The atmosphere on the morning of Monday, January 23, was more of a bad dream than a press conference. I was in a small room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol; sitting directly behind me amid the rows of cheap folding chairs was a young man from the National Union for Democracy in Iran, an obscure California-based exile group I'd never heard of seeking, yes, regime change in Tehran.
The walls were overcrowded with reproductions of John Audubon's brightly colored bird prints. At the front of the room was an American flag, a podium, a projection screen, and R. James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence who went more-than-a-little around the bend sometime after leaving the Clinton administration. He was one of the very first prominent commentators to finger Saddam Hussein as the likely culprit for the 9-11 attacks, doing so just after the strikes when no empirical evidence could possibly support the contention, and maintaining his view steadfastly even as evidence continued to be non-existent.
Needless to say, such loyalty to his own imagination has done nothing to diminish his standing in the neoconservative world or his access to mass audiences on cable television. On that January day at the Capitol, he was speaking on behalf of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a think tank he founded in the summer of 2004 with various neocon B-listers under the nominal auspices of Senators Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman. The occasion was the release of a six-page policy paper on Iran, which to no one's surprise reached the conclusion that “the United States' policy objective must be regime change in Iran.”
An early January breakdown of negotiations between the European Union and Iran had thrown the long-simmering issue of Tehran's nuclear ambitions closer to the top of the public agenda. For more than a year, the Bush administration had been pursuing a low-key course, encouraging the Europeans to negotiate with Iran while not agreeing to participate directly in the talks, earning the sub-rosa hostility of conservative hawks who favored a more aggressive approach. Democrats, as usual, were divided. When the talks failed, the United States joined European allies to push the UN Security Council to take up the issue. In this they succeeded, but the crucial questions of what, exactly, Washington would ask the Security Council to do and what we'd be willing to do if the Council won't do it, however, remained unresolved.
At the Capitol Hill event, Kyl was on hand for the overrun-Iran festivities, along with Frank Gaffney from the Center on Security Policy and Alex Bellone from Public Opinion Strategies. The paper's main proposals, including various sanctions, are modest and are replete with appealing talk about targeting the regime rather than the Iranian people. But the paper also suggests that the Security Council impose “an embargo on refined petroleum products” going into Iran, a proposal that indicates a lack of seriousness on behalf of the paper's authors about targeting: Even the authors must know that Iran produces more than enough petroleum products to ensure that regime figures and favored individuals have all the fuel they need while the ensuing crippling shortages suffered by ordinary Iranians would be blamed on Uncle Sam's perfidy.
It's on the question of what to contemplate if multilateral diplomacy doesn't work that CPD members, hawks in the press, and on occasion Dick Cheney really go off the rails. They maintain that military options should be “on the table,” and in pursuit of this agenda, engage in the all-too-familiar habit of threat inflation. When a relatively moderate president led Iran, hawks said the presidency was a weak and unimportant office. Now that it's held by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man not afraid to flaunt his anti-Semitism, no discussion of the Iranian nuclear program is complete without a ritual recitation of Ahmadinejad's overheated rhetoric. Some hawks, like Jeffrey Bell, writing in the February 6 Weekly Standard, have adopted a strategy of simply making things up, like claiming that Ahmadinejad not only “says the Jewish Holocaust never happened” (which he did say) but also “muses about the possibility of correcting that Nazi failure by dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel.” This last seems a highly unlikely statement since Iran officially denies that it has a nuclear program, it's hard to imagine -- and there's no evidence -- that Ahmadinejad ever “mused” about dropping a nuclear bomb on anyone.
Indeed, a lot of hawks are making a lot of things up. In a January 18 column Charles Krauthammer asserted that Iran is “probably just months” from having a nuclear bomb. Bill Kristol wrote in the January 23 Weekly Standard that Iran's “nuclear program could well be getting close to the point of no return.” Just two days before Krauthammer's column, Niall Ferguson used his Los Angeles Times column to argue that by 2007 Iran would not only have a nuclear bomb but would likely launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel.
Back in the real world, no less an authority than Dan Halutz, chief of staff to the Israel Defense Forces, told the Israeli Parliament in December that “even if the Iranians pass the uranium-enrichment stage, they are still a number of years away from building the bomb.” Similarly, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reflecting the consensus view of the American intelligence community concluded last year “that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon.” Kyl, who doesn't sit on the Senate's intelligence committee, thinks the NIE is wrong, saying at the press conference that “I would posit much closer than 10 years” -- without offering any basis for that conclusion. At the same event, Gaffney pronounced himself “reasonably sure it's not 10 years away” -- a statement made with such a sneer you'd think the neocons had been right the last time they accused intelligence professionals of understating the urgency of a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat from a nation bordering the Persian Gulf.
Democrats, for their part, seem prepared to play their appointed roles yet again: an ungainly collection of lemmings going off the cliff, ostriches with their heads in the sand, and chameleons changing color. Several Democratic congressional staffers concerned with the issue have told the Prospect that they've tried to raise the topic with superiors only to be informed that the party is comfortable counting on corruption and prescription drugs to see them through the midterms. “It's 2002 all over again,” says one House foreign-policy aide.
Those Democrats prepared to engage with the issue, meanwhile, seem determined to follow the advice of The New Republic's Noam Scheiber to try to “[get] to the right of the Bush administration on Iran.” Leading the rightward swing have been Senators Evan Bayh and Hillary Clinton, both of whom hold the possibility of military force open if less dramatic coercive measures fail. Both also engage in some threat inflation of their own. In a February 2 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bayh echoed Krauthammer's claim that Iran “may be only months away from having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb” and stated categorically “that a nuclear Iran is not negotiable.” Clinton told an audience at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on January 19 that “we cannot and should not -- must not -- permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons” and that “we cannot take any option off the table” in pursuit of that quest.
The problem with threat escalation on both sides is where it leads: to the inevitable conclusion that we must right now fight problems that are mammoth in scope while they are, in fact, not yet imminent. Bayh described Iran as “the foremost sponsor of terrorism in the world,” which is true in some sense, but none of the groups Iran sponsors has ever targeted American civilians for attack. Gaffney goes much further, painting an absurd scenario in which “nearly all computers in the United States” along with electrical grids are knocked out by an electromagnetic pulse caused by an Iranian nuclear missile launched from a frigate that's somehow made its way to America's coastal waters.
This is nonsense. The real Iranian threat, as former National Security Council hand Kenneth Pollack put it in congressional testimony last fall, is that “if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent, it will believe that it is no longer vulnerable to external (that is, American or Israeli) conventional military retaliation and so can revert back to the aggressive, anti–status quo foreign policy it pursued in the early 1990s.”
That would be bad, but it's far from a doomsday scenario requiring American military strikes. Such strikes would essentially force Iran to adopt the very same aggressive anti-American foreign policy they're supposed to prevent. And, argues Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, military action “would delay the program in the short term, but would almost certainly accelerate it overall.” He notes that “no country that's determined to get a bomb has ever been forced to abandon that pursuit,” so either the West will need to find a way to strike a diplomatic compromise or reconcile themselves to a nuclear Iran.
The fact that Democrats, tired of finding themselves on the losing end of the politics of national security, shy away from raising such concerns is understandable. And for the moment, the Bush administration is taking a fairly sensible, diplomacy-heavy approach to the problem, notwithstanding the unsound views of many members of its political coalition. But counting on the good judgment of the current White House is hardly a strategy that inspires confidence.