Iran policy circles are alight with reactions to an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in this month’s Atlantic that reaches a worrying conclusion: there is a more than 50% chance of an Israeli strike on Iran within the next year. Despite the provocative conclusions reached in this piece, conversation about this possibility is far from new.
Whether by intention or not, Goldberg’s article dovetails neatly with a campaign by American war hawks and neoconservatives to push for, if not an American military strike on Iran, an Israeli one. Last month, Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would jolt pro-democracy forces into action, threatening a regime otherwise bent on an obsessive (not to mention, suicidal) quest for Israel’s destruction. And former Bush official Elliot Abrams floated the idea that Arab states would quietly support a strike by Israel.
Despite this campaign’s focus on Israel, its intent is not to give leaders in Tel Aviv a case for military action. As Goldberg himself documents, among current and former Israeli officials, the openness already exists. No, as many have shown, this exercise is focused on the United States, and in the near term, means to shift the tone of American conversations about Iran in a more hawkish direction.
This should not come as a surprise. Statements from the secretary of defence and the chairman of the joint chiefs cautioning against a military strike have done considerable damage to the “war with Iran” agenda. But by shifting the context to one in which the military option is necessary, even reasonable, proponents of a military strike reason that, at a minimum, they can leave the Obama administration little choice but to adopt a tactic of reminding everyone that all “options are on the table”.
Fortunately, there is a path out of this conundrum. First, the administration could remind the war nudgers that the last time bellicosity was an instrument of the United States, only one country benefited: Iran. A 2008 Brookings report grimly summed up the accomplishments of the previous administration’s sabre-rattling:
“Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region’s security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world’s crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran’s acquiescence or assistance.”
Not exactly a good result for America’s allies in the Middle East.
While the White House is at it, it might also realise that, since 2008, the United States has meaningfully disrupted Iran’s aspirations to become a new regional heavyweight. A new UN security council resolution – which few commentators thought possible – has isolated Iran internationally. Thanks to the Russia “reset”, Tehran must also contend with the possibility that it has become more a burden to its “great power” backers than an asset.
Furthermore, the US has helped check both Iran and its proxies by beefing up its regional partners’ defences, including the largest ever military assistance package for Israel. Last, Iran now struggles to contain unprecedented internal cleavages, some of which emerged because Iranians saw the possibility for a new relationship with America and the world.
Tackling the potential threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon will not be easy. A successful outcome is far from certain. Iran’s continued advancement of its nuclear programme, and its vacillation over whether or not it will negotiate, make that clear. But the idea that the military option – which, if exercised, would have devastating consequences and, as a rhetorical threat, has accomplished nothing – would enhance the security in the Middle East and for Israel more than its alternatives does not carry water.
Patrick Barry, a research associate at the National Security Network.