It wasn't U.S. relations with an Arab country
on the tips of many tongues at this year's National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
meeting in the last week of October. Rather, much of the focus was on the Arab
Middle East's ethnic Persian neighbor to the east: Iran.
The question and answer session of a panel on Iraq and Iran was a microcosm
of the chatter around Washington all year long about the ebbing and flowing
likelihood of a potential U.S. bombing run against alleged secret Iranian nuclear
No one on the panel a collection of a statesman, military brass, and experts
thought that an attack on Iran was imminent, or even would likely happen
in a longer view, but that did not stop the debate about the merits and drawbacks
of a U.S. strike. A prime issue that needs to be initially addressed in these
bombing scenarios is assessing the threat from the Islamic Republic, which
has had a tense relationship with the West since the revolution that established
it in 1979.
"There are two general problems with Iran: Iran in the region and Iran
with nuclear weapons," said Brent Scowcroft, a former lieutenant general.
in the U.S. Air Force and former national security adviser to two Republican
presidents, referring to Iran's growing power and aspirations in the region
and its alleged covert nuclear weapons program.
But Scowcroft said that under Pres. George W. Bush's policy inspired
largely by a neoconservative worldview of completely isolating countries
perceived as "evil," one cannot assess the aims of the Iranian regime
in terms of nuclear capabilities or toward neighboring nations like Afghanistan
and Iraq where the U.S. has committed interests.
The U.S. has several times walked away from Iran at the negotiating table
and in 2003 reportedly at the behest of hawkish Vice President Dick
Cheney rejected an Iranian overture that could have been the first step
to a "grand bargain" comprehensive rapprochement plan.
"What [the U.S.] can do and can't do with Iran is
a mystery because we have not been prepared to explore with them what the possibilities
are," said Scowcroft.
The lack of diplomacy since the Bush administration began pursuing its aggressive
post-9/11 strategies to remake the Middle East is predicated at least partially
on the neoconservative worldview that talking to enemies gives them credibility
and, therefore, puts them in a position of strength. That view often stipulates
that pre-talk conditions need to be met before a serious effort at engagement
can be made.
Scowcroft was quick to demur from that tack. "Making discussions subject
to preconditions before you sit down and talk to them is not a recipe for understanding
or for finding out what goes on. That is one of the purposes of talking,"
he said. "[T]alking in itself is not necessarily a concession."
But with strained relations, some view a strike or at least the threat
of one as a potential way for the U.S. to bring the Iranians to the table
and to gain leverage over them.
"The idea is to use the threat of force or some force to compel Iran
to allow this whole inspections, tagging, and shutdown of the program,"
said Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, a government-sponsored
group that provides analysis to Congress. "One need not necessarily know
where every site is or to strike every site to still potentially be effective."
When discussing the merits of a strike on Iran, Katzman couched his talking
points as things he had heard from people who "worked on study groups
Indeed, Katzman was a consultant to a task force with the Bipartisan Policy
Center (BPC) that released a report touting a "new, robust, and comprehensive
strategy" for dealing with Iran that would "incorporat[e] new diplomatic,
economic, and military tools in an integrated fashion."
The project was directed by BPC's neoconservative foreign policy director
Michael Makovsky, and the report
[.pdf], "Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development,"
was itself authored by hawkish Iran expert and neoconservative American Enterprise
Institute scholar Michael Rubin.
The report calls a nuclear-armed Iran a "strategically untenable"
situation and has been regarded by some analysts as a bellicose document whose
diplomatic recommendations have already been rejected outright by the Iranians,
paving the way for U.S. military action against their nuclear program.
Not everyone on the NCUSAR panel, however, was sure that Katzman's attempt
at "air-strike diplomacy" would work out in the U.S.' favor.
"This may be the best example in recent times of highly coordinated threat
of force against a country to bring about diplomatic solution
sure," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, the former head of
Centcom, the military command responsible for the whole of the Middle East.
"[F]or people that think this is serious, I would put it in the utter
Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former Foreign Service
official, went even further in his warnings of the potential fallout from a
strike even a highly selective and targeted campaign like Katzman's
"Once all this has been done and we're talking about two to three
thousand air strikes over a period of a week you're not talking about
what some people in the media refer to as 'surgically taking out Iranian nuclear
sites'; you're talking about war with Iran," he said. "This is going
to unleash a titanic crisis."
White speculated that a strike of any size would harden Iranian resolve to
develop a weapon by a "crash program" as happened when Israel
attacked an Iraqi nuclear facility in the early 1980s, after which Iraq accelerated
its program because a nuclear weapon would serve as a deterrent.
"If you go in and beat the hornets' nest, and you damage it, then actually
you're dealing with a wounded animal something even more determined
than it had ever been before to attain this capability," said White, implicitly
hinting at the air of inevitability around a nuclear Iran.
"Even though it might be rather distasteful, we might be able to live
with a nuclear Iran," White said, telling the crowd at NCUSAR that Iran
is unlikely to be so "incredibly foolish" as to bomb Israel with
an assurance of a much more destructive retaliation.
"Quite a number of Israelis would be unhappy, to say the least, living
even with that small chance of such a horrific scenario," he said. "However,
quite frankly, I'm not Israel, and I must look at this through an American
lens and keeping with American national interests."
(Inter Press Service)