Five Questions Americans Must Answer about Iran
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver an unprecedented address to the United States Congress. Now, there's nothing new about Netanyahu inserting himself directly into the American political process. In 1998, the Israeli PM met in Washington with American evangelicals to push back on the peace process in a move organizer Jerry Falwell bragged "was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Mr. Clinton." Four years later, private citizen Netanyahu offered his full-throated support for the invasion of Iraq, testifying to a House committee "if you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region." In 2012, Mitt Romney's "close friend" wasn't coy about who he wanted to see in the White House. And in the years before and since, Bibi has been a regular at the annual gatherings of Christian Zionists United for Israel (CUFI) to accept their support and their money, if not their End Times vision of the conversion and mass slaughter for world Jewry.
But this time, Bibi's meddling is different in kind and degree. Turning his back on decades of broad bipartisan support for Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming at the invitation of one political party to sabotage the foreign policy of the sitting President of the United States. His address to Congress, covertly engineered by House Speaker John Boehner and former GOP flack turned Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, was kept secret from the Obama White House and Bibi's own national security adviser alike. But Netanyahu isn't just coming to America as a foreign leader hoping to secure his looming reelection, but as one looking to start a war.
That's right. If Netanyahu succeeds in mobilizing Congress and U.S. public opinion to block a potential agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program, the American people sooner or later will have to choose between two horrible scenarios. Which is worse? Launching a preventive war to stop Tehran from building nuclear weapons or living in a world with a nuclear Iran?
But to fully evaluate the rumored framework of a deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China) and the Israeli attempt to scuttle it, Americans need to answer five distinct questions Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely avoid on Tuesday.
1. Can Iran be Trusted?
As former Defense Secretary William Perry ("Let's Make a Deal with Iran") summed it up in a Politico op-ed this week, "The latest round of negotiations has the United States and Iran mulling a nuclear agreement that would prevent Tehran from amassing enough material to make a bomb for at least 10 years." But the possibility--and with it the objective--of completely ending Iranian uranium enrichment activity altogether evaporated years ago. That's why the P5+1 nations have instead focused on preventing an Iranian "breakout," that is, being able to clandestinely assemble a weaponized device in under a year's time:
Experts say Iran already could produce the equivalent of one weapon's worth of enriched uranium with its present operating 10,000 centrifuges. Several officials spoke of 6,500 centrifuges as a potential point of compromise, with the U.S. trying to restrict them to Iran's mainstay IR-1 model instead of more advanced machines... Under a possible agreement, Iran also would be forced to ship out most of the enriched uranium it produced or change it to a form that would be difficult to convert for weapons use. It takes about one ton of low-enriched uranium to process into a nuclear weapon, and officials said that Tehran could be restricted to an enriched stockpile of no more than about 700 pounds.
For its part, the Netanyahu government has fought the straw-man argument that Iran can't be trusted to comply should a deal be struck by the March 31 deadline. (Mocking the purported 10-year "sunset" provision in the agreement, the Israeli Embassy in the United States on Thursday tweeted an image of a New York Times front page from March 2025, including such headlines as "How We Duped the West, Rouhani Declares" and "Have Your Yellow Cake and Eat It, Too: 40 Years of Ayatollah Deception.") But no one is arguing that the mullahs in Tehran can be trusted. That's why the interim accord reached in 2013 not only put a freeze on much of Iran's nuclear program, but gave IAEA inspectors access to much of Tehran's nuclear infrastructure. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it this week:
"I don't know anybody who looks at the interim agreement and doesn't say, 'Wow, this has really worked' -- including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to see it extended, having opposed it vehemently in the beginning, calling it the deal of the century for Iran."
Both the Iranians and President Obama have made clear that they see no point in continuing the current negotiations past the deadline at the end of the March. But if the talks end unsuccessfully--or if Netanyahu and his allies in Congress succeed in blowing them up--there will be no eyes on the ground to monitor Iranian compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And without them, there won't be a way, as President Reagan so famously put it, to "trust, but verify."
