To bomb or not to bomb Iran, that's the question the Bush administration appears to be debating these days, once again revealing the extraordinary disconnect between the White House and the American people. With a catastrophic occupation of Iraq and polls showing the American public so skeptical about the use of military force that only eight percent support military action against Iran, there is nevertheless a clear and present danger that Cheney and the neocons will again prevail and lead this administration into another disastrous military misadventure.
The parallels between now and the run-up to the Iraq War are troubling. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who warned the Bush administration in 2003 about the lack of a nuclear program in Iraq and was subsequently attacked for his position by the Bush machine, the neocons and by many in the mainstream media, has now struck a deal with Iran to answer questions about its nuclear program within a defined timeline and improve access for inspectors. ElBaradei has called for a "double time-out" of all enrichment activities and new sanctions.
The result of ElBaradei's attempt to shed light on Iran's nuclear program? More attacks by the Bush administration. More outright hit jobs like this one from the Washington Post, or even the more subtle shading by the New York Times that ultimately portrays ElBaradei as a dictatorial loon. The result is, once again, an amplifying of the administration's drumbeat calling for war.
What is really needed right now -- as was the case in 2003 -- is for ElBaradei and the IAEA to be given a fair hearing and support. As Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Bomb Scare, says, "ElBaradei is doing what any diplomatic leader should do: talking directly to a nation to find a way to resolve difficult issues short of the use of force... He's painfully aware of the lessons of the pre-Iraq War period. Then, he was convinced that there was no evidence of a nuclear program in Iraq. He told the UN Security Council that in his reports of January and March 2003. But could he have done more to prevent a disastrous and unnecessary war? Weren't others too quiet, too complacent to stay in their assigned roles? He does not want to see this happen again, with even more catastrophic consequences."
Had ElBaradei's work been heeded before, imagine the treasure, the lives -- not to mention our international reputation an security -- that would have been saved. But instead of learning from the current tragedy in Iraq, and taking responsibility, this administration continues to build on its legacy of arrogance and the media once again accepts the administration line or fails to ask tough questions -- making it more difficult for the IAEA to play the vital role that it could.
"Administration officials, including Secretary Rice, attacked the credibility of the director-general [in 2003] too," Cirincione says. "The Washington Post also blasted ElBaradei on his Iraq assessment. They were dead wrong. But this hasn't stopped them from attacking with guns blazing again. ElBaradei's record is far better on these issues than either the secretary of state's or the Washington Post's. You would think they would have some humility given the magnitude of their past mistakes. But some people have no shame."
In an excellent piece for Salon.com , Steven Clemons, Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, lays out the efforts by Cheney and the neocons to promote a strike against Iran by either Israel or the US -- perhaps through "some kind of 'accidental'... contrived confrontation." A former administration official suggested to Clemons that Bush has now received a memo on "a bleak binary choice" -- either take military action against Iran or accept an Iran with nuclear weapons. According to the official, Rice was to develop a "third option," but the official predicted that option would be "a corpse." "I don't see how we come out of this without military action," the official said.
Cirincione takes issue with the binary, either/or option. "US hardliners are presenting a false, binary choice: either Iran buckles under the pressure of sanctions, or the US will be forced to attack," he says. "Since they don't believe Iran will shut down its enrichment plant, then we must attack. This logic is the result of another false choice: either we attack Iran or Iran will get a nuclear bomb. Missing from the equation is direct US-Iran negotiations. The sanctions are having an impact, but it's a mistake to believe that sanctions alone can compel a nation to comply or collapse. They never have. Sanctions can be a prod towards a negotiated compromise. What is missing now is the direct US-Iranian talks that could forge such a compromise. ElBaradei is opening up that option. His lead should be followed by the United States, not scorned.... At the very least, we should try talking to a nation before we attack it."
The fulminations of Ahmadinejad against Israel aren't to be ignored. As Richard Falk reported in The Nation last year, "Such hostility [as Ahmadinejad's] would agitate the security concerns of any state, especially one that has faced threats throughout its history, as has Israel." But, as Falk and others have pointed out, the reality regarding Iran as a nuclear threat needs to be looked at squarely. Representative Dennis Kucinich has been at the forefront of that effort, as was evident in a hearing he conducted in October 2006 which I wrote about here. Distinguished witnesses at that hearing -- including Cirincione, former IAEA/UNSCOM Chief Nuclear Weapons Inspector, Dr. David Kay, and Colonel Sam Gardiner (Ret.) -- agreed that Iran is at least 5 years, but more likely 10 or more years, away from producing weapons-grade nuclear materials.
And then there are the consequences of a strike against Iran. As Cirincione testified at the Kucinich hearing, "If you like the war in Iraq, wait until you see the war in Iran. It will be a massive, global war." Among the possible outcomes Falk listed in his Nation piece: "a devastating retaliation with conventional weapons, including its Shahab-3 missiles, which can reach targets in Israel with reasonable accuracy"; a deep, worldwide recession as Iran - the world's 4th largest oil producer -- embargoes its oil; the strengthening of "Islamist tendencies throughout the region" and the hand of hardliners in Iran. And Clemons writes of the probable military response by Iran in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both; "the reaction of the other world major powers [that] would be at best reserved"; and the destabilizing impact and popular unrest that would occur in Muslim countries with significant Shia minorities. Finally, there is the question of how effective any attack would be given that the Iranians have dispersed nuclear sites that are underground.
So what should be done exactly? Not what the Bush administration -- along with its compliant European allies like France and Germany -- is trying to do. On the eve of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York, the Washington Post reports that a new "coalition of the willing" will work to impose broader military and economic sanctions against Iran -- in what a Western diplomat dubbed a kind of "sanctions of the willing."
Instead, Cirincione argues, "We should learn from the North Korean and Libyan experience. Both were determined foes of the United States, both had weapons programs the US wanted to stop, both were subjected to sanctions and US pressure. But it was only when the United States began direct talks with these nations that we were able to develop a diplomatic path to end these programs. The Libya model is the polar opposite of the Iraq model: instead of invading a nation to change a regime, you negotiate with a nation to change the regime's behavior. North Korea is a more difficult case than Libya, but the same approach shows signs of working there as well. Iran is the most difficult case of all, but direct dialogue with the pragmatists could very well produce a compromise that satisfies the security concerns of both Iran and the United States."
Additionally, as the IAEA marks its 50th Anniversary this year, and ElBaradei once again attempts to instill a measure of sanity into a dangerous game of brinksmanship, we should focus on ways to support the IAEA mission and make it as effective as possible. John Holum, who served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said recently, "We rely on the IAEA to safeguard nuclearmaterial in facilities all over the world. Yet the IAEA has never spent in excess of 120 million US dollars in any year to administer its worldwide nuclear materials inspection regime. At less than what the US spends per day in Iraq, the safety of the world is dramatically compromised."
Ultimately, the international community needs to work in conjunction with the IAEA to secure real nonproliferation of weapons -- and as Falk pointed out in his Nation article, that means multilateral nuclear disarmament: "... It is disastrous folly to suppose that some will agree to live forever beneath the nuclear Sword of Damocles without trying to obtain such weapons themselves." In the meantime, while the Bush administration plays cowboy at the expense of global security -- and influential newspapers like the Washington Post hurl hit jobs at el-Baradei, Congress should follow the wise advice of The Nation's defense correspondent, Michael Klare, who wrote in the magazine that legislation should be passed banning the use of federal funds for any attacks on Iran or Syria without prior authorization.
Most importantly, we need to confront the insanity of a military confrontation with Iran.