Saturday, October 3, 2009

Misunderstanding the Problem

I think Glenn Greenwald has this mostly right on Iran. I think Scott Ritter has it mostly right too. I think the UN has it mostly right. If you are looking for a smoking gun on the Iranian nuclear program, you will be disappointed in your search. There is no such thing as a smoking gun as seen by the IAEA in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue.

I also think all of those who are claiming that the media frenzy over Iran looks like the same kind of media frenzy that happened shortly before the war in Iraq have it right too. It has a very similar look and feel, and it is primarily because there are some very, very smart people of all political sides who are worried war is looming.

The problem is, none of what these folks are saying is actually relevant to events unfolding in regards to Iran, because they misunderstand the problem. They believe this is about UN weapon inspection results or it represents some American political problem that can be debated reasonably on information available to the public, and that this will somehow produce a right and wrong answer on the nuclear issue that suggests a course of action that can resolve the problem. They are wrong, the Presidents choices are very limited, and at this point it appears that political damage control has already begun. The only good news is that the President appears to have a clear sense of the real problem, and is on the same page with Germany, France, Great Britain, and Russia who all appear to have a good sense of the problem too. China is, as usual, difficult to take a read from based on public statements.

Nobody in the DoD, and I mean absolutely nobody... wants to fight a war with Iran. The DoD already has nearly a quarter of a million soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the Middle East fighting two wars. The DoD does not want a third war, no matter how limited. The DoD absolutely does not want more problems in either war they are already engaged in. If you ever read anyone who suggests that the US wants war with Iran, the writer is either ignorant, or stupid.

The President of the United States, the Congress, and the vast majority of the American people do not want to fight a war with Iran. Any statement suggesting that the US government is about to start a war with Iran is false. You cannot find evidence of warmongering in the US government with the exception of a very small minority of neoconservatives. It should also be noted that everyone mentioned who doesn't want to fight a war with Iran, also does not want to see Iran get a nuclear weapon.

It does not matter that British and French intelligence have both concluded that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. It does not matter that the Russians and Chinese don't see evidence of Iranian nuclear weapon development. It does not even matter what a US National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program says, either in 2007 or today. The intelligence of those countries does not matter, it really doesn't.

The only thing that matters is what Israeli political leaders think, and what the assessment of Israeli intelligence is. Nothing else matters because no one is going to start a war with Iran, well... no one except Israel.

There is a real sense in the Pentagon that Israel is preparing to attack Iran, and people who spends serious time in and around the folks in the building; from reporters to contractors to bloggers like me, etc... can sense it too. There is a very real tension in the building that time is trending towards military action from Israel against Iran. The feeling is that Israel is making strategic assessments of risk, and the risks from their point of view are trending towards a calculation that military action is worth it to them. Can Israel risk attacking Iran without US approval? Can Israel mitigate the risks to Israel from an Iranian counter-attack? Slowly the answer to both questions is trending, yes, from their point of view.

The general feeling is, Israel believes they can dish out a hell of a lot more than Iran can throw at them, and they are probably right. Hezbollah and Hamas have excellent asymmetrical defensive capabilities, but other than a finite number of rockets they really don't have good offensive options.

In a war between Israel and Iran, there will be no flights to Syria from Tehran bringing supplies to Hezbollah, and there will be no ships delivering supplies to Hamas through Egypt from sea either, as planes will be shot down and Iranian ships that try to get into the Red Sea will find a watery grave. The strategic calculus in Israel is that they have to be able to defend against about 50 conventional ballistic missiles, and that is not much different than the Saddam Hussein scenario in 1991.

Israel has superior cyber warfare capabilities over Iran, who had trouble with the cyber attacks of non-military political activists after the recent Iranain election. Israel has superior naval capabilities than Iran outside the Persian Gulf, not to mention superior air force capabilities and superior space technology. Pay attention folks, we have already started seeing the disinformation campaign from anonymous sources inside Israel.

A lot of people describe really scary scenarios, and they tell you to be afraid should Israel attack Iran. We should be concerned, a lot, but Israeli concerns on that issue are not the same as our concerns. Israeli concerns are specific to Israel. I also see a fundamental flaw in the analysis that the Persian Gulf will burn if Israel strikes Iran by the same people suggesting Iran would be a responsible actor with nuclear weapons. If Iran lashes out in retaliation of an Israeli strike against other countries, including the US and their allies in the region with any conventional military weapon, then Israel is proven correct and Iran really is led by insane madmen who shouldn't be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. I do not understand the logical argument that Iran would be responsible as a nuclear power, and that Iran would irresponsibly respond to attack by Israel by directly attacking numerous other nations by closing down the Persian Gulf.