2. Would Iran Commit National Suicide?
There is one question on which the United States, Israel, the EU and virtually the entire international community agree. Should Iran develop a nuclear weapon, a dangerous Middle East arms race would almost certainly ensue. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fearful of the growing influence of Shiite Iran throughout the region, would likely respond with atomic programs of their own. (Ironically, in his 1963 letters to Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, American President John F. Kennedy raised the same concern, warning that "development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would almost certainly lead other larger countries, that have so far refrained from such development, to feel that they must follow suit.")
But there is another argument that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and the United States stress. A nuclear Iran poses an "existential threat to Israel and the rest of the world." As Bibi put it in November 2013 (over a year after claiming Tehran was six or seven months away from a bomb capability), it's always 1938:
"The Iranians deny our past and repeat their commitment to wipe the State of Israel off the map. This reminds us of the dark regimes of the past that plotted against us first and then against all of humanity."
Netanyahu has plenty of company among the usual suspects here in the United States. "It is the responsibility of every member of Congress to listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who probably knows more about this issue than any world leader," Alan Dershowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week, "because it threatens the very existence of the nation state of the Jewish people." During a 2012 Republican primary debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke for most of her rivals when she argued Iran would launch a unilateral nuclear first strike:
"We know without a shadow of a doubt Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map. And they've stated that they will use it against the United States of America."
If so, Iran would be committing national suicide. After all, with its own nuclear arsenal of an estimated 200 warheads, Israel alone could reduce Iran's cities to radioactive ruble. Writing in Vox, Max Fisher made that exact point:
The well-established logic of nukes would make any war against other nuclear powers a loser for Iran. This is because powers such as the US and Israel have what is called second-strike capability, meaning that even if Iran got off a nuclear strike, the country would still be destroyed by the retaliation. There is no cost-benefit calculation by which an offensive strike would make sense for Iran.
As Sherrill explained, "It is highly unlikely that the Islamist regime plans to actually detonate a nuclear weapon in an offensive attack. Both of the obvious targets, the United States and Israel, have a second-strike nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the Islamist regime's survival."
Back in 2008, then Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promised "massive retaliation" if Tehran launched a first strike on Israel during her time in the White House:
"In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them," she said.
"That's a terrible thing to say but those people who run Iran need to understand that because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic," Clinton said.
The history of mutual assured destruction (MAD) shows that rival nuclear states "don't jump through windows of opportunity." There's a reason why the notoriously irrational Kim Jong Un hasn't lobbed a nuclear device at Seoul, just 35 miles south of the border. But Netanyahu and his allies like Niall Ferguson and Charles Krauthammer argue that the "irrational" Islamic Republic of Iran uniquely seeks to commit national suicide.
Writing in Foreign Policy in 2011, Matthew Duss branded that view "the Martyr State Myth." For the likes of Newt Gingrich ("It's impossible to deter them. What are you going to threaten?") and Alan Dershowitz (who labeled Iran "the world's first suicide nation"), the domestic shows of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei calling on the faithful to "'kill all Jews and annihilate Israel" must be viewed as a promise, not a threat. A promise, that is, because the Shiite eschatology of the return of the Twelfth Imam at the End Times supposedly makes the nuclear annihilation of Iran a consummation devoutly to be wished. (Left unmentioned, of course, is that many among the Republicans' evangelical base believe "the United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West...a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.") As Duss summed it up:
The "martyr state" myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime's End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.
As Duss notes, the 1980's conflict with Iraq that consumed over a million and half Iranian lives was started by Saddam Hussein, not by an "apocalyptic mission of destruction" in Tehran. As for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent references to the Mahdi, Duss pointed out:
[Ahmadinejad] was publicly rebuked by leading Iranian clerics, who told Ahmadinejad he "would be better off concentrating on Iran's social problems...than indulging in such mystical rhetoric." Iran's Etemad Melli newspaper quoted one of Ahmadinejad's critics as saying that, rather than obsessing over the return of the Hidden Imam, "Ahmadinejad would do better to worry about social problems like inflation."
