LONDON, UK — In its report released Tuesday, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency stated clearly that it has "serious concerns" that Iran is secretly working toward building a nuclear weapon.
The report does not contain a smoking gun, but it does strengthen the view widely held by Western governments that Iran is trying for a nuclear bomb, or at least to acquire the means to do so.
There is not much argument about that among experts. Where policymakers differ is over what to do about it.
Those who oppose and those who favor attacking Iran's nuclear facilities have been using the news media to promote their agendas. As the drumbeats of war become louder, so do the leaks and propaganda.
The picture is complicated by the fact that governments can use the same language to mean different things.
Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told the BBC that “no option should be removed from the table — and we mean it.” Israeli public opinion may be divided on whether to attack Iran, but it is it is widely believed that the Israeli government does indeed mean it and is planning air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But when US President Barack Obama says, ”We don’t take any options off the table,” most commentators believe he doesn’t really mean it and that the White House and Pentagon are highly reluctant to attack Iran.
The debate in America has been sharpened by the presidential election campaign, with some Republican candidates indicating they would approve of an attack. American conservatives, neo-cons and Tea Party activists generally take a hard line, with allusions to “Hitler” and “appeasement.” Although the debate overlaps party lines, Democrats tend to be less dogmatic. Obama is wary of being labeled “soft” on Iran.
Some of the strongest opposition to attacking Iran comes from military and intelligence officials in both Israel and the United States, and they are not hesitant to make their reservations public. In fact, they have been flooding the media with arguments against attacking Iran.
Leaks in the Israeli media as well as stories apparently planted in foreign media suggest that one time hawks in Israeli military and intelligence circles may be trying to torpedo attack plans drawn up by Barak and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. In January, Meir Dagan, recently retired head of Israel’s Mossad, called an attack on Iran “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”
Former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was quite outspoken while in office: “I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome.”
More recently, a strategic planning officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States argued that only an invasion of Iran would guarantee elimination of its nuclear program, “but the price of invasion would be astronomical, and the nationalistic reaction would be fierce.”
So with all this confusion and tub thumping, how can the public see through the spin?
It’s clear that the American military, and to a certain extent the Israeli military are not eager to take on another war in the Middle East that could end badly.
But the most compelling reason for not attacking Iran is that the result could be worse than continuing to use sanctions and other means short of war to persuade Iran back off its suspected weapons program.
Iran has enough non-nuclear means of deterrence to respond to an air or land assault. One of the most effective would be to use mines, shore-based anti-ship missiles and swarms of small attack boats to close off the Strait of Hormuz. Roughly 40 percent of the world’s oil exports pass through that narrow waterway on the southern border of Iran.
Just imagine the market’s reaction to pictures of burning oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. With the world trembling on the brink of another recession or worse, skyrocketing oil prices would unleash a panic.
In such a situation, who would want to throw a lighted match on the biggest barrel of oil? Common sense suggests an attack on Iran is not likely, not right now, in the present circumstances, and certainly not before next year’s U.S. elections. The military option will remain on the table of course but the United States is now in no position to use it, and if it has any influence at all, will not allow Israel to use it.