Despite the flurry of reports that Israel
or the United States is about to attack Iran, I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that there will be no attack in the next six months, and probably not for a long time thereafter.
The major reason there will not be an attack is that the US will not attack Iran, or allow Israel to attack Iran until the US is convinced that there is hard evidence that the Iranians are making a bomb. Such evidence is very difficult to produce, and if someone does not want to be convinced, they would not be convinced by any evidence other than an actual nuclear test, or perhaps an official announcement by Iran. Even were Iran to make such an announcement, it could be discounted as a bluff. After all, Iranians may have faked photos
of their vaunted recent missile tests. The Americans have many reasons to want to discount any evidence of Iranian progress in nuclear weapons development. The notorious National Intelligence Estimate, the conclusions of which were supposedly softened and discounted, is now accepted in its original form, as evidence or as an excuse to claim that Iran is not building a bomb.
An article in Mother Jones by Laura Rozen
explicates the state of mind of US officials, who reportedly disagree with Israeli assessments of Iranian progress. Rosen tells us:
US sources who did not wish to be identified describe a disagreement between the US and Israeli intelligence communities over the timetable of Iran's alleged weaponization and research and development efforts. Nuclear analysts at Livermore nuclear facility crunched the numbers and looked at the information on Iran's centrifuges and concluded that they are sticking to the public estimates in the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which forecast Iran could have enough enriched material for nuclear weapons capability in the mid next decade. The Israelis allegedly presented the US with Iranian weaponization evidence that they consider very credible, which the US intelligence community allegedly did not consider credible. Analysts also say Israel and the US are drawing different definitions and redlines about what they consider would be Iran's nuclear "breakout" capability.
Rozen also cites Robert Gallucci, a former longtime State Department nonproliferation expert who now serves as dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Gallucci became convinced that Iran isn't getting a bomb any time soon after talking to U.S. officials. That may not refliect reality, but it reflects the opinion of US officials, and that is what counts.
"I came away [from recent consultations with government scientists] believing that is actually some distance away in time—beyond five years," Gallucci said.
Gallucci said he was talking about when Iran could conceivably produce five or ten or more nuclear weapons.
The problem is not just intelligence, but also an estimate of when the "red line" would be reached. For Israel, a single bomb would be over the red line, while evidently, Gallucci and the officials he talked to would be comfortable with up to ten bombs.
Nobody has any substantive information on Iranian progress in building nuclear weapons. Americans tend to accept the NIE report, but Con Coughlin reported in the Daily Telegraph that Iran has revived a program to build advanced P2 centrifuges, a report that is ignored or belittled by American foreign policy experts. Everyone already knows that Iran is building P2 centrifuges, so the report, like so many others, may be making much ado about nothing.
A perceptive comment by Robert D. Kaplan explains why the U.S. is reluctant to undertake an attack on Iran, and notes that Israel could not not undertake such an attack without violating Iraqi air space, which is controlled by the United States. Defense Secretary Gates and the Pentagon brass, not to mention the State Department, are opposed to such an attack. Gates has become a central Therefore, there can be no attack. As Kaplan observes:
Gates has shepherded Iraq from nearly a lost cause to a cause that might yet be salvaged. And an Israeli attack on Iran, precisely because it could not occur without both the fact and the appearance of U. S. support, could unleash a fury of Iran-supported bombings inside Iraq. No, Gates would not be on board for an Israeli strike.
This message was reinforced by a careful leak from Robert Dreyfuss, writing in The Nation magazine, which claimed that the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, came to Israel to deliver a message, that Israel does not have a green light for an attack on Iran and would not get US support for such an attack. Dreyfuss can't be blamed. He was only quoting Anthony Cordesman this time. Cordesman is not a US official. He is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and may after all have only been quoting what he read in an earlier Dreyfuss column, or what he was fed by U.S. military officials who oppose an Israeli attack.
There are more good reasons why an attack is unlikely. Israeli planes evidently do not have the round trip range for the attack and would require tricky midair refueling. The objections to an air attack could be overcome by launching cruise missiles from Israeli submarines. In 2006, Israel purchased two submarines that apparently have the range to stay submerged long enough to reach Iran. These are not scheduled for delivery until 2012. Presumably, they would be used mostly for nuclear retaliation, and would not be sufficient for a conventional attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel is also said to have developed cruise missiles of its own, but these are probably short range missiles. Nonetheless, the head of Israel's submarine fleet hinted in 2006:
"hitting strategic targets is not always a task the Air Force or the infantry can carry out… a submarine can perform the mission, and it can also be used only for collecting intelligence and securing the forces about to carry out such a mission."
The subs can reportedly carry only 16 missiles with an anemic 227 KG conventional warhead, though there are reports (and see here) that Israel has beefed up this capability. Submarines could certainly be used for gathering intelligence or for shooting a demoralizing "warning shot," but the risk of retaliation is too great. Nobody is really talking about the submarine option. That may mean that it is not practical, or it may mean that it is the real option being considered.
No doubt another factor militating against US permission for an Israeli attack is oil. OPEC has warned that an attack on Iran would precipitate an "unlimited" rise in the price of oil. Coming from OPEC, that must be viewed as a prophecy that is capable of self-fulfillment.