That is a serious strategic problem for Israel though. Restraint by Iran, either constrained by Israeli military success or restraint as an Iranian political calculation, could legitimately be the defense by Iran that Israel would have the most strategic and political problems with. That type of defense by Iran would result in enormous political pressure on Israel and directly attack Israeli credibility which in turn would limit the number of shots Israel takes to destroying the Iranian nuclear program. If Iran restrains following an attack, each shot taken in the attack must be 100% effective, because tolerance by anyone in the region for more attacks will not be there.

Why is the President saying things that suggest war is impending? Why is he working so hard on sanctions if the UN really has a weak hand with intelligence assessments? Why is he building a sense of concern in the US, intentionally setting the groundwork politically for the mood of the American people against the Iranian nuclear program? This political rhetoric from the Western powers is preemptive damage control, we have even seen Russia do a bit of this recently, which is why Russia is likely to play a key role in the negotiations. I think Obama is on the same page as everyone else, and all parties are trying to hold Israel back from attacking Iran. I don't think anyone is sure if Israel can be held back.

Anyone who believes Israel would never attack Iran without permission from the US is historically ignorant, Israel did it in 1967 in what the Arabs call "The Setback," or what we call the Six Day War. How does the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) get attacked by Israel? Easy, in that war the Israelis weren't telling us what they were doing, and we were sending our spy ships in to find out what they were doing. Fog of War sucks, and we should expect thick fog if Israel attacks Iran because Israel may not trust our President much right now.

The general sense in the Pentagon is that Israel will attack unless the international community comes through with this last diplomatic effort. The President absolutely knows this, and my read of the Russian political approach to Iran is that they are aware too, which is why folks like Glenn Greenwald, Scott Ridder, and Mohamed ElBaradei can be right on the technical issues of Iranian nuclear weapon inspections all day long and it does not matter a lick. Absent a smoking gun, the only thing that matters is what the Israeli's think, because they are the one preparing to pull the trigger.

Obama's political opponents are having a field day over the decision of the IOC. The President earned all the political flack he takes on that, but losing an Olympic bid means absolutely nothing compared to the Iranian nuclear problem which is bigger than everything else happening right now. Nobody, including the Presidents political opponents domestically, will be better off if Obama doesn't get the Iranian nuclear issue resolved correctly, and these people who are casually suggesting talking to Iran is a waste of time are insane. We try everything possible to avoid another war right now, whether people believe it will work or not. The President should leave nothing untried.

When I see the story saying "President Obama has reaffirmed a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections," I read it as not only protecting Israel's right to have nuclear weapons, but Israel seeking assurances in writing that they have the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary... perhaps on a well protected nuclear facility.

After all, if Israel is willing to accept the risk of attacking Iran knowing full well a few conventional bombs could very easily cost the United States its strategic objectives in both Afghanistan and Iraq, efforts paid for with 8 years of American blood; Israel will make damn sure they destroy what they intend to in an attack on Iran. This whole issue is about whether Israel assesses that Iran will use nuclear weapons against Israel. If the defensive purpose of nuclear weapons is to defend a country from being attacked with nuclear weapons, and defending Israel from potential Iranian nuclear weapon use against Israel is the issue here, then I think Israel use of nuclear weapons must be considered as part of the calculus.

Disbelieve Israel would go nuclear all you want, but Israels short, modern history is one of Israel consistently taking enormous risks, both politically and militarily. It is the rule rather than the exception, something we should not forget; particularly considering that the new buried and concealed nuclear site everyone is discussing is in Qom - a Shi'a Islam holy city.

The stakes for the President regarding Iran are very high, much higher than the political rhetoric of his domestic political opponents suggest. The consequences are too high for political games, something the Presidents opponents would do well to keep in mind, indeed, something his political supporters should keep in mind too. Iran may not have a nuclear weapon, but we may be closer to nuclear war today than many imagine possible, and the seriousness which most political analysts outside government are taking the issue is somewhat troubling to me. There are good reasons the President is holding his cards close regarding Iran, the stakes are too high for mistakes.

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