The drums of war

February 10th, 2012

The drums for war with Iran sound more loudly with every passing day.

Let’s acknowledge up front the very real and legitimate fear that this Iranian regime might acquire a nuclear weapon. Security – for Israel, Iran’s immediate neighbors and frankly for the world as a whole – must be the first and foremost concern in the discussion over what to do to prevent that from happening.

Yet, remarkably absent from the political debate on the campaign trail or in Washington is a realistic accounting of the feasibility or costs of military action against Iran or a discussion of alternative strategies centered on robust diplomacy for dissuading or preventing Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.

It really appears that our politicians learned nothing from the failed debate leading up to the war in Iraq.

Agreed, a strong regime of sanctions aimed at making the Iranian regime – not its people – suffer should be one piece of the equation. And non-violent, covert steps to slow Iran’s nuclear program, for instance in cyberspace, have a role.

However, a robust, new diplomatic initiative along the lines laid out by Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers should be part of the American and international strategy as well. Effective diplomacy doesn’t start with “give up your nuclear program or else.” As these veteran diplomats remind us, "Deployment of military force can bring the immediate illusion of 'success' but always results in unforeseen consequences and collateral damage that complicate further the achievement of America’s main objectives."

An Iran that willingly agrees to halt its possible weapons development will have to be given a face-saving path away from confrontation and be allowed to develop civilian nuclear energy. At the same time, of course, it must be clear to Iran that failure to take this path means utter and complete international isolation.

However, as the political debate on Iran focuses ever more narrowly on whether or when to attack Iran militarily, there’s too little meaningful discussion of the alternatives to, or consequences of, military action.

J Street has compiled statements from Israeli and American military and intelligence officials who highlight the costs and possible consequences of military action. Policy makers and the broader public need to understand that this isn’t Iraq in 1981 when a single bombing run destroyed the country’s nuclear program. It’s also not Syria in 2007 when a similarly limited attack destroyed their partly-constructed nuclear reactor.

Iran’s nuclear program is spread across the country. It’s buried far underground, perhaps unreachable by even the most powerful weapons available. An attack on Iran may cause massive civilian casualties and bring an unpredictable retaliation that could spiral quickly into regional war. (Two panels at our national conference next month in Washington will explore these issues more deeply.)

J Street’s view is clear: military action to attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be a mistake.

We should be listening in advance to the experts telling us that military action can’t prevent Iran from getting a weapon and can, at best, delay the program by a matter of a year or two. We need to recognize now – not after the fact – that an attack on Iran could make the situation worse, not better. It would certainly unite the Iranian people behind a government they don’t like and increase their desire for military confrontation with Israel and the U.S.

What we need in the United States – and what seems so unfortunately lacking in the heat of an election year – is a rational discussion of what actually is the best approach for the United States and the international community to push Iran to choose a different path.

What we’re getting instead is an irrational race to yet another war our country and the world will regret and from which we’ll vow yet again to learn lessons so that, next time, we won't repeat the same mistakes.

This time, maybe our politicians should heed the lessons from prior mistakes before they act.