Obama, AIPAC, Iran and ‘the Iraq Model’

Obama, AIPAC, Iran and ‘the Iraq Model’

Obama, AIPAC, Iran and ‘the Iraq Model’

A former DOD official shoots down Israel’s bombing of Iraq in 1981 as a model for Iran.


Despite President Obama’s election-inspired rhetoric about the US-Israeli alliance, which filled the president’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, there’s zero chance that Obama will endorse either an Israeli attack on Iran or an American one, either in 2012 or later.

As the New York Times reports on Obama’s speech to AIPAC:

The president also made clear that he views diplomacy, and the policy of sanctions set in motion by the United States and Europe, as the West’s best hope for getting Iran to stop short of pursuing a nuclear weapon. “Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Mr. Obama said on Sunday. “For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”

That, of course, won’t dampen AIPAC’s frenzied rhetoric about Iran, which is mostly aimed at changing the topic in US-Israel relations from Palestine to Iran. In that, AIPAC and its ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—known as “Nutty-Yahoo” to, well, me—have largely succeeded.

Worrywarts who warn that the United States is on the verge of war with Iran don’t mean that the two countries might yet blunder into conflict, which is an entirely possible outcome, perhaps a war sparked by a clash at sea in the Persian Gulf, or some other event. They mean that Obama, like Bush in Iraq in 2002–03, harbors some overt or covert desire to attack Iran. He doesn’t. And close observers of the Iran-US tangle know that.

So war-worriers, relax. Still, it’s, important for progressives to insist that the Obama administration climb down from its needlessly provocative and useless economic sanctions against Iran and to launch a serious attempt to persuade Iran to reengage in dialogue with the P5+1.

Meanwhile, Colin Kahl—who served as a top Pentagon official in the Obama administration with responsibility for the Middle East—has penned a very important piece that knocks the props out from under one of AIPAC’s (and Israel’s) principal arguments, namely, that since bombing Iraq’s nuclear reaction in 1981 worked so nicely, it can work in Iran, too.  Kahl’s succinct piece destroys that argument once and for all.

Kahl, of course, is no dove. In the 2008 campaign, he served as de facto representative of the hawkish wing of Obama’s Middle East foreign policy team, in contrast to the more dovish wing led by Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. (At that time, Kahl was advocating a more hawkish position vis-à-vis Iraq, while Katulis supported a rapid withdrawal of US forces. After the election, Kahl got the Defense Department job, while Katulis stayed put at CAP.)

In his piece, published in the Washington Post, Kahl writes:

For Israelis considering a strike on Iran, Osirak seems like a model for effective preventive war. After all, Hussein never got the bomb, and if Israel was able to brush back one enemy hell-bent on its destruction, it can do so again. But a closer look at the Osirak episode, drawing on recent academic research and memoirs of individuals involved with Iraq’s program, argues powerfully against an Israeli strike on Iran today.

To begin with, Hussein was not on the brink of a bomb in 1981. By the late 1970s, he thought Iraq should develop nuclear weapons at some point, and he hoped to use the Osirak reactor to further that goal. But new evidence suggests that Hussein had not decided to launch a full-fledged weapons program prior to the Israeli strike. According to Norwegian scholar Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a leading authority on the Iraqi program, “on the eve of the attack on Osirak . . . Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.”

Moreover, as Emory University political scientist Dan Reiter details in a 2005 study, the Osirak reactor was not well designed to efficiently produce weapons-grade plutonium. If Hussein had decided to use Osirak to develop nuclear weapons and Iraqi scientists somehow evaded detection, it would still have taken several years — perhaps well into the 1990s — to produce enough plutonium for a single bomb. And even with sufficient fissile material, Iraq would have had to design and construct the weapon itself, a process that hadn’t started before Israel attacked.

The risks of a near-term Iraqi breakthrough were further undercut by the presence of French technicians at Osirak, as well as regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. As a result, any significant diversion of highly enriched uranium fuel or attempts to produce fissionable plutonium would probably have been detected.

By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy. This approach relied on undeclared sites, away from the prying eyes of inspectors, and aimed to develop local technology and expertise to reduce the reliance on foreign suppliers of sensitive technologies. When inspectors finally gained access after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they were shocked by the extent of Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure and how close Hussein had gotten to a bomb.


Meanwhile, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, responding to Obama’s AIPAC speech, notes that despite the rhetoric there’s a big, big gap between Obama’s policy on Iran and what Netanyahu wants:

Despite the words of friendship, the diverging perspectives of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government on key issues in the Middle East—the Arab uprisings, the Palestinian issue and the Iranian nuclear program—are profound.

The dispute on the nuclear issue is centered on red lines. Israel, like the Bush administration, considers a nuclear capability in Iran a red line. It argues that the only acceptable guarantee that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon is for Iran to have no enrichment program.

The Obama administration puts the red line not at enrichment—which is permitted under international law—but at nuclear weapons. This is a clearer, more enforceable red line that also has the force of international law behind it.

While expressing his sympathy and friendship with Israel, Obama did not yield his red line at AIPAC. With the backing of the US Military, he has stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as the red line.

Iran may or may not weaponize its nuclear research program, and if does, someday, Obama may or may not consider military action (though even then, it will be unlikely.)

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