The False Iran Debate –

The False Iran Debate –

LONDON — Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has been perhaps the most vigorous, influential and informed voice relaying the view that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sees the Iranian leadership as a “messianic apocalyptic cult” and will bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program.

In an Atlantic cover story of September 2010, he predicted Israel would attack Iran with one hundred fighter aircraft in the spring of 2011. This month, after Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama, he wrote for Bloomberg that Obama’s words — “I have Israel’s back” — meant something but not “enough to stop Netanyahu.”

Then came the shift. Goldberg wrote a follow-up Bloomberg piece arguing that “Netanyahu could be bluffing.” All the Israel prime minister was really deploying was “huge gusts of words infused with drama and portents of catastrophe.”

The Goldberg variations, coming from a journalist who has interviewed both Netanyahu and Obama on Iran, are worthy of serious note.

I’ve never believed Netanyahu, going it alone without U.S. support, would attack an Iran whose stop-go nuclear program still stands some distance from the capacity to make — let alone actually produce — a bomb. The cost-benefit analysis does not add up: you don’t have to be the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan to see that.

Ignite a regional conflict, infuriate the United States, lock in the Islamic Republic for a generation, and take the modern state of Israel to war against Persia for the first time in order to set back a weakened Iran’s nuclear zigzag by a couple of years at best? Israelis are not crazy any more than Iranians.

On the other hand, it seems to me evident that if Iran ever did move out of its comfort zone (which is dilatory opacity), throw out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors monitoring its uranium enrichment, combine the elements of its nuclear and ballistic research, and rush for a bomb, it would face assault from Israel and the United States together. Neither can permit such a decisive shift in the Middle East strategic equation. Obama means it when he says containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option.

In this sense, the whole Iran debate — with its receding “red lines,” its shifting “zones of immunity,” its threats and counter-threats, its bad metaphors and worse similes — is false. We know what will trigger a war and what won’t. At least we should. As the United States has learned this past decade, mistakes can happen in the form of politically driven irrational choices.

Now, after a buildup in Western sanctions, and after Arabs have done more than the West to undermine the Islamic Republic by demanding that democracy and faith go together, talks are to begin again April 13 between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. We’ve seen this bad movie before. If we don’t want the same ending (or non-ending), it’s worth trying to think big.

My sense of Iran’s psychology, based on five weeks spent there on two visits in 2009 and close observation since, includes these elements. The nuclear program is the modern-day equivalent of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry — an affirmation of Persian pride against the tutelage of the West and one it is determined will not end with a humiliation like Mossadegh’s overthrow in the British-American orchestrated coup of 1953.

It is a push for regional influence, a protest against double standards (nuclear-armed Israel, Pakistan and India), a nationalist cornerstone for a tired revolutionary regime and a calculated hedge — the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is “the guardian of the Revolution” and so must balance assertion with preservation, hence the brinkmanship that keeps Iran just short of steps that, it calculates, would trigger war.

You don’t spend long in Tehran without someone rolling up a sleeve, pointing to a horrific scar and saying “America.” The wound is from gassing during the Iran-Iraq conflict in which the West provided Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons. The generation of young officers who fought that 1980-88 war now runs Iran.

The war impacted them. As John Limbert, a former U.S. hostage in Iran, has observed, Iran sees America as “belligerent, sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating, bullying, exploitive, arrogant and meddling.” America, in turn, sees Iran as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.”

This is Ground Zero of the negotiations about to begin. It’s what you get after 30 years of dangerous noncommunication.

Is there a way out of the impasse? Perhaps not: Khamenei is a Brezhnevian figure with a locked-in world view of America as Great Satan. But perhaps yes, if real concessions are made by both sides and the nuclear issue is not taken in isolation.

The fundamental question the West must answer is how to satisfy Iran’s pride and usher it from historical grievance while capping its enrichment at a low, vigorously inspected level far from weapons grade (I can see no solution that does not allow some enrichment.) The fundamental question for the Islamic Republic is whether it can open itself to the West while preserving its system, a risk China took 40 years ago and won.

All the rest is no more than “huge gusts of words.”

You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at

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6 Comments on “The False Iran Debate –”

  1. incaunipocrit Says:

    Reblogged this on ATA MOTEK.

  2. Luis Says:

    Roger Cohen Of The New York Times got a point here, there is no doubt about it. This is a nice change from the stupid liberal left articles we are fed with by the NY Times newspaper. But he omitted a very important factor in this equation : Israel would not live with a nuclear Iran, literally . There is no bluff regarding the Israeli position and many are missing this . It is the old story of the ” wolf ! wolf ! ” only with a twist. And don’t forget : the wolfs did come in the end.

  3. Louisiana Steve Says:

    Luis is spot on…please allow me to add that the Obama regime of pure fantasy is fixing to run into the wall of reality when Israel does what it has to do..

  4. Steve Ward Says:

    It irritates me that some people simply don’t understand the politics game. While it is perfectly reasonable, acceptable even, for Israel to bomb an existential threat, the American public are largely a bunch of inbred morons who need to feel righteous about such things. To this end, words must be expended to justify to the simpletons why one bunch of “ragheads” should be favoured over another particularly when bearing in mind their firmly held beliefs that the Jews stole Hollywood and are using the blacks as muscle in some kind of nefarious world domination plot. I know, but trust me on this, I lived amongst their “diplomats” in Pakistan 1988-1990.

    On top of this, internationally, the US must at least portray the semblance of not being the damn hypocrites they are so diplomatic channels have to be followed as a matter of course.


    Never mind the naysayers and denigrators of Obama, his administration, or the US itself because one fact rises above all else. I take you back to 17 January 1961 and Ike’s famous farewell speech which popularly coined the phrase “military industrial complex.” The Beast must be fed which means that there is an unavoidable inevitability of a war against somebody and my oh my doesn’t Iran fit the bill nicely.

    America has backed itself into a corner in the same way that it did with the anti-communism issue. Even then the links were established and as Sarah Honig (see earlier blog entry on this site) observes in a parallel situation, it’s just another visage for an old problem. I greatly enjoyed RT’s Keiser Report 24/3/2012 explaining the insider trading preceding 9/11 and obliquely implying that the whole thing could have been an inside job. You gotta feed the beast even if it means creating an enemy.

    The most depressing fact of life for a cynic is how often they are proved to be correct.

    I apologise for my digressions and hope people can see the links in my train of thought. In summary I say this to Israel and all Jews:

    Don’t worry.

  5. Interesting points, I took a different viewpoint in my analysis

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