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Tracking the roll-out for the Iran war through the last week, we have seen some high profile developments. We learned that the pressure is on military intelligence officers and other key nodes of the intelligence community to come up with evidence of Iranian involvement with the Iraqi insurgency and Iranian misdeeds in general. No doubt about why. This is part of the feverish hunt for a casus belli against Iran. Also we learn that Bush is distressed with Prime Minister Brown’s independence on the Iran issue. He wants the U.K. to be a faithful puppy and heel, adopting the servile stance already taken up by French President Sarkozy. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, as the Sunday Telegraph reported.
Still, my sense this week is that the roll-out for attacks on Iran has, to the great distraction of its sponsors, not gained the sort of traction that they envisaged for it. I am therefore pulling back on the prospects for the Cheney air war on Iran before the end of the Bush presidency, putting this again at a break-even proposition. Here are some of the points for the pushback.
I noted earlier that a major G.O.P. linked think tank had done economic modeling to ascertain the impact on the U.S. economy of a short-term aerial war against Iran. A source at the Heritage Foundation, which was involved in this process, advises me that two separate studies were completed both taking the impact on the price of oil as a focal point. Some of the scenarios considered included Iran’s effective closing of oil traffic through the straights of Hormuz. With oil now right at $100/bbl, this closure and additional market anxiety associated with war has the potential of driving the price up dramatically, perhaps even as much as doubling it. Within three months, this could send the price of gasoline at the pump in the U.S. into the range of $7/gallon.
Rising oil prices have already had a serious, though not much remarked upon, effect on the U.S. economy. Many economists consider that the current U.S. downturn has much to do with them. A price rise as dramatic as this (though still not to the at-the-pump price faced in the U.K., for instance) could have catastrophic economic impact, likely triggering a recession. Moreover, as my source noted, it would hit the U.S. disproportionately hard in the “red heartland,” where voters rely on automobiles for their livelihood, commute great distances, and have no available viable public transportation alternatives. “When our folks look at the economic consequences of this step for the heartland,” said the source, “they get cool to the idea pretty quickly.”
The nation’s military leadership, I am told, is nearly unanimous in counseling against the air war plan. They present the usual batch of prudential arguments: once launched, how it would develop can never be completely foreseen; the blowback within the Middle East and globally would be ferocious and would likely outweigh any benefit; the benefit would likely be rather modest—a delay in the Iranian nuclear program, not putting it out entirely. But they also note that the U.S. military is now severely overtaxed and therefore not in a position to be pushed into a third war in the CENTCOM theater (or a fourth war, if we include the proxy conflict in Lebanon).
Admiral William Fallon, the CENTCOM commander, gave an interview in the Financial Times in which he addressed the Iran scenario with some unusually acute words.
Admiral William Fallon, head of Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, told the Financial Times that while dealing with Iran was a “challenge”, a strike was not “in the offing”. “None of this is helped by the continuing stories that just keep going around and around and around that any day now there will be another war which is just not where we want to go,” he said.
Note that Fallon is directing pointed criticism at the Neocon war camp over their Iran war rhetoric. As the FT put it, “his comments served as a shot across the bows of hawks who are arguing for imminent action. They also echoed the views of the senior brass that military action is currently unnecessary, and should only be considered as an absolute last resort.”
Shift in Israeli Analysis
To the great consternation of the Neocon war coven, Israeli opinion is taking a decisive shift against them. I don’t mean public opinion, but rather the perspectives of key analysts upon whom the Israeli leadership relies. A piece recently posted by Barry Rubin, the head of the GLORIA Center at Herzliya, sends this message clearly:
The Iranian nuclear issue is too important and dangerous to be miscomprehended. So here are some life-and-death factors to keep in mind about it:
First, Iran is not about to obtain nuclear weapons, certainly not ones that it could use. That dreadful outcome is still several years away. Despite all the bragging going on by Iranian leaders in Persian-language statements about how they are getting closer to atomic bombs—coupled with denials of any such intention in English-language ones—it just isn’t that easy to do.
Second, neither Israel nor the United States is about to attack Iran. There are lots of reasons why this is so but they can be boiled down to the following: it is hard militarily to carry out such an attack, it is politically dangerous, and can lead to very serious consequences. An attack is something better to avoid, if possible. And it is certainly too early for such a high-risk, potentially high-cost venture.
Writing in Ha’aretz, Zvi Bar’el put the new focus this way:
The international community, which is looking to its leaders to neutralize Iran’s nuclear bomb with their own hands, will have a hard time coming up with the goods. After all, this is the same community that imposed sanctions on Iraq and did not manage to prevent war being waged on it; that has dealt so incompetently with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that cannot stop the atrocities taking place in Darfur or implement its resolutions in Lebanon, and has long since pushed Africa out of its field of vision.
In light of these fumblings on the part of “the international community,” another working assumption can be adopted. Within two to three years that same community will be needing a new kind of diplomacy vis-a-vis Iran – the kind that the U.S. is using with North Korea, a diplomacy whose goal is to dismantle existing weapons and eliminate the motivation to use them. This would be a policy that is the opposite of sanctions. A policy that would give Iran the international status it desires, and for which purpose it is, among other things, developing nuclear capabilities. A policy that would include Arab states and Israel, in place of the kind that is perceived as a Western diktat to the Arab and Muslim world. In essence, that is the same policy that should be employed now, especially at a time when important voices in Iran are showing a willingness to conduct serious negotiations.
That is to say, the rush to strike against Iran in the coming 16 months is downplayed, the need to adopt a different approach akin to the leverage applied on North Korea is seen as a safer bet. Israelis don’t expect the diplomatic track to work miracles, but they recognize that it can’t be avoided, and that, skillfully managed, it can produce results.
The key problem is that U.S. diplomatic skills and abilities seem to have reached a modern low point in the Bush Administration. That’s both because of the incompetent leadership of the diplomatic team, and because Bush’s own dismissive attitude towards diplomacy undermines any approach. In light of all of this, the successes achieved with the French are virtual manna from heaven.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”