There are similarities in the run up to the Iraq war, but there is also a key difference — this time, the driving force for the push for war with Iran isn’t Washington.
Iran is diplomatically isolated, has a weak and antiquated military relative to Israel and the United States, and its economy is being squeezed hard by international sanctions. The consensus among both American and Israeli intelligence agencies is that an attack on the country would be disastrous, and might lead to a regional nuclear arms race.
But that view seems to have a limited impact on the mainstream discourse surrounding Iran. Last week, Glenn Greenwald, writing on Salon, noted that for months, “Americans have been subjected to this continuous, coordinated, repetitive messaging from israeli officials, amplified through the US media.”
This is generally how the establishment American media conducts the debate over whether to attack Iran: here are Israeli officials explaining why an attack is urgent and why the US must conduct it. Now here are American officials explaining why an attack can wait a little while longer but that it will happen if necessary to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
Greenwald appeared on this week’s AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the push for war with Iran. The transcript of his interview has been lightly edited for print.
Joshua Holland: Are we seeing the same kind of run-up to war with Iran as we saw in 2003 during the lead-up to our attack on Iraq?
Glenn Greenwald: There are obvious similarities. The claims basically are the same. The principal claim in the lead-up to the war in Iraq was that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons. This was the claim that probably made the most number of people willing to support it. That is the same claim being made about Iran — that they are too developing nuclear weapons, even though American intelligence agencies and virtually everybody else, including Israeli intelligence, says there is no evidence that Iran has actually decided to build a nuclear weapon.
It’s their nuclear program that is causing the concern. I think the core similarity is that we are talking about a nation that hasn’t attacked any other nation and that isn’t threatening to attack any other nation. So it’s not a preemptive war; it’s actually a preventative war. That’s what the Iraq war was, and the Iran war would be.
I think the big difference though is that the run-up to the attack on Iraq was really driven by the US government. The Bush administration conceived this war, decided they wanted to do it, and then pushed for it, whereas I think the Obama administration is clearly pretty reluctant about involving itself in a war with Iran, and is instead being led by Israel and various neo-conservative factions in the US to push the US government into this war. That’s a pretty big difference. The US government is not in the lead in disseminating this; in beating the war drum.
JH: Now just to establish a baseline of reality, Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the IAEA has suspended its right to process uranium, but only pending certain inquiries that they have. There are unsettled issues. Can you unpack the status today?
GG: It is true that Iran is a signatory to the NPT, and one of the core provisions of that treaty that induced so many non-nuclear power states to sign on was that they have the absolute right to develop nuclear programs for energy and civilian purposes. Part of the obligation of the treaty members is that they subject themselves to inspections by the IAEA to make sure that whatever nuclear research they have is not being geared toward weapons development.
Now that is the most important fact about Iran. Iran has completely opened up all of its nuclear facilities to the IAEA. There are inspectors on the ground at each of its nuclear facilities, and it’s impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon without it being immediately known to the inspection regime that’s on the ground. The IAEA is doing a careful job in making sure there are certain processes that aren’t being invoked in terms of uranium and plutonium enrichment that would be a signal that Iran is going in the direction of weaponizing their nuclear power. They do have some questions, but the IAEA has never concluded that there’s evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. It is true that the IAEA has expressed concerns, it’s their job to express concerns, but there’s no definitive conclusion.
JH: I want to also talk about the likely outcome of an attack on Iran, whether it was from the Israeli Air Force or with the assistance of the United States. I feel like in our discourse it’s assumed, given our technological superiority and Israel’s technological superiority, they could simply wipe out their nuclear capacity like they did in Iraq in 1981.
Ephraim Halevy, Mossad director until 2002, said, “An attack on Iran could affect not only Israel but the entire region for 100 years.” He said that while Iran should certainly be prevented from becoming a nuclear power, its capabilities are, “far from an existential threat.” His successor, Meir Dagan said, “A military attack will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race.” He called possibility of an Air Force attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
Isn’t there this huge disconnect between these opinions and our media’s portrayal of the likely outcomes? Are we being given an idea of what is at risk here?
GG: One of the things that traditionally happens in American political discourse about war is that it is often depicted as this very clinical, clean and easy mission. The reason it’s able to be sold that way is because such a small portion of the population actually has any experience with war because American wars are fought with such a tiny fraction of the population actually anywhere near the scene of the combat. I do think Americans have this image of war being something where you send drone planes, or even manned aircraft, over Iran and drop a few bombs and their nuclear program is destroyed. The reality is much different as those quotes you just read from those Mossad officials indicate.