For its part, the U.S. Joint Chiefs are not buying to Iran as the world's first martyr state. "We are of the opinion," JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey declared, "that Iran is a rational actor."
3. Will Iran Share Nuclear Weapons or Technology with Proxies Like Hezbollah?
Still, proponents of an Israeli and/or U.S. attack on Iran have a back-up argument. Even if Tehran would not use it atomic weapons to strike first, its Hezbollah proxies and Hamas allies might.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned, ""Alongside Iran's direct guidance of Hezbollah's actions in the north and Hamas's in the south, Iran is trying also to develop a third front on the Golan Heights via the thousands of Hezbollah fighters who are in southern Syria and over which Iran holds direct command." Topping his list of security of challenges, "first and foremost [is] Iran's attempt to increase its foothold on Israel's borders even as it works to arm itself with nuclear weapons."
Back in 2011, then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak painted a dark picture of nuclear-armed terrorists in Golan and Gaza:
"The countdown toward nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists will start, even if it takes half a generation."
"The possibility Iran might share nuclear weapons with one of the many terrorist organizations it supports," UK no go zones "expert" Steve Emerson argued back in 2009, is such that "the free world dismisses such threats at its own peril."
But even in that nightmare scenario, the same doomsday nuclear calculus applies to Tehran. That is, if Hezbollah or Hamas were to use an atomic or radiological weapon provided by their Iranian patrons, the return address for the American or Israeli nuclear response would be the same as if Tehran itself pulled the trigger itself. Whether originating from Iran or Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, there's little doubt that any nuclear terror attack would produce the same response from any American president, Barack Obama included.
Here, the U.S. experience with Iraq is helpful. For all of the Bush administration's repeated (and repeatedly debunked) claims that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda, the evidence never materialized. And with good reason. Saddam may have given cash payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, but giving WMD to Bin Laden's minions was another matter altogether. The response to an Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. would have been swift, with Baghdad on the receiving end. As it turned out, that happened anyway.
4. What Happens if Israel Launches Unilateral Attacks on Iran?
At the core of the dispute between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are their different "red lines" with Iran. Throughout, the President has said he will not allow Tehran to actually build a nuclear weapon. As he put it during his 2013 visit to Israel:
I've made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as President, I've said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
But for Netanyahu, as Mitt Romney explained during the 2012 campaign, the red line is drawn far short of possession:
"With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere. So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world."
That's why Israel for five years has warned the United States it would not hesitate to act alone--and without advance warning to Washington--against Tehran's nuclear targets.
While it's true the United States received no advance warning about the Israeli bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 or suspected Syrian facilities in 2007, the Iranian scenario is altogether different. Neither Saddam Hussein (then an American ally) nor Bashar Al-Assad posed a serious threat of military retaliation to the one-off Israeli strikes. Crippling Tehran's nuclear capability would require a sustained military campaign that, short of total invasion and occupation, would only temporarily delay the Iranian program. And the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran's nuclear installations. Even if the Israelis alone launch a strike against Iran's nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in the Straits of Hormuz, in the region, possibly in Europe, and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
That's why it came as no surprise in May 2012 when a majority of Netanyahu's own defense chiefs opposed an Israeli strike on the mullahs' nuclear facilities. That same month, the New York Times reported that Israel's former intelligence chief Meir Dagan "has said that a strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be 'a stupid idea,' adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war." Why?
"A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb," claimed Dagan, who spoke at a conference held at the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv. "An attack isn't enough to stop the project."
Dagan posited that military action would align the Iranian population behind the regime, thus solving the country's political and financial problems. Moreover, he asserted that in the case of an Israeli strike, Iran could declare before the world that it was attacked even while adhering to agreements made with the International Atomic Energy Agency - by a country that reportedly possess "strategic capabilities."
