Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Israel, Iran and the U.S.

Steven E. Meyer


March 16, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the U.S. last week to address the convention of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  For AIPAC and the Israeli government, the conference came at the perfect time.  Israeli leaders are skilled in making their case to a pliant Congress, a generally sympathetic American public and a nervous, reactionary Administration.  This time, the “case” is Iran.  Republican candidates in particular—except for Ron Paul—have been beating the war drums, and President Barack Obama, although more cautious, has assured the Israelis that the military option remains on the table. But let’s all take a deep breath and step back a minute.  

First, are the Iranians actually engaged in a nuclear weapons program?  Haven’t the deadly mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq taught us anything?  The intelligence confirming an Iranian weapons program is far from convincing.  Justice demands that our information be rock-solid before we start bombing, but our intelligence agencies have not been able to make that judgment.  Even if we assume that the Iranians are engaged in a nuclear weapons program, we know that their nuclear facilities are well dispersed and protected, even from bombs designed to burrow into the ground.  Bombing might inflict some damage, but it is highly unlikely that the Iranian nuclear program would be destroyed or setback for years. 

Second, it is also unlikely that attacking Iran would lead to the desired regime change.  As we saw when the Clinton administration attacked Milosevic’s Serbia, even opponents of the regime rallied around their besieged country.  How surprised the pro-bombing crowd would be to see a groundswell of support for Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs.  Sanctions—even the beefed up variety now in place—are also unlikely to instigate a regime change.  Similar sanctions proved ineffective at toppling Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, indeed, have rarely served as an effective tool to force change.

Third, would attacking Iranian nuclear sites really enhance Israeli security?  Bombing Iran may have exactly the opposite effect.  After such an attack, Israel—and any other participating countries—would be left with a sullen, resentful Iran that almost certainly would engage in significant, retaliatory terrorist attacks on U.S. or Israeli interests at home or abroad. A post-bombing Iran may also act to destabilize countries in the Middle East and South Asia. And Sunni-Shi’a split aside, a joint Western-Israeli attack on a Muslim country easily could reinvigorate al-Qaeda – just when it appears to be on its last legs.  Most importantly, the Bush administration’s war in Iraq has left Iran as the most powerful and important country in the region, quite capable of inflicting considerable damage.  But the Iranians know that if they were ever to use nuclear weapons against Israel or any other country, the retaliation would be swift and devastating, wiping out the regime forever; the Iranian regime is not suicidal.  

Finally, an attack on Iran would have a significant economic and financial impact that almost certainly would set back a shaky American recovery and a Europe still in the depths of economic and financial crisis.  Markets would be rattled and oil prices would rise alongside reductions in economic growth, productivity and employment. 

An Iranian nuclear weapons program would, of course, be a significant economic and security issue, but a more critical problem is a nuclear arms race in the region. India and Pakistan already have confirmed nuclear weapons without interference from the West—and an Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange is arguably more likely than an Iranian strike.  Israel’s nuclear weapons are the worst-kept secret in the Middle East.  In light of these regional realities, the Obama administration should initiate a major security push for the entire region, rather than concentrating on Iran alone. 

Justice and peace require hard work, which will begin by ending castigations that Iran is a “pariah” state.  As much as we may disagree with Tehran, Iran has legitimate interests in the region, and efforts to isolate the country will only deepen the problem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should consider a program of “shuttle diplomacy” with the respective capitals that could lead to a U.N.-sponsored conference on regional security and nuclear weapons.  There is nothing magic about such a course, but it would be path that is more consistent with President Obama’s campaign plea of “change we can believe in”—rather than the same, tired, feckless American pontificating.

—Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow at Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”