I think there is an even broader point. There’s an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post from Colin Kahl (here), who is a former Pentagon official under the Obama administration, who explained that the Israeli attack in 1981 on a nuclear facility in Iraq — which at the time Iraqis said was only for civilian purposes but the Israelis said it was going to be used to build a bomb — actually completely backfired. It turned out that in 1981, when the Israelis attacked Iraq and dropped bombs on that Iraqi facility, Saddam was nowhere close to building a bomb, and it was that attack that made him realize that the only way he would ever get respect on the world stage was by developing a nuclear weapon. In 1991 when the Americans were able to overrun Iraq and drive them out of Kuwait they were able to get access to some of those labs and were shocked to discover just how close Iraq was to actually building a nuclear weapon. This is really what we’re doing. Through this aggression, through these constant threats, we’re making the motivation very high for these states to develop nuclear weapons.
The task that the Israelis had in 1981 was extremely difficult: to fly to Iraq and destroy that nuclear facility. The task of doing that to Iran is infinitely more difficult. There’s a far greater distance; it stretches the refueling ability of Israeli jets. There are numerous nuclear facilities, not just one, dispersed throughout the country. Some of them are very far under mountainous regions, embedded into mountains that would require extreme levels of explosives to get to. The outcome is completely unpredictable, which is what those military planners and Mossad officials are afraid of. Iran has a much greater retaliatory capability than the Iraqis had. So what you’re talking about is a major, major attack that would probably involve lots of ground activity as well as air activity, and that very well may not set back the Iranian nuclear program at all. It may have the opposite effect of accelerating it.
JH: I think it would also unify the country around the Iranian regime, wouldn’t it?
GG: That’s probably the worst reason to do it. The reality is a lot of times in the American media discussion we like to depict the Iranian opposition as this pro-Western, liberalized political faction, and to some extent they are. But the reality is that all political factions are staunchly in favor of continuing with the nuclear program on the grounds that Iran has the absolute right to develop a nuclear energy program, and governments around the world agree with Iran on that.
If you look at what happened with the September 11th attack, which was a one-day attack by non-state actors, the entire country, including huge numbers of people who had previously strongly disliked George Bush and the Republican Party, unified around the government and around its leader, which was George Bush and Dick Cheney and the Republican Party. That’s what happens whenever a nation is attacked by an external force. So nothing could be better for the hard-line conservative mullahs and ruling elite in Iran then for it to be attacked by some combination of Israel and the United States. It would completely save them from the rising citizen discontent over the economy and other factors by unifying them behind those conservative leaders. Not just in Iran but in the entire Arab world.
JH: The consensus in the intelligence community in both the United States and Israel is that Iran is not trying to produce nuclear weapons. Most analysts believe that they are trying to reach so-called “breakout capacity” where they can produce a nuclear weapon if they choose. Yet I’ve seen dozens of news stories in the American media that take it as a given that Iran is pursing nuclear weapons and not just trying to achieve that breakout capacity.
I want to talk a little bit about this idea. You quote a New York Times article by Israeli journalist Roland Bergman in January. In his lead, he wrote, “The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel out.” This seems to be a central part of the propaganda push. It’s the idea that whereas deterrence was enough to prevent nuclear armageddon during the Cold War when we were facing off with the Soviet Union (which had equal capacity, or at least some semblance of parity), mutually assured destruction would not be an effective deterrent with these “mad mullahs” because they don’t mind being martyrs and hanging out with 71 virgins in the case of a retaliatory attack from Israel.
Tell me about this assumption that they’re somehow beyond human concern for their own lives and the lives of their citizens.
GG: Think about how incredibly deceitful this is in such obvious ways. For one thing, if the Iranians were this regime that wanted to exterminate Jews, and didn’t care what the repercussions were, there’s a very easy way for them to get a really good start on that which is to take the 25,000 Iranian Jews who are living quite peacefully and prosperously inside of Iran and simply round them up and kill them. Yet that doesn’t happen. I don’t want to depict this in this incredibly romanticized way, but there’s an Iranian Jew in Iran’s Parliament, they have freedom of religion in that country, and they exercise most of the civic rights of citizenship. So if Iran were some sort of second coming of the Nazis, none of that would be true.
More to the point, if you want to posit that a country is essentially suicidal, let’s be very clear: if Iran were to use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States its obliteration as a country would basically be guaranteed. Israel has a second strike capability. You could launch nuclear weapons at Israel and they have all kinds of devices that are guaranteed to destroy whatever country had done it. The United States would certainly be involved in that as well. So you’re talking about literally positing the idea, if you don’t believe containment is possible of a nuclear-armed Iran, that they are literally suicidal and are willing to risk the complete destruction and annihilation of their country.
