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How Iran Might See the Threats

In CIA jargon, “Aardwolf” is a label for a special genre of intelligence report from field stations abroad to headquarters in Washington. An Aardwolf conveys the Chief of Station’s formal assessment regarding the direction events are taking in his or her country of assignment – and frequently the news is bad.In nature, an aardwolf is a furry hyena of east Africa that lives in underground burrows

An Aardwolf is relatively rare and is avidly read; it is candid — and often unwelcome. (In the 2006 book, State of War, author James Risen describes two Aardwolfs sent to CIA headquarters in the latter half of 2003 by the station chief in Baghdad describing the deteriorating situation in Iraq — and angering many of his bosses.)

So, let’s assume there is an Iranian Chief of Station embedded in, say, Iran’s UN representation in New York. It is quite likely that he or she would be tasked with crafting periodic Aardwolf-type assessments for senior officials of the Islamic Republic.

And in this time of heightened tensions with the United States and the West, Tehran presumably would be interested in a think piece assessing, based on the events of recent months, what the second half of 2012 might have in store on front-burner questions like the nuclear issue and the triangular Iran-U.S.-Israel relationship.

Putting oneself in others’ shoes is always of value but often avoided by American officials and journalists. It is especially difficult in dealing with not-so-easy-for-westerners-to-understand countries like Iran. Faux history further complicates things, as do unconscious blinders that can affect even “old-paradigm” analysts who try to have no agenda other than the pursuit of objective truth.

Don’t laugh. That U.S. intelligence analysts are still capable of honest, old-paradigm work can be seen in their continued resistance, so far with the full support of senior management, to strong political pressure to change their key estimate of late 2007 that the Iranians stopped working on a nuclear weapon during the fall of 2003.

Thus, let me try to put my imagination to work and see if any useful insights can be squeezed out of an attempt to “impersonate” an Iranian Chief of Station in the following notional “Aardwolf” to Tehran. Such a message might read something like this:

Nuclear Issue: What Are the U.S. & Israel Up To?

With half of 2012 behind us and the U.S. presidential election looming in just four months, I will try to be candid and blunt about what I see as the dangers facing the Islamic Republic in the coming months. Following are the key points of our mid-year assessment, more fully developed in the text that follows:

  1. The Islamic Republic is viewed by most Americans as Enemy #1. How best to defeat our “nuclear ambitions” has become the main foreign policy issue in the election campaign for president. This is BIG.
     
  2. In dealing with Iran, U.S. corporate media are behaving just as they did before the attack on Iraq. It is as though the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq never happened. This time the Islamic Republic is in the crosshairs and some influential figures seem eager to pull the trigger. For instance, Jackson Diehl, deputy chief of the Washington Post’s editorial page, asked pointedly if it “would still be feasible to carry out an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities” if the U.S. gets involved militarily in Syria.
     
  3. Within the “bubble” of Official Washington, the war in Iraq is often portrayed as a success and the pro-Israel neo-conservatives largely responsible for that catastrophe remain in very influential positions. The macho cry of the neocons — “Real men go to Tehran” — is again very much in vogue.
     
  4. Cowardly politicians, especially in Congress, march “in lockstep” to Likud Lobby cadences. President Barack Obama privately may not wish to go along but he lacks the courage to break ranks.
     
  5. Unlike the lead-up to Iraq, when Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were lusting for war, this time neither the White House nor the Pentagon wants hostilities. Yet, prevalent is an awkward, helpless kind of fear that, one way or another, Israel will succeed in provoking hostilities — with little or no prior notice to its superpower “ally.”
     
  6. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the top U.S. generals are virtually all careerists, and none have forgotten what happened to Admiral “no-war-on-Iran-on-my-watch” William Fallon. He was soon a retired admiral. So, they will follow orders — legal or not — as reflexively as the Prussians of old, letting the troops and the “indigenous” people of the target countries bear the consequences. In the U.S., it is almost unheard of for a general to resign on principle, no matter how foolish the errand.
     
  7. It is conventional wisdom here that the pro-Israel vote is sine qua non for election to the White House. Thus, Obama is acutely sensitive to the perceived need to appear no less supportive of Israel than Mitt Romney, who told an Israeli newspaper last fall: “The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders.”
     
