We Can't Wait Till Bush Commits to Oppose War with Iran

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

[This is adapted from a series of talks I gave at Purdue last week, sponsored by the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition. Note that as of Wednesday morning, the Senate has not yet acted on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment which seeks to escalate the U.S. confrontation with Iran. You can take action here.]

Frequently those speaking up against war with Iran are confronted with some variation of the question: "You don't really think the U.S. will attack Iran, will you?"

It's understandable that people would ask this. U.S. officials have engaged in a lot of bluster towards Iran for some time, but while the U.S. has certainly engaged in a lot of provocative actions, like arresting Iranian government officials in Iraq, supporting groups that are trying to destabilize the government of Iran, and stationing warships off the Iranian coast, so far the U.S. and Iran have shied away from direct military confrontation. Perhaps they will continue to do so for the indefinite future.

But in assessing our responsibility to act, this is not the most productive way to look at it. First, if you think of it crudely as a probability of the U.S. attacking Iran, for anyone outside the highest reaches of the U.S. government, it's in some sense fundamentally unknowable. Speculation might be the grist for an interesting conversation, but it's not really a useful guide to action.

A recent illustration is given by an article by Steve Clemons in Salon. The title of the article, "Why Bush won't attack Iran," is a little misleading, because what Clemons really argues is that Bush hasn't decided to attack Iran, not that he won't before he leaves office, which is really what should concern us. Clemons relates a Washington dinner party where former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft debated whether Bush intends to attack Iran. What's striking about this is that two people who are about as knowledgeable and well-connected about what's going on in U.S. foreign policy as it's possible to be without currently serving high in the Administration - and who are both opposed to a U.S. attack on Iran - have opposite views as to whether it's likely. This strongly suggests that folks with much less knowledge and access, who are absolutely convinced that they know, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Still thinking of it as a probability, either the probability of a U.S. attack on Iran in some foreseeable timeframe - say before President Bush leaves office - is zero, or it's one (100%), or it's between zero and one.

If it's zero, there's no danger of military confrontation. As a moral and political matter, the U.S. threat to attack Iran is still something that we should respond to. Under the UN Charter, members of the United Nations are not allowed to threaten to attack each other, so by threatening to attack Iran, the U.S. is violating international law. By threatening to attack Iran with nuclear weapons, the U.S. is violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - part of the NPT bargain between the nuclear and non-nuclear powers is that the nuclear powers agree not to threaten non-nuclear powers with nuclear weapons. We have a moral and political responsibility to pressure our government to comply with international law. Obviously, this is a long struggle. It's very important, but I would concede it wouldn't have the same urgency as preventing a war that you think could really happen.

If the probability of a U.S. attack on Iran is one, then there is also little urgency. In this case, there's nothing we can do to stop it. We should still protest and dissent, because it's our moral responsibility to do so, but it would be reasonable not to spend too much time and resources on it, because there are other crimes to be prevented that we might have a better chance of stopping.

But if the probability is between zero and one, and if we could do something to reduce that probability, then it seems obvious that we have a major responsibility to try to stop such a war. We can only speculate about the probable consequences of such a war. But it is certain that many innocent people would die, among many other likely and severe negative consequences.

I submit that the probability is between zero and one, and that we could do something to reduce the probability. And I also submit that preventing war with Iran is not a task separate from other tasks, but is related to other tasks, like getting out of Iraq. Iran could help stabilize Iraq, making it easier to leave. Of course, a precondition for meaningful diplomacy with Iran is to take the threat of bombing them off the table. Another way to look at the connection between Iran and Iraq is that part of what's keeping us in Iraq is that our government has a project of containing the political influence of Iran by force, and if we were cooperating with Iran instead of confronting it, that reason for being in Iraq would be removed.

Similarly, Iran could help diplomatically resolve the conflicts in Lebanon, between Israel and Palestine, and within Palestine. It could be argued that the current policy of the U.S. is not to resolve these conflicts diplomatically, but to try to ensure the domination of one side over another. But this indicates the overlap between deescalating the confrontation with Iran and these other issues. Part of the conflict with Iran is that in these areas where our government is trying to ensure the domination of one side, Iran is supporting the other side. In order to ensure the domination of its favored party, the US wants to restrict the influence of Iran. So the two go hand-in-hand - deescalating the conflict with Iran and resolving these other conflicts.

