Prelude to a War
By John Glaser
President Obama’s speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee on March 4 was framed by the media as a repudiation of an attack on Iran. He did warn against “bluster” and “loose talk” of military action, but his favored approach overlaps that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The well-known historian and Kennedy administration adviser Arthur Schlesinger called it “a policy of ‘anticipatory self-defense’ that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor.” In this view of “defense,” the United States has the inherent right to wage preventive—not preemptive—war at will. That is, to attack a country on the basis of some potential future capacity to threaten the U.S., which they may or may not attain. This amounts to a right to commit international aggression, even if a threat is largely manufactured, as it was with Iraq in 2003.
The Obama administration has sanctioned Iran, isolated it diplomatically, encircled it militarily, subjected it to cyber-warfare and commercial sabotage, and repeatedly threatened it with preemptive strikes. Officials call such pressure an alternative to war, but it might instead serve as a prelude.
Yet this hysterical theater of peril on the Iranian nuclear issue is not based on any credible threat. Contrary to the propaganda, there is a consensus in the U.S. military and intelligence community that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons and has not shown any intention to do so. Worse still, the policies now being applied are likely to bring about exactly the result the hawks say they’re trying to prevent: an emboldened, nuclear-armed Iran.
Correcting the Record
Unfortunately, the American people are badly misinformed about Iran’s nuclear program. In a 2010 poll, 7 in 10 Americans said they believed Iran already had nuclear weapons. Other polls conducted in the last few months show that over 80% of Americans think Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons, and many consider military action a viable option to reverse this course. A review of the basic facts contradicts these widespread misconceptions.
In 2007, the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. The NIE is produced by 16 different intelligence agencies, and it is the most authoritative judgment on national security issues. A review of that report was published in 2011 and reaffirmed the same conclusion: Iran has no nuclear weapons program.
In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported concerns about possible military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, but the watchdog group cited no firm evidence. And despite media hyperbole, the report said that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of [Iran’s] declared nuclear material,” meaning that all of the enriched uranium is accounted for by inspectors and is not being weaponized.
Iranian policy for some time now has been to abstain from developing nuclear weapons but to gather the know-how needed to build them. The Iranians are essentially hoping to deter adversaries without actually having a deterrent, by signaling that a nuclear weapon could be built quickly in response to an attack.
Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, told Congress in March 2009, “We judge in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities” but “is keeping open the option to develop them.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA, said the same year that he did not “believe the Iranians have made a decision to go for a nuclear weapon, but they are absolutely determined to have the technology because they believe it brings you power, prestige, and an insurance policy.”
This conforms to statements by others in the know. While Iran is aiming to be “nuclear capable,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in February, “the intelligence does not show that they've made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, has reiterated this conclusion.
Most estimates place Iran several years away from having the technical capability to actually launch a nuclear weapon. That’s several years after the date they hypothetically decide to build such weapons, which U.S. intelligence says is not likely to happen anytime soon.
The Dangers of Military Action
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in February that war with Iran would be “destabilizing” and “not prudent.” That’s an understatement.
Many war advocates argue for a “surgical strike” on Iran’s nuclear facilities to set back the program and buy more time. But they have far too much confidence that the consequences could be contained. In December, Panetta warned that Iranian retaliation against U.S. military bases in the region could “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”
An aerial assault would embolden, not subdue, Iran. As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar writes in the March issue of Washington Monthly, overly optimistic war proponents think “the same regime that cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon because it is recklessly aggressive and prone to cause regional havoc would suddenly become, once attacked, a model of calm and caution, easily deterred by the threat of further attacks.”
While the Iranian leadership has not yet decided to develop nuclear weapons, a preemptive strike would almost certainly push them toward that outcome. Currently, the IAEA has full access and 24-hour video surveillance at all of Iran’s declared enrichment sites, but analysts predict that following an attack, Iran would expel the inspectors and embark on a nuclear weapons program in earnest.
Since limited airstrikes would simply escalate the conflict, the pro-war crowd’s only remaining option is a full-scale ground invasion, regime change, and extended occupation. In addition to being a war crime under international law, this would stoke anti-American terrorism and cause incalculable suffering and loss of life. Those who deny these predictable costs have an inordinate faith in government, and they must have slept through the entirety of the Iraq war.
What Will Sanctions Accomplish?
So direct military action won’t prevent an uncontrollable regional conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran. But current U.S. policy is also patently counterproductive and will lead to similarly unwelcome results.
A bipartisan consensus has formed in favor of sanctions, which have crippled Iran’s economy with high unemployment and rampant inflation. But this cruel form of collective punishment, as Columbia University Professor Gary Sick has said, is “the equivalent of a blockade. It’s an act of war.”
Both Democrats and Republicans consider economic warfare the best way to do one of two things: either pressure the regime into acquiescing to Washington’s demands or create enough unhappiness among Iranians that they overthrow their government and establish one more to Washington’s liking.
Political scientist Robert Pape examined 115 cases of economic sanctions over almost 80 years and found only five that could be considered successful (that is, the sanctioned nation changed policy in the direction desired by the sanctioners). That is a horrible track record. And forget about fomenting revolution: Iran’s parliamentary elections in early March showed a resurgence of support for the clerical hardliners, even though worsening economic conditions were of paramount concern to voters.
The most egregious example of a failed sanctions regime is, of course, the case of Iraq in the decade after the first Gulf War. After U.S. warplanes destroyed much of Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure, harsh sanctions were imposed. Air travel to and from Iraq was banned, various exports were prohibited, and per-capita income sank. The whole country suffered. Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage spilled into the Tigris, and only a minority of Iraqis had access to clean water. Iraqis developed typhoid, cholera, and protein deficiencies at levels usually seen only in famines.
Professor Joy Gordon of the Global Justice Program at Yale University concluded that the best estimate of excess child mortality — the number of children younger than 5 who died during the sanctions who would not have perished had pre-war and pre-sanctions conditions continued — is between 670,000 and 880,000. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously told an interviewer that this direct contribution to the deaths of “half a million children” was “worth it.”
It may have been worth it, but apparently it wasn’t enough. The Bush administration used the fear caused by 9/11 to nurture feverish delusions that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. The invasion and protracted occupation of Iraq resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis, with revelations of various war crimes emerging along the way. The immense costs of the war have yet to be duly appreciated by Americans.
Instead of the democracy that war advocates heralded, Iraq today endures a brutal dictatorship and savage violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of arresting and torturing his political opponents, clamping down on press freedoms, and driving a sectarian quest for power in Baghdad. Rosy predictions of what will follow a U.S. war in Iran should be compared to those made in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.
The consequences of an unprovoked attack on Iran for a nuclear weapons program it doesn’t have would be an order of magnitude worse. To repeat the mistakes of the last decade again in Iran would be, as MIT Professor John Tirman puts it, “pathologically destructive.”
John Glaser is the Assistant Editor of Antiwar.com. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in Political Science. He lives in Washington, DC.