Beyond U.S. permission, the greatest deterrent to an Israeli attack on Iran is the prospect of retaliation. This could take the form of Iranian missiles, and Hezbollah-launched rocket attacks. Iran has threatened to destroy Israel, as well as 32 US bases in Iraq, if attacked.
The rumors, however, flow thick and fast. A bizarre report that Israeli planes were practicing an attack on Iran from Iraqi bases was quickly denied. Uzi Mahnaimi and the Sunday Times, who never disappoint in the matter of manufacturing canards, have manufactured the most recent rumor, under the headline, "President George W Bush backs Israeli plan for strike on Iran". A close examination of the article reveals little that supports the headline. It provides us with the same information, basically, that was in the articles by Kaplan and Rozen, and perhaps even more negative pronouncements:
President George W Bush: US officials acknowledge that no American president can afford to remain idle if Israel is threatened
This is the strongest statement in the article, but it is meaningless. Israel is already "threatened." The U.S. can say it is not "idle," since it is pushing for sanctions. The seriousness of the threat, is up to the judgment of US officials, who do not consider it serious. According to a sympathetic Pentagon source:
"The uniform people are opposed to the attack plans, mainly because they think it will endanger our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan..."
We already know that, don't we? More important is this gratuitous announcement:
"This administration will not attack Iran. This has already been decided..."
In fact, "The US will not attack Iran" would probably have been the correct headline for this article, since in public, the Bush administration has never ruled out use of force in the past. The report also tells us that as far as the US knows, Israel has not presented any convincing plan to attack Iran.
The official added that Israel had not so far presented Bush with a convincing military proposal.
If there is no plan, how could Bush be backing the nonexistent plan? The headline is meaningless. More meaningless prose is provided in the following:
the president has given an “amber light” to an Israeli plan to attack Iran’s main nuclear sites with long-range bombing sorties, the official told The Sunday Times.
"Amber means get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you’re ready,"
So there is a "plan," but evidently it is not "convincing." If the plan is not "convincing," then why would anyone support it? I thought that an "Amber" light is the expression used to signal that the US would look the other way if there an attack - "don't ask, so we won't say no." That is the sort of light that was given for the Six Day War.The assertion that the US is telling Israel it has the right to make attack preparations is also meaningless. Israel can always prepare whatever it likes, but it evidently needs US approval, or passive consent, to carry out any plans. If the plan involves overflight of Iraq and if there is the strong probability of Iranian retaliation, that approval will probably never be given. The article notes:
...But the Israelis have also been told that they can expect no help from American forces and will not be able to use US military bases in Iraq for logistical support.
Nor is it certain that Bush’s amber light would ever turn to green without irrefutable evidence of lethal Iranian hostility.
Well there you go, that's what I wrote above, isn't it? There could be no 'irrefutable evidence' for people who are not convinced, short of an actual attack. So this article, that supposedly announces US support for an Israeli attack on Iran, actually tells us that the US is not going to attack Iran, won't support an Israeli attack in any way, probably would not approve of any Israeli attack, and does not find current Israeli war plans convincing. What Mahnaimi's report really says about US policy is probably, "The US is not going to attack Iran, and we will not allow Israel to do it either." But Mahnaimi's report does not cite any top administration officials, only an unnamed "senior Pentagon official."
Taken together with the other reports, the picture produced is alarming, whether or not one supports an attack on Iran. The US, and Israel, seem to be conducting a psychological war of brinksmanship against Iran. It is perhaps based on the proposition that the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear program, perhaps the only way, is to convince Iranian leaders that development of a nuclear weapon would result in an attack by Israel or the United States or both in concert. Israel, for its part, has been dropping plenty of hints that this is the case, often in articles with headlines that are scarier than the contents, such as this one from Ha'aretz Barak: Israel is not afraid to take action against Iran. Read the fine print : Barak favors diplomatic negotiations. Israeli officials have more or less convinced much of the world, though not Iran evidently, that they mean what they say - Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
If Iran does develop nuclear weapons and Israel does nothing, either because it can't or because the United States will not allow it to attack, Iran will have won a tremendous victory just by demonstrating that it can obtain the bomb, and that neither Israel or the US will do anything about it. The more war talk there will be, the greater will be the Iranian propaganda victory. At the same time, the campaign of apparently unauthorized leaks through people like Cordesman can only be designed to undermine the credibility of the Israeli threat.
Anthony Cordesman doesn't make US policy. Admiral Mullen does not make US policy. If indeed Mullen were authorized to deliver a "STOP" message to Israel, that authorization would have to come from the White House. It is doubtful if the US administration has made any such determination, and it certainly does not serve U.S. interests to broadcast it to Iran. If Admiral Mullen saw fit to quash the rumor, he could have spoken out, but he did not. If the US administration thought it was necessary to make a public pronouncement on the issue, it would no doubt have done so. The conclusion must be that the US military is trying to make US policy through the press, with the aid of compliant thinktank and journal pundits. Announcing that Israel does not have a green light to attack Iran, is in effect, announcing that Iran has a green light from the US to develop nuclear weapons. Once again, a chaotic U.S. administration is having its policy decisions made for it by lower level bureaucrats, who seem to be out of control and pursuing an agenda of their own.
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