  8. Some attention has been given to public warnings by prominent Israeli political, military and intelligence officials not to attack Iran. Their outspokenness betrays how seriously they view the danger that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may embark upon an adventure that could eventually result in the destruction of the state of Israel. But Netanyahu believes he still has the initiative and holds the high cards, which is certainly true with the U.S. political system.
     
  9. As for Israel’s generals, they will obey — like their American counterparts.
     
  10. There is ample evidence that Netanyahu believes Obama has a deficit of spine, and that if hostilities break out with Iran before the November election, Obama will feel obliged to give Israel unconditional support, including active military involvement. In my view, Netanyahu would be correct in that calculation.
     
  11. Israel’s strategic situation has markedly deteriorated over the past year, with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan describing it as “the worst in its history.” Israel can no longer depend on close ties with Egypt or Turkey, and is becoming isolated elsewhere, as well.  Developments in Egypt are a huge worry, with the Egyptians already having cancelled a major deal for the delivery of gas. This might increase Israel’s incentive to have a tangible demonstration that the “sole remaining superpower,” at least, remains firmly in its camp.
     
  12. Military and intelligence ties between the U.S. and Israel are just as tight as those that enabled the successful Israeli air attack on Iraq’s nuclear installation at Osirak in 1981. Just this month, Israel’s friends in Congress beat back an effort by the Director of National Intelligence to strip the phrase “including satellite intelligence” from a list of security improvements in the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012.
     
  13. Starting, or provoking, hostilities with Iran would be huge, fateful gamble for Netanyahu, given Israel’s vulnerability to Iranian retaliation and Washington’s private counsels not to precipitate war. But if Israel went ahead anyway, my bet is that the U.S. military will be drawn in, even if Iran were careful to limit retaliation to Israeli targets.
     
  14. On the nuclear issue, after the last three rounds of talks, it seems clear that the West will not even acknowledge our right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without strict conditions. Rather, the West’s “negotiating position” is almost identical to Netanyahu’s maximal demands that we abandon our project for processing nuclear materials and dismantle key facilities.
     
  15. The larger objective seems to be regime change by threats, sanctions, covert action and cyber attack — with the prospect of worse to come.
     
  16. To conclude, I would draw on some common American expressions: On the nuclear issue, we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Since there is a real chance we will be attacked at some point in the coming months, we need to batten down the hatches and keep our powder dry. It would be extremely foolish to hope for any significant break in U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic, at least until the very end of the year.

What Drives Israel?

I do not believe the Israelis see our nuclear program as an imminent threat, despite their having made the issue a cause célèbre, the centerpiece of their foreign policy and a live wire in today’s American politics. The question is why; at least five objectives can be identified:

  1. Overthrow of our Islamic Republic government (shades of 1953). The euphemism now in vogue is “regime change.”
     
  2. Create in Iran the kind of hardship, devastation or, if you prefer, obliteration that has degraded Iraq’s ability, post-invasion, to support the Palestinians. A key part of Israel’s strategy is to deplete the resources of supporters of Hezbollah and HAMAS and shut down their support systems.

    Accordingly, even if hostilities resulted in something short of “regime change,” Israel’s close-in enemies would be greatly weakened and Israel would be in a strong position to dictate “peace terms” to the Palestinians — and even encourage many of them to “self-deport,” to use Mitt Romney’s euphemism for ethnic cleansing of unwanted “aliens.”
     
  3. Divert attention from the stymied talks with the Palestinians, as Israeli settlers proceed apace to create more and more “facts on the ground” in the West Bank.
     
  4. Set back Iran’s uranium enrichment program a few years; and
     
  5. Take advantage of a near-term “window of opportunity” afforded by an American president worried about his reelection prospects.

Rejecting Post-WWII Agreements

The Americans are fond of saying, “After 9/11 everything changed.” And so Americans took little notice when President George W. Bush, in a June 1, 2002, graduation speech at West Point, boldly asserted the right to launch the kind of preventive war banned at Nuremberg and in the U.N. Charter.

