Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict

The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.

This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.

Possible flight routes for Israeli attack on Iran / Map by New York Times

What kind of  “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has  printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?

Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:

  • Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
  • On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact  launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….

When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.

But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.

So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.

So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:

  • A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
  • Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.

Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”

So where does that leave me? Conflicted.

I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.

At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.

And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.

Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?

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5 Responses to “Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict”

  1. Ilana DeBare Says:

    My friend Jim just tried to leave a comment and couldn’t, for some mysterious technical reason. Here’s what he wanted to say:

    First, the analogy to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand doesn’t hold up with the current Iran-Iraq-U.S. standoff. The incident that sparked WWI at the time barely made the papers in France and Britain, and the leaders of those nations seemed blindsided about where their alliances were leading them. As Barbara Tuchman points out in her great book, Guns of August, the leaders of the France and Britain had many opportunities to stop the carnage before it began. A more recent book, To End All Wars, also points out how many times World War I could have been ended and how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand truly blindsided all of the warring nations.

    With Iran-Iraq we can see clearly where this could lead: to a huge, destructive war with an impossible to predict outcome. You don’t need secret intelligence to see that.

    Among the questions you don’t ask are what are the consequences to Israel of an attack on Iran? Dire. Iran would certainly retaliate with a rain of conventional weapons that may obliterate Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and settlements on the West Bank. Iran doesn’t need nukes to do that, and it would likely would be joined by the Arab countries that surround Israel. The conventional weapons at the disposal of these countries are so much more sophisticated than in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and the don’t need to deploy armies to bring destruction upon Israel. They just need to light their missiles and launch their airplanes and would probably overwhelm Israel air defenses.

    The New York Times article is really getting at the obvious — an attack on Iran would not be easy, and would not be a guaranteed success, and would ignite a vicious war that would probably suck in the U.S.

    And what of Turkey, a NATO ally? What if Turkey declared that Israeli’s penetration of its air space constituted an act of war? Would the U.S. be obligated to come to the defense of Turkey against Israel?

    Finally, the hardest question: What if Iran had nuclear weapons (likely only a few)? Would it use those weapons? Maybe not. Maybe it would be more like North Korea or Pakistan, as a weapon of leverage (which is what we use them for, by the way). Iran’s leaders must know that to use such a weapon means their certain destruction (MAD). Haven’t we lived through this before without going to war with its unforeseeable consequences?

  2. Kaveh Says:

    Certainly a difficult situation that does not seem to have an easy solution. Thanks for sharing your conflicted thoughts on this, Ilana.

    First, I disagree with your premise that “Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one.” Certainly a lot of awful rhetoric coming out of the officials there about Israel, but I don’t see them as being suicidal on such a grand scale (Iran would certainly be destroyed in retaliation). This may sound strange, but I also don’t see Iranian decision-makers as wanting to kill hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians in a first strike either.

    But I think the strongest argument (aside from the moral one) against Israel’s first strike is the practical one: it would not work–in fact it would make the situation much more dangerous for Israel. The targets are deeply underground and much of it would survive (unless the US participates on a large scale as well). Iran would withdraw from the IAEA and redouble its efforts, this time to actually make bombs (and not just reactor-grade uranium). I agree with Jim about the other somewhat unforeseen negative consequences for Israel. To these I would add the devastating blow to the anti-regime activism (or at least sympathy) within Iran, which IMO is the ultimate hope for change.

    As I see it, Iran is currently seeking the OPTION of being able to make a nuclear bomb if it so chooses. Its leaders are a paranoid lot, and feel threatened by US presence on three sides. The regime, under tremendous pressure at home (dissent, division etc), also benefits from keeping the conflict alive, as it uses the threat of war as a tool to keep control over its citizenry. It’s also a matter of national pride–“we should be able to make our own nuclear fuel or join the nuclear club if we want to, like other countries in the area” is the thinking behind that (I don’t agree with these btw).

    Patience and diplomacy is the only solution I see. Change will come from within Iran, in time. War will only delay this and exacerbate the risks for everyone.

  3. Kaveh Says:

    p.s. And, yes, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take all the air out of Iranian regime’s rhetoric and further isolate it.

  4. Kaveh Says:

    sorry, I meant “Iran would withdraw from NPT…” (not IAEA)

  5. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Kaveh, Jim — I really appreciate our ability to have this discussion. There are a lot of blogs & news sites where people would just be screaming past each other on this issue. Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

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