This essay, by Professor Norman Birnbaum ’46, was originally published in the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung (taz) as >>Krieg gegen Teheran?<<.
The Iranian leadership is learning, haltingly, the aggressively manipulative flexibility occasionally shown by the USSR in relations with the west. When, under Khrushchev especially, it indicated a willingness to discuss a western proposal, the western capitals became confused, even panicked. The Iranian offer to discuss uranium enrichment abroad has provoked the US and the ever dutiful Europeans to denounce Iranian deceit. There is no western strategy for Iran—only non-negotiable demands, and condemnation, provoking Iranian erraticism.
The US has three immediate options with respect to Iran. The unilateralists nostalgic for the ideological simplicity of Bush and Cheney and,the Israel lobby (it could be renamed the Likud lobby, as signfiicant segments of American Jewry doubt the competence of the Israel politicians now in power) propose to attack Iran, with no delay, after demanding instant cessation of Iran’s nuclear projects. That Iran is developing nuclear weapons is an item of faith for those who make no apologies for using falsified evidence to justify war on Iraq. For them, a prior attack by Israel is neither necessary or desirable. The Israel elite doubts that Israel by itself can successfully attack Iran, and prefers to let the US do so. The previous Israel Chief of Staff, the air force general who led the inconclusive war with Hezbollah, has just warned his nation against over estimation of its capacity to strike Iran.
The second course is the one now being pursued, by Obama. His apparent wavering results from the pressure of the Likud lobby, internal differences in the habitually uncoordinated military-political apparatus, and his being distracted by the economy, and the fall elections. He seeks to defer an attack indefinitely, while giving the impression of pursuing strenuous sanctions.
This approach has an advantage. The US military believes that we cannot attack Iran without incurring disaster when our forces are embattled in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Many officers doubt that any attack on Iran can succeed. The drive for sanctions is compensation for the weakness of our military position, about which both the military and the White House prefer not to speak. The military fear being asked what they are paid for. The White House is afraid of being charged with lack of will, however rational restraint might be. Since conflict in the Gulf would raise the world oil price, that is another ground for prudence.
The trouble is that sanctions are chimerical. China (newly offended by arms sales to Taiwan, an absurdity if it is intended to enlist its cooperation) will not participate, and Russia is recalcitrant. In a phantasmagoric escape from this dilemma, some in and out of the government advocate US pressure for “regime change.” Those who do so are, usually, devoid of any knowledge of Iran. Strenuous US isupport of the Iranian opposition, covert asssistance to it, will fortify the regime. The rest of the world will recall the US attachment to the Shah, encouragement or toleration of tyranny across the globe. One does not have to be as ignorant as Governor Palin to advocate regime change. The experienced and reflective ex-diplomat Richard Haas has just reversed his own position arguing against it, to knowing comprehension in Washington. He is being considered for a post in the government and as President of the Council on Foreign Relations, may in any event wish for rapprochement with estranged donors responsive to Israel.
Curiously, the policy of regime change, for those who wish to avoid war, is as good as the futile pursuit of sanctions. Since it is unlikely to work, it can be prolonged for a long time with the promise that success is just over the historical horizon. The danger, of course, is that the Iranians might recur to their ample capacity for retaliation, and so precipitate conflict.
Obviously, the wisest course for the US is to finally come to terms with Iran’s demand for recognition of the regional power status it already possesses, cure our anti-Islamist obsession, reduce consumption of oil, diminish our swollen presence in the Mid-East, and reduce as well our hypertrophied military budget. We could encourage the Europeans to autonomous policies in the region, and with them, compel Israel to abandon its illusions of omnipotence.
That would require a US President capable of constructing and maintaining a new majority. That was Obama’s initial vision. The west Europeans are of no help to him,. The German Chancellor, Defense Minister cand Foreign Minister endlessly repeat the most banal of Washington cliches. Does no one in Berlin realize that Obama called off his Madrid trip because he was tired of European “friends” who did not grasp how desperate his struggles in the White House? If, by whatever means, he can avoid armed conflict with Iran he will have performed a considerable service to the US, Europe, and the rest of the world. Much of American opinion refuses to recognize that we are no longer uniquely dominant. It is not too late for some European pedagogy.