Two Minutes to Midnight?: Cutting Through the Media's Bogus Bomb-Iran Debate

America's march to a disastrous war in Iraq began in the media, where
an unprovoked U.S. invasion of an Arab country was introduced as a
legitimate policy option, then debated as a prudent and necessary one.
Now, a similarly flawed media conversation on Iran is gaining momentum.

Last month, TIME's Joe Klein warned
that Obama administration sources had told him bombing Iran's nuclear
facilities was "back on the table." In an interview with CNN, former
CIA director Admiral Mike Hayden next spoke
of an "inexorable" dynamic toward confrontation, claiming that bombing
was a more viable option for the Obama administration than it had been
for George W. Bush. The piece deresistancein the most recent drum roll of bomb-Iran alerts, however, came from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly.
A journalist influential in U.S. pro-Israeli circles, he also has
access to Israel's corridors of power. Because sanctions were unlikely
to force Iran to back down on its uranium enrichment project, Goldberg
invited readers to believe that there was a more than even chance Israel
would launch a military strike on the country by next summer.

His piece, which sparked considerable debate in both the blogosphere
and the traditional media, was certainly an odd one. After all, despite
the dramatics he deployed, including vivid descriptions of the Israeli
battle plan, and his tendency to paint Iran as a new Auschwitz, he also
made clear that many of his top Israeli sources simply didn't believe
Iran would launch nuclear weapons against Israel, even if it acquired

Nonetheless, Goldberg warned, absent an Iranian white flag soon,
Israel would indeed launch that war in summer 2011, and it, in turn, was
guaranteed to plunge the region into chaos. The message: the Obama
administration better do more to confront Iran or Israel will act crazy.

It's not lost on many of his progressive critics that, when it came
to supporting a prospective invasion of Iraq back in 2002, Goldberg
proved effective
in lobbying liberal America, especially through his reports of
"evidence" linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Then and now, he
presents himself as an interlocutor who has no point of view. In his
most recent Atlantic piece, he professed a "profound,
paralyzing ambivalence" on the question of a military strike on Iran and
subsequently, in radio interviews, claimed to be "personally opposed"
to military action.

His piece, however, conveniently skipped over the obvious
inconsistencies in what his Israeli sources were telling him. In
addition, he excluded perspectives
from Israeli leaders that might have challenged his narrative in which
an embattled Jewish state feels it has no alternative but to launch a
quixotic military strike. Such an attack, as he presented it, would
have limited hope of doing more than briefly setting back the Iranian
nuclear program, perhaps at catastrophic cost, and so Israeli leaders
would act only because they believe the "goyim" won't stop another
Auschwitz. Or as my friend Paul Woodward, editor of the War in Context website, so brilliantly summed up the Israeli message to America: "You must do what we can't, because if you don't, we will."

Goldberg insists that he is merely initiating a debate about how to tackle Iran and that debate is already underway on his terms -- that is, like its Iraq War predecessor, based on a fabricated sense of crisis and arbitrary deadlines.

Last Friday, the New York Timesreported that
the Obama administration had convinced Israel that there was no need to
rush on the issue. Should Iran decide to build a nuclear weapon (which
it has not done), it would, administration officials pointed out,
quickly make its intentions clear by expelling the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who routinely monitor its nuclear work,
and breaking out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After that, it
would still need another year or more to assemble its first weapon.

In other words, despite Goldberg's breathless two-minutes-to-midnight
schedule, there's no urgency whatsoever about debating military action
against Iran. And then, of course, there's the question of the very
premises of the to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb "debate." Perhaps, after all
these years of obsessive Iran nuclear mania, it's too much to request a
moment of sanity on the issue of Iran and the bomb. If, however, we
really have a couple of years to think this over, what about starting by
asking three crucial questions, each of which our debaters would prefer
to avoid or ignore?

1.Does the U.S. have a right to launch wars of
aggression without provocation, in defiance of international law and an
international consensus, simply on the basis of its own suspicions about
another country's future intentions?

Or to put it bluntly, as former National Security Council staffers Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have: Does the U.S. have the right to attack Iran because it is enriching uranium?

The idea that the U.S. has the right to take such a catastrophic step
based on the fevered imaginations of Biblically inspired Israeli
extremists -- Goldberg has previously suggested that Prime Minister
Netanyahu believes Iran to be the reincarnation
of the Biblical Amalekites, mortal enemies the ancient Hebrews were to
smite -- or simply to preserve an Israeli monopoly on nuclear force in
the Middle East is as bizarre as it is reckless. Even debating the
possibility of launching a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities
as a matter of rational policy, absent any Iranian aggression or even
solid evidence that the Iranian leadership intends to wage its own
version of aggressive war, gives an undeserved respectability to what would otherwise be considered steps beyond the bounds of rational foreign policy discussion.

someone in our media hothouse could take just a moment to ask why,
outside of the United States and Israel, there is no support -- nada,
zero, zip -- for military action against Iran. In Goldberg's world, this
may be nothing more than the eternal beast of anti-Semitism rearing its
ugly head in the form of disdain for the rise of yet another
Amalek/Haman/Torquemada/Hitler. A more sober reading of the
international situation would, however, suggest that most of the
international community simply doesn't share an alarmist view of what
Iran's nuclear program represents.

