There’s a lot of hullabaloo about the New York Times article on Sunday, breathlessly reporting a "wake up call" from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the urgent need to rush contingency plans for attacking Iran.
Don’t worry about it. Ain’t gonna happen. Not a chance. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
I’ll get to the Gates memo and the Times in a second. But geez: for years now, even under the Bush administration, it’s been clear that the U.S. military is not going to attack Iran. Not then, not now, not ever.
Speaking at Columbia University this weekend, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pretty much said so. (By the way, he’s been saying so for years.) Here’s what Mullen said:
"I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome. … This is as complex a problem as there is in our country and we have expended extraordinary amounts of time and effort to figure that out, to try to get that right. …
"We in the Pentagon, we plan for contingencies all the time and so certainly there are (military) options which exist. That’s not my call. That’s going to be the president’s call. But from my perspective … the last option is to strike right now.
"There are those that say, ‘Come on, Mullen, get over that. They’re going to get it. Let’s deal with it. Well, dealing with it has unintended consequences that I don’t think we’ve all thought through. I worry that other countries in the region will then seek to, actually, I know they will, seek nuclear weapons as well. That spiral headed in that direction is a very bad outcome."
Could Mullen be clearer? I don’t think so.
The other day I spoke to Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the man who was nominated a year ago to head President Obama’s National Intelligence Council, the chief analytical body for the U.S. intelligence community. (That appointment, you’ll remember, was shot down by the Israel lobby.) According to Freeman, the military is against attacking Iran for reasons that include the fact that nearly 200,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are hostages, whose vital lifelines, including logistical lines running from the Persian Gulf north to U.S. bases in Iraq, would be attacked by Iranian-supported militias if the United States hits Iran.
The original Times story on Gates, which ran Sunday, sounded ominous: it was, the paper tells us, "highly classified," as if that means anything! It supposedly suggests that the United States develop a "set of military alternatives" to stop Iran. And it included the rational comment that in fact Iran might be seeking what’s called "breakout" capability, i.e., not the actual manufacture of a bomb but just pushing up to that ability by amassing highly enriched uranium, detonators and related technology.
Fine. The fact is that Iran does not have an ounce of highly enriched uranium. Were Iran to want any, it would have to enrich its stockpile of fuel-grade uranium (enough to make just one bomb) to HEU quality, right in front of the IAEA’s inspectors. (Or if could kick them out, making the whole enterprise equally obvious.) Even then, it would take a year or two to create a stockpile of HEU, and there are recent indications that Iran’s program is beset by breakdowns and other problems. Getting from here to there wouldn’t be easy – and even then it isn’t clear that Iran has the know-how to manufacture a bomb, a warhead, and a delivery device. Some crisis.
Gates, responding to the story, pointed out that it’s not really a story. And, he said, it’s not meant as a "wake up call." Here’s the full text of Gates’ response:
"The New York Times sources who revealed my January memo to the National Security Advisor mischaracterized its purpose and content. With the Administration’s pivot to a pressure track on Iran earlier this year, the memo identified next steps in our defense planning process where further interagency discussion and policy decisions would be needed in the months and weeks ahead. The memo was not intended as a ‘wake up call’ or received as such by the President’s national security team. Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process. There should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries that the United States is properly and energetically focused on this question and prepared to act across a broad range of contingencies in support of our interests."
Of course, John "Barbara Ann" McCain is ranting and raving :
"We have to be willing to pull the trigger on significant sanctions. And then we have to make plans for whatever contingencies follow if those sanctions are not effective."
McCain knows that the sanctions won’t be effective. Russia and China – not to mention Turkey, India, the UAE, and lots of other countries – aren’t going to go along with any crazy "crippling" sanctions. So it’s interesting that in his statement McCain skips right over the sanctions, knowing they won’t work, and get right to the thing that he really wants to "pull the trigger" on: bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bombing Iran.
Meanwhile, here’s some news. Iran, after six months of stalling, says it’s ready to resume talks about exchanging its enriched uranium for fuel rods for a medical reactor in Tehran. Maybe they’re serious, maybe not. But it’s something Obama ought to take them up on. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mottaki said this weekend that his diplomats will conduct talks in all 15 UN Security Council member countries, including indirect talks with the United States, and that the whole matter could be resolved in "two weeks." He said:
"In the coming days, we have plans to have direct talks with 14 members of the Security Council and one (set of) indirect talks with a member. The talks will focus on the fuel exchange. They will be conducted by Iran’s missions in those countries."
OK, maybe Iran is trying to change the topic at the UNSC from the sanctions that are under discussion there. Iran doesn’t want the UNSC to impose another round of sanctions, even though it knows whatever the Russians and Chinese agree to won’t be onerous. But it will be a slap at Iran, further isolating them and embarrassing their weirdly off-kilter President Ahmadinejad.
Hardliners and neoconservatives are still yapping about the need for "crippling" sanctions, and they’re blasting Obama for not pushing for tough measures. You can read the latest nonsense from the Weekly Standard and the Times of London, if you don’t believe me.
"For the past two months, administration officials have told reporters (on background) that China and Russia will eventually support sanctions. And each time, a representative of the Russians or the Chinese downplayed the claim and raised questions about the effectiveness or the desirability of tough sanctions. Or both. And two weeks ago, when reporters from the New York Times tried to get Obama to embrace Hillary Clinton’s description of the sanctions his administration was pursuing as ‘crippling,’ he balked."
"Despite Hillary Clinton’s brave talk of ‘crippling sanctions,’ even Western powers shy away from a UN embargo that could hurt the Iranian population. The US has prepared a confidential ‘wish list’ for a fourth round of UN sanctions. It includes the power to seize Iranian ships caught smuggling banned weapons components, a comprehensive arms embargo, and a total boycott of the Revolutionary Guards. But the only measures targeting the energy sector are curbs on new investment in Iran’s oil and natural gas industries.
"Ambassadors from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States — known as the ‘E3+3’ — are due to resume negotiations today in New York. But China and Russia have already said no to most of the US proposals."