The Iran war party and the war skeptics

In one corner, we have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of the US and Israeli intelligence communities, and the Pentagon. In the other corner, we have TV pundits and politicians.

We are in the midst of one of the semiannual national freakouts over Iran's nuclear program. In response, oil prices are at eye-catching heights, Iran is promising to fight to defend its interests, and many of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war (for instance, Max Boot) are getting the band together to warn, once more, that all will be lost if we don't strike soon.

But despite all the hysteria – Judith Miller, whose articles for The New York Times a decade ago played up Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, seems to believe it's "5 minutes to midnight" for Iran's nuclear program – some of the leading voices in US defense policy are making an increasingly strong case against a war, at least any time soon.

Over the weekend, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said unilateral Israeli action over Iran would be "destabilizing" and that "it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran."

That followed comments from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who reiterated the US intelligence community's assessment that Iran is not currently working on a nuclear weapon. Instead, US officials believe Iran would like the material and expertise to build a bomb without crossing the line to actual weaponization. Mr. Clapper said a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran could at best set back Iran's nuclear program by two years, and said he didn't believe Israel was seriously contemplating an attack in the near future.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also sought to turn down the volume on the war talk last week. "The intelligence does not show that [Iran has] made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon. That is the red line that would concern us and that would ensure that the international community, hopefully together, would respond," he told a congressional committee. That position, by the way, is one that appears to be shared by the Israeli intelligence community.

So, on the one hand you have the consensus position of the most senior defense and intelligence officials in the United States. And on the other? People like CNN's Erin Burnett, a former Goldman Sachs financial analyst and occasional participant on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. Ms. Burnett says "no one buys Iran's claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," (and then bolsters her point with a clip of Clapper's testimony in which he said Iran is not currently pursuing a nuclear weapon).

She's not alone. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, for instance, pushed back on Clapper during his testimony. When Clapper told him that he has doubts Iran is seeking a bomb, Senator Graham responded, "I'm very convinced they're going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon." Graham was likewise convinced that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In February of 2003, a month before the US invasion, he wrote: "There’s no question that Iraq and Saddam Hussein aren’t telling the truth. Iraq had hundreds of artillery shells with chemical weapons, thousands of liters of anthrax, and hundreds of tons of nerve agents in their inventory. Now they are not accounted for. The Iraqi response of ‘we have no weapons of mass destruction,’ is a flat-out lie."

Or you could listen to John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN who now works at the American Enterprise Institute. Bolton recently wrote that "the world's central banker of terrorism will very soon become a nuclear weapons state" the US defense and intelligence communities' protestations notwithstanding. He also says that if Iran does get a weapon, a containment strategy like the one that was effective during the cold war (when the Soviet Union had hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at the US) is doomed to failure.

Mr. Bolton was also certain of Saddam's WMDs before the Iraq war, stating in February 2002, when he was an undersecretary for arms control, that "we are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq."

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich (another politician who just knew that Saddam had WMDs) is even more apocalyptic, warning of 300,000 Americans dead in an Iranian attack on the US. "This is not science fiction," he said.

Are we headed to war? Clearly not if men like Dempsey, Panetta, and Clapper get their way. Intelligence officials in Washington have also been leaking doubts about Israel's ability to conduct meaningful strikes on Iran, its possible dalliance with the designated Iranian terrorist group MKO in an assassination program targeting Iranian nuclear engineers, and concerns about damage to US interests if Israel carries out an attack -- all clearly designed to forestall that possibility.

Iran continues to insist that it's not interested in a nuclear weapon, only nuclear power. But it's hard to imagine that it isn't interested in developing a so-called breakout capacity, given that there is no better deterrent to invasion or other external attempts at imposing regime change than a nuclear bomb (a fact that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi must have dwelt on as he fled NATO bombing raids and his own enraged citizens last year). And many say if the day comes when Iran has an actual nuclear weapon, it may not be as dire a moment as men like Mr. Bolton project.

Scott Peterson recently wrote a cover story for us that lays out the case that the day after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon might be much like the day before. Iran would have a handful of bombs, while Israel would have hundreds and the US thousands. He quotes the eminent Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld: "Say they build one bomb – it's not good enough. They need how many – 2, 3, 5, 10, 20? And that will take them a long time, so it's all nonsense.... [Iran is] not going to commit suicide by dropping the bomb – or even threatening to drop the bomb – on us."

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