Indeed, it is notable that, in Goldberg's world, Arabs and Iranians
never get to speak. The Arabs, we are told, secretly want Israel or the
U.S. to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities out of fear that the acquisition
of nuclear weapons would embolden their Persian rivals. They are, so
the story goes, just not able to say so in public. Of course, when Arab
leaders do publicly express their opposition to the idea of another war being launched in the Middle East, they are ignored in the Goldberg-led debate.

Similarly, their rejection of Washington's long-held premise that
Israel's special security must be exempted from any discussion of the
creation of a nuclear-free Middle East remains outside the bounds of the
Iran-debate story. And don't expect to see any mention of the
authoritative University of Maryland annual survey of Arab public
opinion either. After all, it recently reported
that, contrary to claims of an Arab world cowering under the threat of
Iranian nukes, 57% of the Arab public actually believe a nuclear-armed
Iran would be good for the Middle East!

The idea that Iran's regime might exist for any purpose other than to
destroy Israel is largely ignored as well. Bizarrely enough, Iranians
don't actually feature much in the American "debate" at all (beyond
citations of Mad-Mullah-like pronouncements by some Iranian leaders who
wish Israel would disappear). The long, nuanced relationship between
Israel and the Islamic Republic, as explained by Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States,
is simply ignored. So, too, is every indication Iran's leaders have
given that they have no intention of attacking Israel or any other
country. In fact, in the Goldberg debate, domestic politics in both the
U.S. and Israel is understood as an important factor in future
decisions; Iran, with the Green Movement presently suppressed, is considered to have no domestic politics at all, just those Mad Mullahs.

2.Even if Iran were to acquire the means to
build a nuclear weapon, would that be a legitimate or prudent reason for
launching a war?

If Iran is actually pursuing the capability to build nuclear weapons,
its leaders would be doing so in response to a strategic environment in
which two of its key adversaries, the U.S. and Israel, and two of its
sometime friends/sometime adversaries, Russia and Pakistan, have
substantial nuclear arsenals. By all sober accounts, Iran's security
posture is primarily focused on the survival of its regime. Some Israeli
military and intelligence officials have been quoted in Israel's media
as saying that Iran's motivation in seeking a nuclear weapon would be
primarily to head off a threat of U.S. intervention aimed at regime

Most states do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves, and
most states are hardwired to prioritize their own survival. It is to
that end that they acquire weapons systems -- to protect, enhance, or
advance their own strategic position, or up the odds against more
powerful rivals. In other words, the conflicts that fuel the drive for
nuclear weapons are more dangerous than the weapons themselves, and the
problem of those weapons can't be addressed separately from those

An Iran that had been bombed to destroy its nuclear power program
would likely emerge from the experience far more dangerous to the U.S.
and its allies over the decades to come than an Iran that had nuclear
weapons within reach. The only way to diminish the danger of an
escalating confrontation with Iran is to address the conflict between
Tehran and its rivals directly, and seek a modus vivendi that would manage their conflicting interests.

Unfortunately, such a dialogue between Washington and Tehran has
scarcely begun, even as, amid alarmist warnings, Goldberg and others
insist it must be curtailed so as to avoid the Iranians "playing for

3.Is Iran actually developing nuclear weapons?

No, it is not. That's the conclusion of the CIA, the IAEA, whose inspectors are inside Iran's nuclear facilities, and most of the world's intelligence agencies,
including the Israelis. U.S. intelligence believes that Iran is using a
civilian nuclear energy program to assemble much of the infrastructure
that could, in the future, be used to build a bomb, and that Iran may
also be continuing theoretical work on designing such a weapon.

Washington's spooks and its defense establishment do not, however,
believe Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons, nor that its
leadership has made the ultimate decision to do so. In fact, the
consensus appears to be that Iran will not weaponize nuclear material,
but will stop short at "breakout capacity" -- the ability, also
available, for instance, to Japan, to move relatively quickly to build
such a weapon. Currently, as the New York Times reported, the
time frame for "breakout," if all went well (and it might not), would be
about a year, after which Iran would have enough fissile material for
one bomb. (The Israelis, by comparison, are believed to have 200 to 400
nuclear weapons in their undeclared program, the Pakistanis between 70
and 90, and the United States more than 5,000.) In addition, a credible
nuclear deterrent would require the production of not one or two bombs,
but a number of them, which would allow for testing.

For ex-CIA Director Hayden, such a breakout capacity would be "as
destabilizing as their actually having a weapon." His is a logical leap
that's hard to sustain, unless you believe that it's worth launching a
war to prevent Iran from, at worst, acquiring a defensive trump card
that might prevent it from being attacked.

Iran's enrichment activities are, of course, a violation of U.N.
Security Council resolutions backed by sanctions. Those were imposed to
demand that Iran suspend its enrichment program until it satisfied
concerns raised by IAEA inspectors over its compliance with the
disclosure and transparency requirements of the NPT -- especially when
it came to aspects of its program which have been developed in secret,
raising suspicions over their future use.

