The debate over whether Israel should attack Iran rests on three basic questions. First, if Iran’s leaders got the bomb, would they use it or give it to people who might? Second, would a strike substantially retard Iran’s nuclear program? Third, if Israel attacks, what will Iran do in response?
The vast majority of people opining on these questions—myself very much included—lack the expertise to answer. We’ve never directed a bombing campaign; we have no secret sources in Tehran; we don’t spend our days studying the Iranian regime. So essentially, we decide which experts to trust.
As it happens, both the American and Israeli governments boast military and intelligence agencies charged with answering exactly these sorts of questions. And with striking consistency, the people who run, or ran, those agencies are warning—loudly—against an attack.
Start with the first question: whether Iran would be suicidal enough to use or transfer a nuke. In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iran argued that the Iranian regime—loathsome as it is—is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” In 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that “we continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Last week, Gen. Ron Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.” Last weekend, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: “We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.”
Most of the Israeli security officials who have commented publicly have said similar things. In December, Haaretz reported that Mossad chief Tamir Pardo had called Iran a threat, but not an existential one. Earlier this month, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy echoed that view, declaring that “it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel.” That same week, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said virtually the same thing: that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.” In other words, Iran might use a nuclear weapon to put additional pressure on Israel, but not to wipe it off the map.
Then there’s an attack’s likelihood of success. In congressional testimony this week, Clapper warned that an Israeli strike would set back Iran’s nuclear program by only one to two years. In January, Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said a successful strike was “beyond their [Israel’s] capacity.” This week in The New York Times, David Deptula, the Air Force general who planned the bombing campaigns against Iraq in 1991 and Afghanistan in 2001, mocked “the pundits who talk about, ‘Oh, yeah, bomb Iran’” and said that only the United States could launch a strike massive enough to seriously retard Iran’s dispersed and hardened nuclear program.
Finally, there’s the likely fallout. This week, Dempsey predicted that an attack would have a “destabilizing” influence on the region. Last month, Hayden warned that while the U.S. intelligence community does not currently know whether Iran has decided to build a bomb—as opposed to developing the capacity to build one—an attack would “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon.” Meir Dagan, who ran Mossad from 2002 to 2011, warned last year that attacking Iran “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.”
Can you find former military and intelligence officials who are more sympathetic to a strike? Sure. But in my lifetime, I’ve never seen a more lopsided debate among the experts paid to make these judgments. Yet it barely matters. So far, the Iran debate has been a rout, with the Republican presidential candidates loudly declaring their openness to war and President Obama unwilling to even echo the skepticism of his own security chiefs.
And who are the hawks who have so far marginalized the defense and intelligence establishments in both Israel and the U.S.? They’re a collection of think-tankers and politicians, most absolutely sincere, in my experience. But from Rick Santorum to John McCain to Elliott Abrams to John Bolton, their defining characteristic is that they were equally apocalyptic about the threat from Iraq, and equally nonchalant about the difficulties of successfully attacking it. The story of the Iraq debate was, in large measure, the story of their triumph over the career military and intelligence officials—folks like Eric Shinseki and Joseph Wilson—whose successors are now warning against attacking Iran.
How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well? Culturally, it’s a fascinating question—and too depressing for words.