Don't be stupid

David Patrikarakos · Against Bombing Iran

Three weeks ago, Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to insist once again that Israel would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; and neither, he intimated, should the United States. Mitt Romney, to gain a few votes in Florida, promised that under any administration of his, the US would deal with Iran once and for all. Iran, as well as the American electorate, is listening. If you want to convince the mullahs to accelerate a drive towards the bomb come November, that’s the way to do it.

Precedent is often cited to argue for military strikes against Iran: namely, Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. But Osirak is little more than a lesson in the dangerous misuse of precedent. The Iraqi reactor was a single above-ground installation in a country far closer to Israel. And, as Norman Dombey has pointed out, it was a light-water reactor, ill-suited to producing plutonium for a nuclear bomb. The serious Iraqi weapons programme followed the Osirak strike – and was very probably prompted by it – before being dismantled after the first Gulf War.

Iran learned from Osirak too. A US official told me that Iran took the decision to ‘decentralise’ its programme because of it. Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed throughout a country far larger than Iraq, buried deep underground and encased in the hardest concrete ever developed. Submarines launching missiles from the Suez Canal would require Egyptian consent, unlikely to be forthcoming post-Mubarak, while the Azerbaijani government recently denied (angrily) that it would allow Israel use of its airbases, either for take off or refuelling. Only the US could effectively strike the facilities, but it won’t – and it doesn't want Israel to either.

Even if a strike could succeed, would it be worth it? The most likely immediate result would be a determined Iranian drive to develop a bomb. Iran could use it as an excuse to leave the NPT, and the nation’s demagogues could tell their oppressed people, most of whom understandably loathe them, that Obama’s détente was never sincere and it’s time to cast off internal divisions and unite in the face of the enemy. For this reason many hardliners in Iran welcome further confrontation with the West.

Then there is the question of the wider fallout. Iran has promised to respond in kind to any attack: it would almost certainly launch its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles at Israel and encourage Hamas and Hizbullah to create more trouble for Tel Aviv. But what the White House really fears are attacks on American troops in the Gulf and CIS Republics, and the further destabilisation of Afghanistan and Iraq – all for a strike that’s unlikely to work anyway. A former head of Mossad, Efraim Helavy, said an Israeli attack would prompt a wave of ‘revulsion’ against Tel Aviv likely to last for years. His successor, Meir Dagan, responsible for the policy of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and not a man to be accused of being ‘soft’ on Iran, described the idea as ‘stupid’. What may seem the only ‘solution’ left is the one means of ensuring the crisis escalates to unmanageable levels.


  • 6 April 2012 at 12:25am
    Constantine says:
    Thucydides in the last 2 books of his History narrated the Sicilian expedition that brought about the fall of Athens, of the so-called Athenian Empire. The narration has a tragic feel that is unique in classical historical writing. It is a tale of thwarted ambition and pride, miscalculation, moronic bragging and ultimately death and destruction. At the same time it is a ruthless exposition of the fundamental flaws of any democratic system. It demonstrates how cajoling and blackmailing the electorate can work to strengthen individual power. The Athenians vote in favour of an expedition in Sicily with the stated objective of protecting their allies, whilst, in fact, the best Athenian statesmen seek to reinforce the presence of Athens in Southern Italy, Magna Craecia as it later came to be called. The campaign soon outgrows its original scope. It becomes a matter of life and death for the Athenian city-state, but both planning and execution are disastrous. The power of Syracuse turns out to have been idiotically underestimated. The geographical morphology as a multiplier of military force and an enabler of a variety of a wider-than-usual range of military tactics comes to the fore and operates time and time again against the Athenian expeditionary force.
    Mitt Romney looks worryingly like a modern Alcibiades at least in some important ways, and I do not just mean his appearance. I am referring to the way he systematically conceals the dangers inherent in any option, how he glosses over the pitfalls of military intervention and makes the implicit pledge that everything will be under control. At the same time we cannot fail to remember how Thucydides was the first to furnish us with some insight into the one fatal flaw of the democratic system: the susceptibility of the electorate to flattery, emotional appeals and fear. I think that a careful reading of the first paragraph would be suggestive of further parallels too! Just a couple of thoughts!!

  • 7 April 2012 at 6:58pm
    Attrition says:
    "If you want to convince the mullahs to accelerate a drive towards the bomb come November"

    There is no drive to accellerate. Please stop peddling fatuous myths.

  • 7 April 2012 at 10:03pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The Iran-Iraq war was a war of attrition, like our First World War, and kept both countries occupied for eight years. Perhaps this is the answer.

  • 9 April 2012 at 9:49pm
    Michael Ezra says:
    A very interesting article. Part of the problem with the continuing saga of bombing Iran is, I feel, that many authors are partisan. An impression I have that maybe incorrect, is that many of those who favour a strike are strong supporters of Israel including neoconservatives led by Norman Podhoretz, someone who has publicly been arguing for a strike at least since he wrote a lengthy article in on the matter a number of years back. ("The Case For Bombing Iran," Commentary, June 2007). Those against include the usual characters from extreme left wing, including Marxist, organisations with their anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist mindset; one that would probably cheer if the State of Israel was indeed wiped off the map, the stated aim of the Iranian regime. Lining up with them are Iranians of all stripes including those against the regime and the so-called Arab street. Notoriously quite silent are partisans of the rulers of the Gulf Arab states who are probably praying for Israel to strike Iran and be successful but are more reluctant to speak at length to the Western Press on the matter. Given these perceived positions, this article fascinates me because it cites the views of two people who have headed up Mossad - and are obviously pro-Israel - who have spoken against. What of course we do not know, is are the Mossad types bluffing? Are their public words the same as their private words, or is this all part of the Israeli modus operandi to keep 'em guessing?

  • 10 April 2012 at 3:52pm
    ander says:
    If memory serves, it was Ariel Sharon who commissioned Mossad to prepare a report on the danger posed to Israel by Iran. The conclusion of the report, which holds today, was that Iran posed little danger to Israel, given that the two countries, geographically separated, had no territory or particular interests to contest. That is certainly true of Iran. It is substantially true of Israel, except for the wish to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Furthermore, Israeli threats of going it alone is but posturing, since Israeli leadership (if that's the word) has no sufficient military muscle for this type of operation. President Obama is right staying out of this imbroglio. If Mitt Romney is serious about his willingness to jump into the scrape, it shows him grossly immature, and unfit to be a president.