An attack on Iran, by Israel or the United States, could have catastrophic consequences for all sides involved.
In his recent visits to Canada and the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened war against Iran. “We leave all options on the table,” he said. “And containment is definitely not an option.”
President Obama’s rhetoric has alternated between calm and belligerent. With Netanyahu in town, he stressed the need to let diplomacy work. And he responded to his political opponents by saying, “If some of these folks think we should launch a war, let them say so, and explain to the American people.” But a week later, he said, “The window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking.”
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials boasted about the utility of their 30,000-pound bunker buster bomb, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the United States could do a better job than Israel in destroying Iran’s nuclear program.
But let’s remember: The International Atomic Energy Agency has not verified that Iran is even trying to build a nuclear weapon. Its most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities indicated that some such activities “may still be ongoing.” This vague assessment is largely a result of Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the agency and with the U.N. Security Council’s demands.
Iran has been engaged in saber-rattling, which is now being met with greater hostility. And with an election year in full swing in both Israel and the United States, it is no surprise that the war of words is getting more and more frenzied.
Chillingly, Israeli senior officials have begun to claim that an attack on Iran would be a simple operation. Former national security adviser Giora Eiland recently stated, “The apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if Israel attacks Iran should be moderated,” while Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that “maybe not even 500 civilians” would be killed.
This argument is deplorable and misleading. Israel’s shelling of Lebanon in 2006 led to the deaths of nearly 1,200 civilians, while its air strikes in the Gaza Strip killed more than 1,400 Palestinians in 2009. And Israel carried out these strikes from very close range — nothing like the strategic predicament Israel would face in bombing Iranian targets hundreds of miles away.
The risks of bombing Iran are great, and not just for Iranian civilians, and not just for Israel, which would face retaliation. Any bombing, and the reactions to it, could greatly disrupt the world’s oil trade, sending the price of gasoline way up and the advanced economies way down.
Foreign policy experts in the United States have been assessing these risks. But there is one more risk that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: that’s the serious risk of the undermining of the democracy movement in Iran. Any attack on Iran would feed the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine and tilt the Iranian public’s opinion in its favor. Already, the drumbeats of war are beginning to silence the voices of human rights activists and civil society actors in Iran.
They have suffered long to bring about democratic change through nonviolent means. It would be an absolute tragedy to undo their hard work for reforms with a single senseless action.