Sen. Joseph Lieberman‘s (I-CT) recent call for air-strikes against Iran appears to be the culmination of a two-week-long campaign by proponents of war to again put the military option center stage in the U.S. debate over Iran.
The immediate effect of reigniting the let’s-bomb-Iran discussions is the undercutting of the recently initiated U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq, which in turn will cause the idea of military confrontation with Iran to be viewed in a new light.
Senator Lieberman out-hawked the George W. Bush administration on the television news show Face the Nation on June 10 by calling for "aggressive military action against the Iranians," including "a strike over the border into Iran." Repeating the by now all but abandoned accusations of Iranian complicity in the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the Connecticut senator’s comments caused a storm in the U.S. media last Monday. Suddenly, the military option against Iran was once more at the center of the debate in the United States.
In early June, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s hawkish transport minister and former defense minister, had visited Washington to hold strategic discussions regarding Iran’s nuclear program with Bush administration officials. According to press reports, Mofaz urged the United States to give diplomacy with Iran an expiration date after which a military option would be exercised by Israel.
"Sanctions must be strong enough to bring about change in the Iranians by the end of 2007," Mofaz reportedly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to Channel 2 News in Israel, Mofaz went on to declare to Rice that Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities by year’s end if diplomacy and sanctions fail to persuade Tehran to suspend its enrichment activities.
A week prior to Mofaz’s visit to Washington, Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative editor-at-large of Commentary, published a lengthy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Case for Bombing Iran." Comparing Iran’s fire-brand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, Podhoretz accused Iran of seeking to "overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism."
Dismissing both diplomacy and the sanctions track, Podhoretz concluded that "the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938."
Lieberman, Mofaz, and Podhoretz’s comments all share an air of frustration and desperation in light of the growing public opinion against any new military adventures in the Middle East, the loss of key hawks within the Bush administration, reports of the new head of U.S. Central Command’s vehement opposition to war with Iran, and the State Department’s recent shift toward diplomacy.
For Washington to seriously consider once more the military option, in spite of its significant flaws and many unpredictable risks, the diplomatic track must first be deemed a failure. If diplomacy were to produce positive results in Iraq, however, it could potentially foreclose the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities for the foreseeable future.
In the worst-case scenario—from the perspective of the proponents of war with Iran, that is—successful diplomacy with Iran over Iraq might force the Bush administration to reach a compromise with Tehran over the nuclear issue. Such a compromise would likely entail a small-scale Iranian enrichment program, albeit under strict International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Even though limited enrichment would only pose a minor proliferation risk in the short term, Iran’s acquirement of the nuclear know-how and mastering of the fuel cycle can pose a devastating long-term proliferation risk, proponents of this school of thought maintain. In addition, the mere access to nuclear technology—even if Iran doesn’t weaponize—will tilt the balance of power in the Middle East in Tehran’s favor, a development that would come at the expense of regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
As a result, the Bush administration’s experimentation with diplomacy with Iran is viewed with great concern by the advocates of war. Senator Lieberman hinted as much on June 10 when he told Face the Nation: "If there’s any hope of the Iranians living according to the international rule of law and stopping, for instance, their nuclear weapons development, we can’t just talk to them."
Whether intentional or not, the vocal push to reignite the let’s-bomb-Iran discussions undermines the very diplomatic process that constitutes the greatest obstacle to turning the military option into policy.
This debate signals to the ever-so-paranoid decisionmakers in Tehran that their cooperation in Iraq will not cause Washington to abandon its apparent plans to take on Iran militarily at a later stage. Absent the potential for such a trade-off with the United States, Iran’s incentives to aid the United States in Iraq will quickly diminish and cause the diplomatic track to fail, a development that in turn will pave the way for the military option to be put into practice.
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliances—The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).