Published on Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (http://www.campaigniran.org/casmii)

Let's hear from someone besides the neoconservatives about Iran

by Dan Froomkin (Nieman Watchdog)
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A small group of neoconservatives is ever-more-loudly beating the drums for military action against Iran – and getting a lot of attention.

Robin Wright recently provided an overview of the drum-beating in The Washington Post.The people involved and their arguments are all too familiar: They are more or less the same so-called “experts” who enthusiastically advocated the invasion of Iraq, making similarly authoritative-sounding declarations about the uselessness of diplomacy and the easy triumph of military might.

But far from being ignored – not to mention laughed out of town – these neoconservatives are getting their message out largely unrefuted.

What’s particularly inappropriate about the one-sided coverage is that a quite significant majority of experts who do know a lot about the region believe that an attack in Iran would be a disaster for America and the world. They think it would backfire at least as badly as Iraq.

The general consensus within the foreign policy community is that an attack on Iran would more likely rally the Iranian people behind their radical leaders than it would lead to regime change. It would more likely encourage the Iranians (and others) to accelerate their development of a nuclear deterrent, rather than abandon it. It would more likely set off waves of terrorist attacks in Iraq, Israel and the U.S. than it would strike a blow against terror. And it would make the U.S. even more of a pariah nation on the international stage -- particularly among Muslims -- than it is now.

I’ve read remarkably few stories in the traditional media exploring the possible downsides of an attack on Iran. One was this Dana Priest story in The Washington Post in April 2006. She wrote:

“As tensions increase between the United States and Iran, U.S. intelligence and terrorism experts say they believe Iran would respond to U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by deploying its intelligence operatives and Hezbollah teams to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide.”

Possible Sources

So who should reporters interested in fleshing out the downsides be talking to? And what questions should they ask?

Paul R. Pillar, formerly the CIA’s top Middle East analysis and now a Georgetown University professor (and NiemanWatchdog.org contributor) wrote an essential op-ed in The Washington Post in February: What to Ask Before the Next War. Among the questions he raises:

“What would be the urgency of taking forceful action, given that the announced estimate is that Iran is still several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

“How malleable (and how well-defined) are Tehran's intentions, and what changes in Washington's policy might lead Tehran to abandon a weapons program? Even if Tehran's intentions do not change, what other options would impede or slow its nuclear program? If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, how would that change its behavior and affect U.S. interests? In particular, why would deterrence, which has kept nuclear peace with other adversaries, not work with Iran?

“The likely hardening, concealment and dispersal of Iran's nuclear facilities raise questions about the impact any military strike would have on the program. How much would Iran's nuclear efforts be set back, especially given that bombs are not very good at destroying knowledge and expertise? Would the Iranian response be appreciably different from that of Iraq after Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981 (Iraq redoubled its nuclear efforts while turning to different methods for producing fissile material)?

“The most neglected questions concern other consequences of a U.S. strike or any other U.S.-Iranian combat, even if such combat did not lead to a prolonged occupation. How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? How would it exploit U.S. vulnerabilities next door in Iraq, where it has barely begun to exploit the influence it has assiduously been cultivating? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf?

“Other effects concern Iranian politics. How much would the direct assertion of U.S. hostility strengthen Iranian hard-liners, whose policies are partly premised on such hostility? How much would it add to all Iranians' list of historical grievances against the United States and adversely affect relations with future governments?”

I spoke to Pillar recently, and he said that the advocates of attacking Iran are in a definite minority within the foreign policy community. “I think a strong majority of informed foreign policy observers would believe it would be a big mistake,” he said.

Of course what really counts is what one or maybe two people in the White House think. “To the extent that I’m worried -- and I am worried,“ Pillar said, it’s not about what President Bush and Vice President Cheney are hearing from experts – it’s about “what is going through the psyche of those two individuals.” That’s a real concern: Pillar says he fears that one morning he’ll wake up to hear on the radio that U.S. warplanes are headed back from Iran.

Pillar, who himself is available for interviews, suggests reporters also talk to

Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a NiemanWatchdog.org contributor, also urges reporters to interview:

UPDATE: Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, also suggests a few more good sources for reporters. Rose himself, speaking at a February 2007 National Interest roundtable entitled Revisiting Iran?, had this to say:

“Containment . . . deserves more respect than it gets, since it has been quite good over the years at managing risks at acceptable costs. The danger Iran poses may be real, but it is far less than the dangers that were posed by, say, the Soviet Union or Mao’s China—and in both of those cases the United States managed to outwit, outlast and outplay its rival. It did so by, among other things, keeping its head, rejecting suggestions to strike first and relying on time to reveal its own system’s strengths and its opponents’ weaknesses.

“The reason so many in Washington have forgotten this is not because Iran is uniquely terrifying, but because the United States is uniquely powerful. Only now that it is a global hegemon can it calmly consider an unprovoked strike against a substantial regional power, simply because it worries about what that power might do with the weapons it might eventually acquire. The whole discussion is a sobering reminder that America’s foreign policy faces two separate challenges: managing the world and managing itself.”

Rose urges journalists to speak to:

How Likely Is an Attack?

Neonconservatives have long been offended by Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric -- and their passion for a military response heightened once the evidence emerged that Iran was pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

As I wrote in my June 4 column for washingtonpost.com, Cheney, By Proxy, there are indications that Cheney fears that the president is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously and may be planning an end-run strategy that would box Bush in, making him feel he has no option but to attack. One such scenario: Nudging Israel into bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

But now there’s a new twist: Unproven administration allegations that Iran is providing training and weapons to anti-U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my August 10 column, Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?, I made note of a report that the vice president is advocating for air strikes inside Iran that, while nominally in defense of American troops, would be hugely provocative and could easily lead to an escalation of hostilities.

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker has been almost alone in documenting the ongoing military planning – and operations – in support of a possible attack. In his April 2006 article, The Iran Plans; Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? Hersh wrote:

“The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.”

See also Hersh’s November 2006 article, The Next Act: Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more?

The American public is not in favor of an attack on Iran. According to pollingreport.com, a CNN poll in May found 63 percent of respondents opposed to military action in Iran. But that number would presumably go up even higher if the media was a bit clearer about the likely downsides.

Dan Froomkin is the deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He also writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com.
E-mail: froomkin@niemanwatchdog.org

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