A supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace sent me this article by Patrick Buchanan and asked for my response to it. Here is a slightly edited version of that response.
I am always loathe to agree with Pat Buchanan, and fortunately, while he gets a few things right, his analysis here is sufficiently shallow and simplistic that I don’t have to.
There’s a great deal of quite understandable hysteria in both Israel and the American Jewish community at the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranian regime has, since the 1979 revolution, expressed quite a bit of hostility toward Israel, in both word and deed. Since it is a religious regime, people are even more fearful.
There’s no doubt that Israel wants a military strike on Iran to eliminate their nuclear capacity. There’s no doubt that the neocons want a military strike on Iran as well. Is that because of Israel? Well, that’s one reason, but it’s unlikely the most immediate or important one.
At this moment, Iran does not represent a major threat to Israel, though an Iran with nuclear arms could. That kind of Iran remains a long way off, and even if it came, it would not be the threat it is being made out to be.
Ironically, many of the same voices that are reacting with such hysteria to the foolish and often hateful rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad are the same ones who were so quick to point out that former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami had relatively little power in Iran. The structure has not changed. Ahmedinejad does not have his “finger on the button” and will not under any circumstances. Iran’s politics are rather complicated, more so than I can detail here. But the Iranian president is much closer in terms of power to an Israeli president (which is largely a ceremonial position) than an American president.
Moreover, while Iran is most definitely a major regional player which is using its power, money and influence to extend its prominence over the entire Middle East, it is not a fanatical, warmongering country. The descriptions at the end of Buchanan’s article are correct–Iran under the Ayatollahs has not instigated a war. Iran is very much opposed to al-Qaeda. It was one of the first Muslim countries to condemn the 9/11 attacks and did so in no uncertain terms and very much on moral grounds. Iran, despite its isolation by the United States since 1979, has been a vibrant and active player in the global economy. In all, it has generally been a very rational actor.
Even its pursuit of nuclear weapons would be rational. It should be noted that there remains no evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. My belief that in fact they are is based on the fact that doing so would be entirely rational. Iran is situated very close to two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, which are very hostile to one another. They share an unstable border with Afghanistan and an equally unstable one now with Iraq. Most of all, they are faced with the dedicated enmity of two major nuclear powers, Israel and the United States and have seen clearly the power North Korea’s nuclear weapons have to deter American attacks on them. Under these circumstances, Iran would be crazy NOT to pursue nuclear weapons.
All of this indicates that even if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the result would be the same situation of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that stayed the hands of the US and USSR for decades during the Cold War, and continues to prevent nuclear war even between such bitter enemies as India and Pakistan today.
I wouldn’t expect that point to mollify Israelis. For many, the belligerence of Ahmedinejad understandably means such assurances do little to comfort them. And for others, even if they do understand the simple reality that the MAD doctrine would surely apply between Israel and Iran, a nuclear Iran means Israel loses its regional nuclear monopoly.It is not reasonable to expect that Israel would do anything less than its utmost to retain that monopoly, as would any other country that had such an advantage over its rivals.
But Iran very much represents a current threat not to Israel, but to Saudi Arabia. Iran is directly competing with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. As was the case with Iraq, American interests (including concerns of its ally, Saudi Arabia as well as greater control over Mideast oil, as was demonstrated by the recent passage of a US-backed bill in Iraq to de-nationalize their oil industry) are far greater than Israeli ones, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.
This is one of the major differences between the support in 2003 for attacking Iraq and the current wave of support for attacking Iran. But it’s also the only significant one that is on the side of an attack. Significant sectors of the mainstream body politic are opposed to attacking Iran, especially in light of the ongoing and spiraling failure in Iraq. Early indications are that Defense Secretary Gates is not on board with an Iran invasion, and this makes a big difference from 2003. There are already stirrings in Congress against an Iran attack, and many of the leading pundits (including Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukayama, and Kenneth Pollack among others) who raised the cry of war in 2003 have reversed course and are opposing an Iran attack.
Incredibly, it does seem that the neocons have learned nothing from the failure in Iraq and neither have Bush and Cheney. But I continue to doubt that they will be able to overcome the political opposition they will face. On top of everything else, the United States has long avoided attacking any country that can fight back, something Iraq really couldn’t do (attacking is very different from occupying, where soldiers are subject to guerilla attacks), but Iran most definitely can.
The only way an attack on Iran will come about, in my view, is if there is an incident that Bush/Cheney can use to justify it. Something along the lines of the Gulf of Tonkin. Even then, it would have to be very clearly an Iranian attack on the US, and Iran is pretty clearly not taking the bait the US has offered thus far by beefing up their presence in the Gulf.
An Israeli attack is more possible, but still unlikely, at this point, though that is much more subject to change. One thing that would change it very quickly would be new elections in Israel, because if Benjamin Netanyahu were to regain the Prime Minister’s office, the chance of an Israeli attack on Iran would increase greatly. Bibi has been beating a war drum about Iran since the late 1980s.
Thing is, an Israeli attack on Iran faces two obstacles. One, it is limited to an air attack. Israel cannot reach Iran with ground troops either by land or by sea. That means that the attack absolutely MUST succeed in eliminating Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and that seems dubious now. Reports indicate that Israel and the US are not sure they know all the precise locations they would need to destroy. Moreover, the facilities are underground, and Israel’s experience in Lebanon this summer indicated that the weapons the US furnished them for underground targets are not at all reliable for this purpose.
The second problem is that Iran is likely to respond to an Israeli attack by attacking American targets, and they’ve specifically threatened to do just that. That means Israel won’t attack without American permission, which brings us back to at least some of the problems detailed above. Also, an Israeli attack, if not 100% successful, might necessitate at least some ground troops entering Iran, and, as I said, those troops cannot possibly be Israeli, so they’d have to be American.
There’s also a slim chance that Russia would actively oppose an Israeli strike. I’m sure they’d object strenuously, but I doubt they’d actually act to stop an Israeli attack, for instance, by mobilizing their own planes. But it’s a possibility, however remote.
This also explains why Netanyahu recently urged a major push in the US, rather than in Israel, to build support for an attack on Iran. Bibi is a keen observer of American politics. This push is a good indication that he believes that there is not sufficient support in the US for an Israeli attack, much less an American one. And we should note that a great deal of long-term damage to Israeli interests could well be caused if Americans see US troops “forced” into combat in Iran by an Israeli action.
Thankfully, there has been a lot of mobilization on many levels, public and private against an attack on Iran. That is a major factor in why it is much more difficult for Bush and Co. to do it. As I said, I don’t think they’ll actually be able to overcome the forces opposing this attack, at least not unless some incident or other changes the equation. But we have to keep up the opposition. Oversimplifying the reasons for it, as Buchanan does, can be dangerous because it might chase some people away from the opposition. The forces pushing for attacking Iran, like the ones that orchestrated the invasion of Iran have interests that include Israel, but that also dwarf the interests of Israel.