To see that the probability of war is greater than zero, look at a sample of the press from early last week. The Sunday Telegraph reports that the US is pressing Britain to move troops to the Iranian border, but British commanders fear the move carries a serious risk of embroiling the UK in a war with Iran. The New York Times reports that the escalation of Bush's rhetoric against Iran suggests Cheney is winning the internal debate on Iran policy, and that belief has been growing in Iran that the Bush administration was considering military strikes. The Sunday Telegraph reports that senior American intelligence and defence officials believe Bush and his inner circle are taking steps to place America on the path to war with Iran. The Guardian reports that UN officials said IAEA chief ElBaradei's recent warning against threats of military force against Iran was an attempt to halt an "out of control" drift to war. AP reports that Iran's ambassador to Kuwait says that if the U.S. attacks Iran from bases in the Gulf, Iran will attack those bases.

And that's just a sample press from the first few days of last week.

Now you could argue that some of the stuff that appears in the press is speculation, bluster, disinformation, psychological warfare designed to intimidate Iran, or to pressure countries in Europe and elsewhere to support U.S. policies on sanctions and isolating Iran, because supposedly the alternative to supporting these policies is war. And there's some truth to that. But consider the following. First, a threat that one is not willing to carry out is no threat. If the Bush Administration seriously hopes to intimidate Iran through the threat of force, it has to be prepared to use force, and convince Iranian leaders that it is prepared to use force. There isn't any bright line that can be drawn between threatening war and actually preparing for it. Second, there is clearly a limit to how much Iran's government can moved with a threat of force. This is a country, and a government, that endured hundreds of thousands of casualties in the Iran-Iraq war. This is a government that came to power following a revolution that overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator, who was installed by a coup orchestrated by the US. And this is a government that last summer saw its less numerous and less well armed allies in Lebanon successfully resist an invasion and air campaign last summer supported by the U.S. I'm not suggesting that the threat of force can't possibly have any effect on the Iranian government. I'm suggesting that the effect clearly has limits. And there is every reason to believe that if Iranian leaders feel that fundamental Iranian national interests are at stake, they will prefer a U.S. attack to capitulation.

And this leads to the key point. There are currently fundamental conflicts between Iranian interests, as articulated by Iranian leaders, and U.S. interests, as articulated by U.S. leaders.

Consider the nuclear issue. The headline is that the U.S. wants to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But if you look at the actual U.S. negotiating position, it's something far stronger. The actual negotiating position of the U.S. is that Iran cannot be allowed to enrich uranium, period. This goes well beyond Iran's obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran's leaders have stated clearly and repeatedly that giving up the right to enrich uranium is out of the question for them, and there is no reason to believe that they are insincere about this.

Or consider Iraq. The headline is that the U.S. wants to stop Iran from supporting insurgent attacks, or sending weapons, or supporting militias attacking U.S. forces. But regardless of whether these allegations are true - and so far, they are unproven - if you look more closely, a lot of the conflicts between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq revolve around questions of political and economic influence, that have nothing to do with violence. Recently U.S. forces in Iraq arrested Iranian electricity officials who were invited by the Iranian government to help build an electricity plant, despite the fact that the Iranian officials had proof of their credentials. This arrest, of course, was not authorized by the supposedly sovereign Iraqi government. These officials were released following protests from the Iraqi government; subsequently U.S. forces arrested another Iranian official. Iranian diplomats arrested earlier this year are still being held. U.S. officials complain when Iraqi officials consult with Iranian officials about issues that the U.S. wants to control. As it stands, this is a fundamental conflict. What the U.S. refers to as Iranian "meddling" in Iraq, the Iranians see as protecting core interests.

Of course, I argue that the probability of war is less than one. Obviously, there are huge potential costs to the U.S. of a military conflict with Iran. But I'll focus on the political side, because that's the part we could impact. The key fact is that the U.S. political landscape has changed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It's important to remember that the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq had key Democratic support, support that would be much harder to muster today. Just to take one very important example, the Democratic leader of the House, Dick Gephardt, moved quickly to support the Bush Administration's drive to war, undercutting Congressional opposition - including Republican opposition.

The Bush Administration can't count on such support today. Of course, neither can we count on opposition from Democratic leaders. But we can already see that citizen pressure has had a real impact. The leading Democratic candidates for President caught a lot of flak for their assertions that "nothing can be taken off the table" in dealing with Iran, which everyone understood was code for the threat of military force. And they have since moderated their positions, insisting that the Bush Administration has no authorization for war. These positions significantly constrain the Bush Administration, and strengthening the positions, among members of Congress and Democratic Presidential candidates, should be a key focus of our efforts.

There's a saying in Washington: it's always too early, until it's too late. We can't wait until the Bush Administration openly and explicitly commits itself to a war policy with Iran in order to organize opposition. Then it may well be too late. We need to stop this train before it leaves the station. We need to organize opposition now.