunity” (the phrase, it seems, was coined by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak) over which the Israelis are so agitated. 

All of the relevant unclassified assessments and, it would seem, the U.S. military believe that Israel would strike Iranian nuclear facilities primarily from the air.  The operation would be at the outermost levels of Israel’s military capability.  The number of Israeli strike aircraft that can operate at the necessary ranges (assuming no problems with aerial refueling) is such that Israeli forces could not strike very many targets inside Iran.  For Natanz (Iran’s first and most developed enrichment site) as well as Fordo, Israeli pilots would have to hit their aim points not just with precise aim but also with precise timing, tightly sequencing their bombs so that the blasts penetrate deeply enough to damage their intended targets.  To be sure, multiple sources have told us over the past several years that the Israeli air force has been practicing this sort of mission intensively.  Nevertheless, with Fordo now in the picture, reports, e.g., see here, that Israel has set up a new commando unit charged with carrying out missions “deep inside enemy territory” suggest that the Israeli attack plan might include the deployment of commando forces on the ground, with the assignment to fight their way into the new facility and ensure that it was truly destroyed. 

All of these considerations have made us skeptical that the Israelis would take a decision to strike Iranian nuclear targets on their own—and to do so in the face of nearly universal assessments that even a maximally successful attack would not inflict that much damage on Iran’s nuclear program.  Periodically intense speculation about an Israeli military campaign against the Iranian program has seemed to us as highly useful for leveraging the United States and its international partners to impose ever tighter sanctions against the Islamic Republic, launch ever more covert operations against Iran, and so on.  But actually to decide to strike, with all of the attendant and enormous risks—for Israel, for oil prices and the world economy, and for America’s position in the Middle East—has seemed to us a low-probability outcome. 

We remain skeptical that the Israelis will take such a decision.  No less than Jeffrey Goldberg noted, in commenting on Bergman’s article, that the same sources which persuaded Bergman that Israel will attack in 2012 had persuaded Goldberg, in 2010, that Israel would strike Iran by July 2011. 

However, we must note that Israeli “spin” (if spin is all it remains) about the risk of an attack has reached levels and taken forms that we have not seen in several years.  So, we thought it timely to re-evaluate the factors that might plausibly lead Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli leaders to opt for preventive war.  Beyond development of the Fordo facility, three factors strike us as especially relevant in this regard. 

–The first is the prospect of President Obama’s re-election.  Israelis with access to the Prime Minister’s office tell us that Netanyahu and his inner circle have long believed that Obama is politically vulnerable.  From this perspective, ordering an Israeli strike before the U.S. presidential election in November could seem the “smart” play:  it would be very hard for Obama to try to distance himself from the Israeli action (something that, according to Ignatius, the Obama Administration seems to believe it can do) without seriously jeopardizing his re-election; at the same time, if Obama were to win re-election, it is better, from an Israeli perspective, to have this potentially unpleasant business of an illegal war against Iran out of the way before he is sworn in for a second term.  (Recall that, the last time that the Israeli military invaded Gaza, it did so at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, to ensure that the campaign would be over before Obama was first sworn in.) 

–The second factor is Israeli perceptions of the strategic fallout from the Arab spring.  Mubarak’s fall, especially, has spooked Israeli political and military leaders.  One might think that, at such a time of tumultuous change and uncertainty in the region, Israel would be best served by hunkering down and staying out of (more) trouble (than it is already in).  But, based on a lot of experience dealing with Israeli national security professionals while we served in the U.S. government, we can envision a scenario in which Israeli decision-makers persuade themselves that this is precisely the time to re-establish the credibility of what Israeli elites like to call their “deterrent edge”—a misuse of the term deterrence, for it really refers to Israel’s ability to use force first, whenever, wherever, and for whatever purpose it wants. 

Third, with the withdrawal of American military personnel and assets from Iraq, Iraq is left with, effectively, no air defense capability—which means that Israeli planes would have a more-or-less clean shot into Iran through Iraqi airspace

We are going to watch this one very, very closely. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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