The West Point speech laid the groundwork for the attack on Iraq ten months later (and an aggressive war that was ultimately branded illegal by the UN Secretary General). But Bush’s words at West Point indicated Washington’s determination not to be bound by post-World War II treaties and other agreements.

Many in the United States and abroad gradually have grown desensitized to the principles of international law when they limit Washington’s desire to attack another sovereign state under the guise of making Americans safer. After 9/11, starting the kind of “aggressive war” that was criminalized at Nuremberg in 1945 gained gradual acceptance.

And so, most Americans accept it as a given that it would be certainly okay if Israel and/or the U.S. attacked the Islamic Republic if we were to develop nuclear weapons, even though there is no international law or precedent available to justify attacking us.

Moreover, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter expressly prohibits the threat to use force as well as the actual use of force. But that is “old paradigm” thinking. When U.S. officials, from Obama on down, repeat the mantra that “everything is on the table,” including the “military option,” that is a violation of the UN Charter, yet no one here seems bothered by that fact.

Recall Obama’s nonchalant response when asked in February if he thought Israel had decided to attack Iran. “I don’t think Israel has made a decision,” he said simply — as though the decision were about something routine — not about whether to launch the kind of “aggressive war” banned at Nuremberg.

Bottom line: International law is, as the Americans would say, “not a problem.”

The statements of senior U.S. and Israeli officials are all over the map in addressing the nuclear “ambitions” of the Islamic Republic. For example, on Jan. 8, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a television audience: “Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No, but we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability.” ["Face the Nation", CBS, Jan. 8, 2012]

Here are his comments on another Sunday talk show on May 27:

“The fundamental premise is that neither the United States or the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon.”

Israeli leadership statements, including those by Panetta’s counterpart, Ehud Barak, are equally disingenuous, emphasizing that the U.S. and Israel are bound and determined to stop us from doing what both defense leaders have publicly acknowledged Iran is not doing. Small wonder that so many are confused.

Preventing Preventive War

The Persian Gulf would be an ideal place for Israel to mount a provocation trying to elicit retaliation from us, which could, in turn, lead to a full-scale Israeli attack on our nuclear-related sites.

Painfully aware of that possible scenario, then Joint Chiefs Chair, Admiral Mike Mullen noted at a July 2, 2008, press conference, that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. This might be an opportune time to resurrect that idea and formally propose such dialogue to the U.S.

The following two modest proposals could go a long way toward avoiding an armed confrontation — whether accidental or provoked by those who may actually wish to precipitate hostilities and involve the U.S.

  1. Establish a direct communications link between top military officials in Washington and Tehran, in order to reduce the danger of accident, miscalculation or covert attack.
     
  2. Launch immediate negotiations by top Iranian and American naval officers to conclude an incidents-at-sea protocol. A useful precedent is the “Incidents-at-Sea” agreement between the U.S. and the Russians, signed in Moscow in May 1972. That period was also a time of high tensions between the two countries, including several inadvertent naval encounters that could well have escalated. The agreement sharply reduced the likelihood of such incidents.

I believe it would be difficult for the Americans to oppose measures that make such good sense. Press reports show that top U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf have favored such steps. And, as indicated above, Admiral Mullen appealed earlier for military-to-military dialogue.

In the present circumstances, it has become increasingly urgent to discuss seriously how the United States and Islamic Republic can avoid a conflict started by accident, miscalculation or provocation. Neither the U.S. nor Iran can afford to allow an avoidable incident at sea to spin out of control.

With a modicum of mutual trust, these common-sense actions might be able to win wide and prompt acceptance in the U.S. — if only as a way of reining in “Enemy #1.”

This is not for me to suggest, but I do so informally, partly because my Russian colleagues here at the UN have sought me out for discussion on recent developments on a number of occasions. And just this week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, referring to Israeli calls for stronger action against Iran, had this to say:

“In order to settle this [nuclear] issue, it’s necessary to refrain from constant threats of using force, abandon scenarios aimed against Iran, and stop dismissing the negotiations as a failure.”

End of our imaginary Aardwolf to Tehran.

An earlier version of this article first appeared at Consortiumnews.

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