Monday, July 06, 2009

Footnote to the preceding, Huh? Div.

Updated Updated Again Intelligence agencies refer to the information they pick up from and about terrorist groups as "chatter" and hold that "increased chatter" is a sign that something is afoot.

Well, there is "increased chatter" about the possibility of an Israeli attack on nuclear facilities in Iran. Not for the first time, of course, as
[t]he Israeli air force has been training for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz in the centre of the country and other locations for four years.
But now additional hints are being dropped, such as the report that
[t]he head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites following a meeting with Saudi officials earlier this year to discuss the idea.
Apparently such an attack is felt to be in both nation's interests because
“The Saudis are very concerned about an Iranian nuclear bomb, even more than the Israelis,” said a former head of research in Israeli intelligence.
If these reports are true, it's safe to say in the case of the Saudis that the concern is much more Sunni-Shiite than it is Saudi Arabia-Iran but that wouldn't change the calculation.

What should change the calculation - but probably won't - is that
[t]he incoming head of the UN's nuclear watchdog has said that he has not seen any hard evidence that Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons.

"I don't see any evidence in IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] official documents about this," Yukiya Amano told the Reuters news agency on Friday, shortly after being elected to head the body.
There is also the fact Iran has threatened a "real and decisive" response to an attack and while it doesn't have the ability to target Israel directly, it does have the ability to train, equip, and finance terrorist operations in addition to encouraging sympathy/solidarity actions among the contacts it already has. An Israeli attack on Iran would be “very destabilizing” according to JCS Chair Admiral Mike Mullen and surely would lead to an upsurge in terrorist strikes against Israel and Israelis.

So what's being bandied about is a blatant act of war against a very likely non-existent threat that would destabilize the region and encourage terrorism that would cost the lives of some of the very people it is supposedly intended to protect. And everyone knows it. But none of that is likely to change the calculation.

Why? Because none of the proponents want it to. Neither the US nor Sunni Arabs states nor, particularly, Israel, as it would be the nation to carry out such an attack. Each is in some way tied to a policy centered on fear of and hostility toward Iran. Each with their own particular bitter flavoring, but united in their fear and hostility. And that is a really, really, really bad basis for rational decision-making.

So that's bad. But what's the "Huh?" part? It's this:
In an interview on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, [Vice-President Joe] Biden was asked whether the U.S. would stand in the way if Israel ... decided to launch a military attack [on Iran].

"Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do," he said.
Huh? Isn't that exactly what we're trying to do with Iran? What the hell? Just what defines a "sovereign nation" is the view of the Obama administration?

But then again, why be surprised? After all, Obama and Biden and members of Congress, with no challenge from the mainstream media (print or electronic), continue to blather on about "Iran's nuclear weapons program" even though the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and nuclear weapons concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not resumed it as of mid-2007 and was unlikely to be able to develop such a weapon before 2015 even if it wanted to. That is, they are asserting what their own intelligence estimates say is probably untrue. That is, they are lying.

I will, however, say this: Mohamed El-Baradei, who is departing as head of the IAEA come November, told the BBC last month that he had a "gut feeling" that Iran was seeking the ability to produce nuclear arms. And why? Because, he said,
perceived threats from neighbouring countries and the United States could encourage Tehran to work towards weapons of mass destruction as an "insurance policy".
Which, I will note for the record, is what I was saying four and a-half years ago, in December 2004:
I can and do entertain the possibility that Iran is being deceptive in its dealings and about its intentions. But I also entertain the notion that Iran, like most nations, like most people, may just really dislike the feeling of being bullied and is behaving more out of misplaced pride than a desire to manipulate and mislead the world community. ...

In fact, a case could easily be made that if Iran is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons, it's because the mullahs feel threatened by Israel - which does, after all, have a rather large nuclear arsenal - rather than that they seek to threaten it. We would call that classical deterrence if we were doing it.
And in light of those recent reports, the idea that Israel is a threat to Iran can't be reasonably denied. Which in turn brings up one other thing in this connection, something else I said a while ago, in this case over five years ago:
Instead of focusing on nations in the Middle East whose nuclear weapons program was "moribund" (Iraq) or years away from any significant development (Libya) or just reaching the point of suspicion (Iran), how about we pay attention to the one nation in the region that already has nuclear weapons?

That nation, of course, is Israel, whose 200-400 nukes makes it the world's fifth largest nuclear power, behind the US, Russia, France, and China, and ahead of the UK.
The question and the attached judgment are still hanging in the air, unaddressed.

Updated to report that I learn from Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy magazine (via Digby) that both Israeli and Arab media are interpreting Biden's words as a green light for an Israeli attack. The White House, however, says it's being "misreported," Biden merely "refused to engage hypotheticals," and he was not changing US policy.

That's hard to take. Biden could have said "I won't deal in hypotheticals. Israel knows where we stand, etc." But he didn't. Instead, he referred to Israel as a "sovereign nation" four times in the course of three consecutive answers in addition to saying "Israel can determine for itself what's in their interest." That doesn't sound like merely avoiding hypotheticals or, as some have suggested, "misspeaking."

Based on the mushy ground of public statements, Obama wants to give "diplomacy" (read "political coercion") until the end of the year in dealing with Iran. Taking that at face value, my suspicion here is that the Israelis are itchy to use the disruption in Iran as an opportunity to attack, Obama is trying to hold them back, and Biden's statements - which again were too clear and too insistent for me to ascribe them to a case of "Biden bloopers" - were intended to get out the message, just in case, that if Israel does attack it has nothing to do with us.

Updated again to say that it develops that Juan Cole and I are pretty much on the same page here. He wrote:
So what Biden was really saying is that the Obama administration intends to engage Iran diplomatically, and that if anyone wants Iran attacked they will have to do it themselves. This is not a green light to the Israelis, who hardly need one. It is a tough message to the right wing of the Israel lobbies that the Obama administration is not going to launch any hostilities with Iran, even after the hard line power grab of three weeks ago.
The difference is that he says it was a policy message to the right wing Israeli lobbies while I think it was more a defensive statement for general consumption - but the notion that it was a deliberate effort to distance the US from a plan or intention to attack Iran (at least in the short-term) is the same.

I do think Dr. Cole is wrong when he refers to the references to Israel as sovereign as "boilerplate" - you don't put as much effort into making a boilerplate point as Biden did in insisting on Israel's right to do what it wished. But I do think the bottom-line contention that Biden was putting up his hands and going "Hey, don't look at us" is right.

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