There has been considerable concern expressed in the media over the date August 21st. It was the day when Russian technicians were to insert the fuel rods to begin the activation of the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr. No less a voice out of the past than John Bolton, UN Ambassador under George W. Bush, called for an immediate attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities before the reactor became operational. Bolton and his neoconservative friends reasoned that no attack against Iran would be “complete” if Bushehr were not taken out as it is part of the broader Iranian nuclear program. In their view, its destruction would have the same impact as the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor by Israel in 1981, which was intended to derail Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
Well, the 21st has come and gone and neither Israel nor the United States took the initiative to destroy Bushehr. Indeed, the entire argument about attacking it has something of a surreal quality. Bushehr is not a reactor that can be used to concentrate its fuel, meaning that it can generate electricity but cannot itself produce weapons grade uranium or plutonium. The entire argument about attacking it seems to center on its symbolic value as Iran’s only soon-to-be operating reactor combined with the notion that its fuel could be removed and enriched somewhere else. The reactor is located in a relatively heavily populated coastal area and the demand to hit it before it became operational was based on the possible consequences of having to do so after it is up and running. Destroying an operating reactor would produce considerable radioactive contamination that would devastate a wide area both within Iran and in neighboring countries and would kill many civilians. Comparisons with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island spring to mind. Whoever would bomb and destroy such a target would be vilified by most of the international community, and rightly so. While Israel and the United States both regularly ignore such criticism, the deaths of thousands in a deliberate bombing directed against a country that poses no immediate threat would be a bit hard to explain, even in the New York Times and Washington Post.
To be completely and cold bloodedly serious about the respective positions being staked out by Iran and its chief antagonists in Washington and Tel Aviv, one must first of all remember that Tehran does not currently have a nuclear weapon and there is no real evidence that it even has a program to produce one. It has been basically compliant with the UN inspection regime mandated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. Nor is there any evidence that the Mullahs are suicidal, suggesting that they would not want to develop a weapon in a secret program at great cost to hand off to terrorists and thereby guarantee the annihilation of their nation and millions of their people. And they have good reason to be just a bit paranoid about their own security. The repeated threats coming out of Israel and the United States that “all options are on the table” with Iran is a not exactly subtle suggestion that many policymakers in both countries consider it perfectly acceptable to begin bombing, all in spite of the fact that it would be an attack on a country based on what might happen without any evidence that there is an actual intention to develop and use a weapon of mass destruction. Bombing a country under those circumstances would be a war crime, one more crime among many.
The real problem is that the public utterances of the policy makers in Washington and Tel Aviv have backed them into a corner, reducing their options and committing them to a policy that has no real attainable objective and makes absolutely no sense. If Iran is a threat at all, which can be disputed, it can be easily contained by either Israel or the United States, both of which have large nuclear and conventional arsenals. Iran is a military midget compared to either country, though admittedly it has the capability to strike back hard in asymmetrical ways if it is attacked.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu both appreciate very clearly that Iran does not pose a serious threat and both know that the often cited claim that Tehran has called for wiping Israel off the map is bogus. Such knowledge is widespread even among hawks in Israel, though apparently less so among American neocons. In September 2009 former Israeli Prime Minister and current Minister of Defense Ehud Barak was quoted as saying that “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel.” A few years earlier, Foreign Minister Livni argued against the idea that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat. This summer, ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi made the same point and added that speaking of Iran as an existential threat exaggerates Iran’s power and suggests instead the false and dangerous narrative that Israel might be vulnerable.
But in spite of their certain knowledge of the fragility of the Iranian threat, both Obama and Netanyahu have unfortunately let themselves wallow in rhetoric that hypes the danger. If it sounds and smells exactly like the lead up to Iraq, it should. And, like the case of Iraq, the fearmongering does not end with the intemperate comments made by the two leaders. The US Congress with its proposed House Resolution 1553 is engaged in giving the green light for an Israeli attack on Iran, indicating in advance its support for such an action. HR 1553 comes on top of harsh sanctions approved in early July, measures that could lead to US Navy vessels attempting to board Iranian flagged merchant ships. Even tougher sanctions, steps that would almost certainly lead to war are endorsed by many legislators, particularly those who are regarded as close to Israel. Congressman Brad Sherman of California explains “Critics [of the sanctions] argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.” At least Congress shows consistency when it is knee jerking spasmodically to demonstrate support for Israel. Sherman’s view of Iranians is somewhat similar to his punishing the Gazans for voting for Hamas or pillorying the Turks for trying to send aid to the Palestinians. Or, not so long ago, sending the 500,000 Iraqi children to their deaths à la Madeleine Albright.
And the White House rhetoric blends harmoniously with the congressional ire. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all repeatedly stated that Israel is completely free to make its own decisions relating to its security. That assertion presumably plays well in certain quarters, but as an Israeli attack will have to be enabled by the United States they also know that bombing courtesy of Tel Aviv would mean Iranian retaliation directed against American troops in the Middle East. In other words, America’s leaders have abdicated all responsibility for maintaining a rational policy in an unstable part of the world and have instead granted the authority to make key decisions to Israel. How many Americans will die as a result?
Both the Israeli and American people have been prepared for war by all of the truculent noises coming out of Washington and the propaganda appearing in the media. The conversation on Iran, such as it is, has been expressly designed to bring about a war rather than avoid it. The mainstream media disinformation campaign orchestrated by AIPAC has worked just fine. Most Americans already believe incorrectly that Iran has a nuclear weapon and most also support attacking it, a product of the steady diet of hokum that they have been fed. The moral turpitude of America and Israel’s leaders combined with the popular consensus that they have willy-nilly allowed to develop grants the concept of war with Iran a certain inevitability. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has described the process as “inexorable.”
So we have dodged the bullet on the war that might have begun on August 21st because our leaders really do know that Iran is not a threat and when it came to gut check time were ultimately unwilling to start World War III. But the bomb is still ticking because those selfsame politicians, lacking any sense of true leadership, have set the forces in play that will almost inevitably produce a war. It is somewhat reminiscent of Iraq surely, but it also recalls the 1914 European security environment in which an entangling web of alliances and arrangements virtually guaranteed that a war would take place. The only way to stop the rot is for President Obama to consider for a moment what is good for the United States rather than for his political party’s hold on power. He should act like a true statesman instead of a used car salesman. If he is uncertain how to do that there are a number of good nineteenth century political biographies that he can read up on to learn the ropes. He must stand up before the American people and state simply and unequivocally that Washington opposes any new military action in the Middle East and that the United States is not threatened by Iran and will take no part in any military action directed against it. He might add that the US will further consider anyone staging such an attack as an aggressor nation and will immediately break off relations before demanding a UN Security Council vote to condemn the action. Will that happen? Fat chance.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is the Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest. His “Deep Background” column appears every month exclusively in The American Conservative.