Center for Arms Control

by Laicie Heeley [contact information]

Advocates for War Might Look Before They Leap on Iran

Over the past few weeks, pronouncements and threats concerning Iran’s nuclear program have become increasingly worrisome. Inflammatory remarks by the US and Israel have elicited an equally inflammatory response from Iran, and the end result is anyone’s guess.

The tension has been building for months, and recently some top American officials have begun to question whether Israel really is on the brink of (overt) military action. After all, this scenario seems quite familiar. In an interview with CNN, Defense Secretary Panetta asserted that Israel has a tendency to go through cycles of belligerent statements in an effort to pressure the U.S. and Europe into more forceful action, but whether this amounts to another round of bluffing and bluster, an attempt to deliver a “credible military threat,” or something more, the rhetoric is equally dangerous.

The threat of accidental war due to unintended escalation by one or both sides is greater than ever, and the U.S. lacks a direct line of communication to Iran that might prevent such a catastrophe. Shortly before departing as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen expressed his concern that without such a line of communication, “it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right—that there will be miscalculation, which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reports that the President and Defense Secretary have “cautioned the Israelis that the United States opposes an attack, believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold.”

But he also notes that, “the White House hasn’t yet decided precisely how the United States would respond if the Israelis do attack." The problem is that the White House may not have a choice in the matter. Iran has already warned of a “painful” answer to an Israeli attack that might include the targeting of U.S. bases in the Gulf or blocking the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil flows. War games have long forecast the eventual involvement of the U.S. in any such scenario.

“If the Israelis made that decision," Defense Secretary Panetta told "Face the Nation,” “we would have to be prepared to protect our forces in that situation. And that's what we'd be concerned about.”

U.S. and Israeli officials, however, continue to agree that while Iran is currently developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon, it hasn't yet decided to do so.

"The consensus is, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb," Panetta said on CBS's "60 Minutes" last week. He went on to say that would take another one to two years to put a weapon on a delivery vehicle.

While red lines were once absent in this conversation, they have now been clearly drawn. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA Director David Petraeus explained that “a decision to enrich beyond the 20 percent that they are currently enriching to, the weapons grade, would be very significant and, I think, a telltale indicator.”

But until that line is crossed, the U.S. officials have attempted to walk Israel back from threats to attack Iran and determined that time still remains to press for a negotiated solution. And press they have.

The latest in a long series of U.S. and international sanctions on Iran would freeze all property of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions, as well as the Iranian government, within the United States. This is in addition to multiple sanctions already levied against foreign individuals and financial institutions by the U.S., the European Union, and others over the past year and a half.

Despite public denouncements by Iran’s leaders, there can be little doubt that these sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy. The key to transforming this pressure into a workable solution, however, is diplomacy.

Amid threats on both sides, Iran has signaled its willingness to restart talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). And although previous negotiations have not yet yielded a positive outcome, this is by no means a sign that all hope is lost. Diplomacy takes time.

Sanctions alone will not ultimately address the goal at hand, and threats will only increase the chances of a war that few seem to want. The leaders of the P5+1 must continue to pressure Iran to change its course by pursuing more frequent opportunities to engage on the nuclear issue. Additionally, the U.S. should consider a bilateral negotiating track that includes a multitude of issues of concern to both countries.

“This is one of the toughest foreign policy problems I have ever seen since entering the government 45 years ago, and I think to talk about it loosely or as though these are easy choices in some way, or sort of self-proclaim obvious alternatives, I just think is irresponsible,” stated former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“Those who say we shouldn't attack, I think, underestimate the consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon,” Gates continued. “And those who say we should, underestimate the consequences of going to war.”

As Secretary Gates suggests, the issue yields no easy solution, but time remains to press for a negotiated outcome. The question is whether those currently advocating war might look before they leap.

Laicie Heeley 202-546-0795 ext. 2105

Laicie Heeley is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.

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