Turning Down the Volume on the Iran Debate

Pundits, academics, and the mainstream media have turned the volume up to eleven on the “Bomb Iran” debate in the past two months. Much of the discussion has been healthy, indeed necessary when discussing matters of nuclear proliferation and war. But much of the reporting and opining has also been reckless fear-mongering (see Glenn Greenwald’s assessment). And most arguments for a preemptive strike are premised on the assertion that the Iranian regime will eventually pursue nuclear weapons, if it is not already.

So it is refreshing to see a few major outlets cutting through the noise and stepping back to calmly assess this vexing situation. The front page of the New York Times on Wednesday compared the drumbeat of war with Iran to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. And today the Los Angeles Times editorial criticizes the GOP candidates for their obnoxious saber rattling over Iran. The editors argue it may be smart politics to position themselves as opposed to everything Obama, but their distortions do no favors for the national interest of the United States:

Obviously, the Republican presidential candidates have the right to speak out on any issue they choose, and just as obviously, the escalation of hostility between Israel and Iran is a terribly important subject that should concern every American. But so far we haven’t gleaned much wisdom from the GOP contenders, who, except for Ron Paul, are encouraging a reckless rush to war while unfairly portraying President Obama as an appeaser.

At Wednesday’s debate in Mesa, Ariz., Mitt Romney assailed the administration for cautioning Israel against launching a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Newt Gingrich made it clear that he would react positively if Israel’s prime minister informed him that the country planned to attack Iran. And Rick Santorum accused Obama of doing “nothing” to counter “a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel … and take on the Great Satan, the United States.” Not surprisingly, none of the three gave the administration any credit for ratcheting up the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran. Nor did any address the potentially catastrophic consequences of an attack on Iran.

The editorial goes on to note that U.S. intelligence believes the Iranian regime “has not decided” if it will pursue a nuclear weapon. Despite the bluster in the past two months, this has remained, at least publicly, the judgment of the U.S. government. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, confirmed that last week and today the Los Angeles Times reiterates that fact under the headline “U.S. does not believe Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb”:

As U.S. and Israeli officials talk publicly about the prospect of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, one fact is often overlooked: U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe Iran is actively trying to build an atomic bomb.

A highly classified U.S. intelligence assessment circulated to policymakers early last year largely affirms that view, originally made in 2007. Both reports, known as national intelligence estimates, conclude that Tehran halted efforts to develop and build a nuclear warhead in 2003.

That most basic appraisal of the Iranian nuclear program is usually buried in reporting on the subject. It is ignored by hawks and the GOP contenders. Most arguments put forth by the crowd in favor of preemptively striking Iran are based on the premises that (1) Iran will eventually develop a nuclear warhead (nevermind the complications of a delivery system that could strike the United States) (2) that they will then use a nuclear weapon in a suicidal manner because they are irrational actors, and (3) nuclear proliferation will engulf the Middle East. But those are assertions, not facts; there are arguments against all three premises.

A potential Iranian nuclear capability is worrying, and those opposed to war with Iran admit that the alternative options are suboptimal. But it would be a mistake to weigh worst-case scenarios so heavily when considering the best policy option. The Obama administration still believes there is a window for diplomacy. And while a third broad option of deterring and containing a nuclear Iran is undesirable and fraught with adverse consequences, the proponents of attacking Iran have yet to make a convincing case that the benefits outweigh the costs. Responding with “we cannot accept the possibility of the worst-case scenario” is not an argument.

Those hoping to avoid any possibility of the worst-case scenarios will likely see the “failure” of the recent visit by IAEA inspectors to Iran as a new data point in their favor. And the new IAEA report released today will likely set-off a new round of columns, editorials, and features on the subject. But the report’s main conclusion is the same as the previous one: there are “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”—the operative word being “possible.”

Let’s hope the mainstream media will continue to turn down the volume in reporting and opining on this and future developments concerning Iran.

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