Three years before North Korea was in a position to test a nuclear
weapon, it had to withdraw from the NPT and kick out IAEA inspectors.
Iran remains within the treaty. Even as the standoff over its nuclear
program continues, renewed efforts are underway to broker a
confidence-building deal to exchange Iranian enriched uranium for fuel
rods produced outside the country to power a Tehran reactor that
produces medical isotopes.

None of this will be easy, of course. The two main parties are trying
to impose their own, mutually exclusive terms on any deal: Washington
wants Iran to forego its treaty-guaranteed right to enrich its own
uranium because that also gives it the potential means to produce bomb
materiel; Iran has no intention of foregoing that right. Such
longstanding pillars of foreign policy sobriety as Senator John Kerry and Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, have publicly deemed the U.S. position untenable.

To suggest that Iran's present nuclear program represents the
security equivalent of a clock ticking down to midnight is calculated
hysteria that bears no relation to reality. Ah, says Goldberg, but the
point is that the Israelis believe it to be so. Yes, replies
former National Security Council Iran analyst Gary Sick, now at
Columbia University, but the Israelis and some Americans have been
claiming Iran is just a few years away from a nuclear weapon since

The premises of the debate just initiated by Goldberg's piece are
palpably false. More important, they are remarkably dangerous, since
they leap-frog over the three basic questions laid out above and move
straight on to arguing the case for war amid visions of annihilation.
This campaign of panic is not Goldberg's invention. It's been with us
for a long time now. Goldberg is just the present vehicle for an
American conversation initiated by others, among them those known in the
Bush years as neocons, who have long been dreaming of war with Iran
and are already, as Juan Cole recently indicated, planning for such a war under a future Republican administration, if not sooner.

Similarly, among Israelis, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in particular, believes that Americans are politically feeble-minded; he said as much
to a group of Israeli settlers in a video that surfaced recently: "I
know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move
it in the right direction. They won't get in [our] way."

Through Goldberg, the Israeli leader and his aides are seeking to
"move America in the right direction" with dark tales of Auschwitz and
Amalekites, and of Netanyahu himself as a hostage, in the Freudian
sense, to a fierce and unforgiving father who won't tolerate any show of
weakness in the face of perceived threats to the Jews. Goldberg's
sources, including Netanyahu, make it perfectly clear that they don't
believe Iran would attack Israel. Instead, they warn that an Iranian
nuclear weapon would embolden Hamas and Hizballah, although the logic
there is flimsy indeed. After all, if Iran would not attack Israel on
its own with a nuclear weapon, why would it do so to defend its
insurgent allies?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that a
nuclear-armed Iran would prompt the best and brightest Israelis to
emigrate, because they are clever people who can make a good life for
themselves anywhere in the world. Indeed, and they have been doing
exactly that for many years now. Some 750,000 Israeli Jews now live
abroad -- one in every six Israelis -- precisely because anti-Semitism
is no longer a threat to Jewish life in most of the industrialized
world. None of this has anything to do with an Iranian bomb. It has to
do with the frustration of Israel's leadership that 63% of the world's
Jews have chosen to live elsewhere.

Despite Goldberg's panic-inducing prediction, there are plenty of
reasons to believe that, for all its bluster and threat, Israel won't,
in fact, bomb Iran next year -- or any time soon. But would the Israelis
like to see the United States take on their prime regional enemy? You
bet they would. Indeed, Netanyahu continually insists that the U.S. has
an obligation to take the lead in confronting Iran.

It's patently clear in Goldberg's piece that the Israelis are trying
to create a climate in which the U.S. is pressed onto the path of
escalation, adding more and more sanctions, and keeping "all options on
the table" in case those don't work.

In an excellent commentary
that dismantles the logic of Goldberg's argument, David Kay -- the
American who served as an UNSCOM arms inspector in search of weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq after the U.S. invasion -- suggests that:

"Israel is engaged
in psychological warfare with the Obama administration -- and it only
partly concerns Iran... [B]eyond Iran, of probably greater importance to
the current Israeli government is avoiding the Obama administration
pushing it into a choice between settlements and territorial
arrangements with the Palestinians that it is unwilling to make and
permanent damage to its relationship with the U.S. Hyping the Iranian
nuclear program and the need for early military action is a nice
bargaining counter... if the U.S. wants to avoid an imminent Israeli
strike, it must make concessions to Israel on the Palestinian issues."

Creating a sense of crisis on the Iran front, narrowing U.S. options
in the public mind, and precluding a real discussion of U.S. policy
towards Iran may serve multiple purposes for various interested groups.
Taken together, however, they reduce all discussion to one issue: when
to exercise that military option kept "on the table," given the
unlikeliness of an Iranian surrender. The debate's ultimate purpose is
to plant in the public mind the idea that a march to war with Iran, as
Admiral Hayden put it on CNN, "seems inexorable, doesn't it?"

Inexorable -- only if the media allows itself to be fooled twice.

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