Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says it is "definitely not" time to attack Iran. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin similarly caution against Netenyahu's impulse for military action. Sixty-three percent of Israelis oppose a unilateral strike on Iran.
What do these voices of restraint know that western hawks, and much of the American public, don't seem to comprehend? Perhaps that Iran is not nearly the threat its enemies have made it out to be.
In the decade since Bush's "axis of evil" speech, neocons have called for war with Iran. They have portrayed Iran as a nuclear threat. The propaganda has been effective. A poll two years ago found that 71 percent of Americans believed Iran already had nukes.
Yet American and international authorities never claim such a thing. The International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently verified the "non-diversion" of Iran's nuclear resources from civilian to military use. In 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate under Bush concluded Iran was not pursuing nukes. President Obama's Director of National Intelligence agreed with these findings in 2009. Just this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said unambiguously that Iran has neither been working on nuclear weapons nor shows any intention of building them.
Just as 70 percent of Americans polled once thought Saddam was behind 9/11, though Bush never made this claim, a strikingly similar percentage of Americans believe Iran has nuclear weapons even though neither Bush nor Obama ever said so.
Not that our leaders have gone out of their way to quell the hysteria. In 2009, Obama made a huge deal about Iran's fledgling nuclear facility at Qom. Far from being caught red-handed, Iran had just begun constructing the facility and had reported their activities accordingly. At the time of this scandal, it was not much more than a "hole in the mountain," according to an IAEA official.
Iran, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (unlike Israel), retains the authority to pursue civilian nuclear power. Its enrichment of uranium, now at 20 percent, has been legal and consistent with medical demands for the product. Iran has also expressed a willingness to negotiate this if it can meet these needs another way. However, even at 20 percent Iran's production is well below the approximately 95 percent purity needed for nuclear weapons. Many experts think Iran wants the capacity to "break out" and build nukes, but that would likely take years.
Some argue that oil-rich Iran has no need for nuclear energy, but any additional boost in resources is not wasted merely because the nation has other avenues of energy. The United States surely does not refrain from one source because it has others. Iran wants more independence like many other nations, having relied in recent years on importing refined gasoline.
We also hear that Iran seeks Israel's violent destruction. Many cast the Iranian state as a reincarnation of the Third Reich, run by a mad and genocidal president. But Ahmadinejad is not the true "head of state" in Iran, concerning issues of war. The Supreme Leader is the one who ultimately controls foreign policy, the military, and the nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad is often misquoted as saying he wants to "wipe Israel off the map" -- a mistranslation into an English of an idiom that has many believing that he seeks to "exterminate the Israelis." Rather, a more accurate translation is that he desires to "see the Israeli government erased" -- which is also the way American Cold Warriors talked about the Soviet Union. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has conceded this contextual nuance recently in an interview with Al Jazeera:
"They didn't say 'we'll wipe it out', you are right -- but [that] it will not survive, it is a cancerous tumor; it should be removed."
Indeed, Iran has its share of anti-Semitic hardliners. The last thing we should want is to enhance their influence by seeming to threaten the liberal spirit of the vast Iranian youth. Fear of war from the outside is the best way to unite and harden Iranian nationalism, which would ruin the chances for lasting reform.
Despite the ugly history of U.S.-Iranian relations since 1953, Iranians have shown remarkable sympathy for America's culture and people, including in the candlelight vigils that flooded Tehran in response to the 9/11 attacks. Normal Israelis and normal Iranians also have nothing to fear from one another.
We must ask: Among the United States, Israel, and Iran, which has been belligerent? The United States has tightened sanctions on Iran, which hurt civilians in the name of undercutting the regime. Has the U.S. supported covert ops in Iran? Perhaps. Israel surely has -- including support for the fanatical Jundallah suicide bombers, which it attempted to blame on the CIA.
The neocons accused Iran of supporting insurgents in Iraq, although this is dubious at best. Yet, what we do know is that Iran has regarded the Sunni radicals in Iraq, like it views al Qaeda, as its enemies, and indeed reached out to its Shia coreligionists in Iraq to encourage a ceasefire with U.S. troops.
The Israeli state wants war, despite its people's wishes. Obama claims to want peace, even as he tightens the sanctions -- an act classically regarded a war maneuver. The presumptive Republican presidential candidate has promised to be even more extreme.
Both Israel and the United States have considerable nuclear weapons stockpiles. Iran has none. The U.S. conducts war policies that are widely unpopular among its own people. The Obama administration has provided bunker-busters to Israel, presumably for attacking Iran. In the last decade, both Israel and the United States have engaged in invasions of other countries. The Persians have not launched a conventional war in centuries.
There is much to despise about the Iranian government. Like most Muslim states, it is theocratic and thoroughly illiberal. But if we are searching for an aggressive nuclear regime, determined to wage war despite standards of constitutional restraint, democratic principles, and international law, we have two possible candidates that fit the bill. Iran is not one of them.