If that were true, one would presumably see evidence of that at some point in the last 31 years since the Iranian Revolution installed these mullahs in power. Yet there’s none of that. Iran has not during that time even invaded another country, unlike Israel and the United States which has invaded and bombed many. They have been very shrewd and calculating about cultivating alliances around the world with China, Russia and other countries like Venezuela. They’ve been very calculated and very cunning about holding onto power. These are leaders who have demonstrated repeatedly that they care about the things that typically political leaders care about, which is maximizing their power and ensuring their own continuation. That’s the ultimately rational mentality that the Iranian leaders have displayed.
JH: Continuing on this theme, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly makes some explosive statements. I think he’s a right-wing religious fanatic. I think right-wing religious fundamentalists are inherently dangerous, whatever their religion and culture. But it’s important for people to understand that he doesn’t have control over the Iranian military, does he?
GG: No. The person who runs all of Iran, especially its foreign and military policies, has the title Supreme Leader. I think that title is self-explanatory. Ahmadinejad may be the third or fourth most powerful person in the country, if that. In fact there were just elections [last weekend] in which most of his allies were defeated at the polls, including his own sister who was running for Iranian Parliament. He’s been weakened by rivals in all kinds of ways.
Let’s just take a step back and look at the broader context. Oftentimes much is made of the comment “we want to see Israel wiped off the map.” If you look at some of the United States’ closest allies in that region, the ones we arm, fund and help prop up, bolster and protect, those countries are run by far-right-wing religious fanatics — countries like Saudi Arabia and others as well.
If you go to the Web site of the United Arab Emirates, one of the closest American allies for quite some time, you will see on their immigration page a statement that no Israeli immigrants are permitted, and the word “Israelis” is in quotes, because they don’t recognize the right of that country to exist. They believe that the right map of the world is one that excludes Israel. This is true for many countries in that region.
So Ahmadinejad, although he tends to be more flamboyant, obnoxious and offensive in his political rhetoric — it’s just the kind of politician that he is — is basically reciting what is standard political doctrine among many of these extremist Muslim states. Which is that Israel is not a legitimate state and that the policy goal of these Muslim states is to remove it from that map, to eliminate it.
But that is universes away from suggesting that they would militarily attack Israel in order to eradicate it, and it’s even more universes away from the idea that they would be able to do so without destroying themselves. So one of the things that a smart, civilized and strong power does is it looks at the political rhetoric and decides what it needs to take seriously and what it doesn’t. The idea that simply because Iran doesn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist means that they need to attack, or that there’s an existential threat to Israel is absurd, given how common that sentiment is in that part of the world.
JH: I certainly don’t want to defend Ahmadinejad, but Juan Cole, a Middle East scholar, does say that this was a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini. That it was something he said in the ’70s and it was taken out of context.
I want to talk a little about the US position. You wrote this week that in his interview with Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama, “issued his most absolute and inflexible threat yet to attack Iran — not if Iran attacks or is about to attack another country, but merely if it appears to be developing a nuclear weapon.” I wonder isn’t that quite a bit of difference? A significant difference from the Israeli position, which is that the attempt to reach breakout capacity is itself unacceptable? Here we have Obama saying that only when they attempt to make a weapon will the US find that that’s a red line that’s being crossed.
GG: Well, there have been some mixed signals on this from the Obama administration in terms of what the “red line” is, which means basically the point beyond which Iran cannot go without prompting a US attack. There have been statements from Hillary Clinton and others in the administration that have used the Israeli formulation that it is “unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability,” meaning the ability to develop a nuclear weapon in some short period of time, the breakout capacity that you have talked about.
President Obama, however, has been careful to define the red line as being the pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The decision to build a nuclear weapon, and then the action taken toward its construction. Now that’s the reason that Israel and the United States are currently at loggerheads. It’s because Israel is arguing that if a certain point in time passes it will then become impossible for them to attack Iran themselves any longer, because Iran will have the capability to develop a nuclear weapon and will be sufficiently fortified from Israeli military capabilities to prevent an Israeli attack. They would essentially be dependent on the United States, and Israel is saying we don’t want to be in a position where we’re dependent upon the United States to do this for us. We don’t want to wait.
And Obama is saying you shouldn’t be worried about that because I’m giving you my absolute word, I’m issuing this threat, that if Iran ever starts developing a nuclear weapon we will attack. In that interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, he said, “I think I’ve proven that as president I don’t bluff.”
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.
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