"We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes," he said.
Short of a large-scale invasion and occupation of Iran by American forces, U.S. military action might still only delay the Iranian bomb Tehran would doubtless go into overdrive to produce. And the costs in lives and treasure would be staggering. In November 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a U.S. campaign of air strikes would cost the global economy $700 billion; a full-scale invasion could have a total impact of $1.7 trillion. Two months earlier, a bipartisan report including signatories Brent Scowcroft, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Republican Senator and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, retired General Anthony Zinni and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned Americans about the cost of trying to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program once and for all:
A unilateral Israeli attack would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only 2 years and an American attack by 4 years. But if the objective is "ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb," the U.S. "would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years." In order to achieve regime change, the report says, "the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
After reviewing the results of a 2004 war gaming exercise conducted by The Atlantic in conjunction with leading national security experts, James Fallows last month was moved to ask, "Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?"
Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
5. Will an American Preventive War Work This Time?
Two years ago, then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak confidently predicted it wouldn't come to that. Israel won't need to attack Iran because, he seemed to suggest, the United States will do it instead. "The Pentagon," he explained, "prepared quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine, scalpels" for pinpointing and pulverizing Tehran's nuclear sites. As the New York Times wrote at the time:
Mr. Barak replied that there were more than just the two options -- of full-scale war or allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability -- in the event that sanctions and diplomacy failed.
Well, if President Obama's diplomacy fails--whether as a result of Ayatollah Khamenei's intransigence or Bibi Netanyahu's subterfuge--everyone involved can expect more sanctions. The only question left will be whether Israel, the United States or both will launch a preventive war against Iran. And we all know how well that worked in Iraq.
While "preemption" is "meant to grab the tactical advantages of striking first against what is seen as a truly imminent threat, when an adversary's attack is close at hand," the Oxford Bibliographies explained:
The strategic logic of preventive war is rooted in the desire to halt the erosion of relative power to a rising adversary and the future dangers this power shift might present. Leaders calculate that a war fought in the near term will be less costly than a war fought at a later date, after the potential adversary has had an opportunity to increase its military capabilities. Under preventive war conditions, there is no certainty that this future war will actually be fought; preventive war is launched to avoid the mere possibility of a higher-cost future war or the potential for the target state to use its rising power in a coercive way.
If that sounds disturbingly familiar, it should. After all, virtually every Bush administration warning about Saddam Hussein--that he had or would soon have weapons of mass destruction, that he would supply them to terrorist organizations, that he would use them against the United States and its allies, that he had ties to Al Qaeda and possibly the 9/11 attacks and that he would be replaced in a "regime change" putting the pro-U.S. Iraqi National Congress in power--was either proven untrue or fabricated outright. The confident claims of Iraq war supporters that the conflict would last only a matter of weeks and that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" was catastrophically wrong. (In August 2004, President Bush instead used the term "catastrophic success" to describe the growing chaos and carnage in Iraq.) As the U.S. policy of containing Saddam was replaced by the invasion of 2003, General David Petraeus asked the question that still haunts Americans:
"Tell me how this ends."
Twelve years, 4,500 dead Americans, 30,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, the sectarian implosion of Iraq, heightened Iranian influence in the region and well over a trillion dollars later, we still don't have an answer.
But Benjamin Netanyahu thinks he does. And on Tuesday, courtesy of the Republicans on Capitol Hill, Bibi will get a Congressional stage to undermine American diplomacy, American national security and with it, any prospects for peace and improved relations between America and Iran.
During the 2012 campaign, President Obama rightly took his Republican opponents to task for their casual talk of war with Iran. (That October, then House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers declared targeted strikes against Iranian nuclear targets would not be an act of war.) As Obama cautioned that March, "This is not a game," he said. "And there's nothing casual about it."
"If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be."
Don't expect Bibi Netanyahu or his GOP hosts to say anything of the sort on Tuesday. Those are questions the American people will have to answer.