Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Let's hear from someone besides the neoconservatives about Iran

COMMENTARY | August 20, 2007

Reporters should be seeking out experts who actually understand the Middle East -- because the vast majority of them think that attacking Iran would be a huge mistake. Here's an annotated list of some excellent possible sources.

By Dan Froomkin

A small group of neoconservatives is ever-more-loudly beating the drums for military action against Iran – and getting a lot of attention.

Robin Wright recently provided an overview of the drum-beating in The Washington Post.The people involved and their arguments are all too familiar: They are more or less the same so-called “experts” who enthusiastically advocated the invasion of Iraq, making similarly authoritative-sounding declarations about the uselessness of diplomacy and the easy triumph of military might.

But far from being ignored – not to mention laughed out of town – these neoconservatives are getting their message out largely unrefuted.

What’s particularly inappropriate about the one-sided coverage is that a quite significant majority of experts who do know a lot about the region believe that an attack in Iran would be a disaster for America and the world. They think it would backfire at least as badly as Iraq.

The general consensus within the foreign policy community is that an attack on Iran would more likely rally the Iranian people behind their radical leaders than it would lead to regime change. It would more likely encourage the Iranians (and others) to accelerate their development of a nuclear deterrent, rather than abandon it. It would more likely set off waves of terrorist attacks in Iraq, Israel and the U.S. than it would strike a blow against terror. And it would make the U.S. even more of a pariah nation on the international stage -- particularly among Muslims -- than it is now.

I’ve read remarkably few stories in the traditional media exploring the possible downsides of an attack on Iran. One was this Dana Priest story in The Washington Post in April 2006. She wrote:

“As tensions increase between the United States and Iran, U.S. intelligence and terrorism experts say they believe Iran would respond to U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by deploying its intelligence operatives and Hezbollah teams to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide.”

Possible Sources

So who should reporters interested in fleshing out the downsides be talking to? And what questions should they ask?

Paul R. Pillar, formerly the CIA’s top Middle East analysis and now a Georgetown University professor (and NiemanWatchdog.org contributor) wrote an essential op-ed in The Washington Post in February: What to Ask Before the Next War. Among the questions he raises:

“What would be the urgency of taking forceful action, given that the announced estimate is that Iran is still several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

“How malleable (and how well-defined) are Tehran's intentions, and what changes in Washington's policy might lead Tehran to abandon a weapons program? Even if Tehran's intentions do not change, what other options would impede or slow its nuclear program? If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, how would that change its behavior and affect U.S. interests? In particular, why would deterrence, which has kept nuclear peace with other adversaries, not work with Iran?

“The likely hardening, concealment and dispersal of Iran's nuclear facilities raise questions about the impact any military strike would have on the program. How much would Iran's nuclear efforts be set back, especially given that bombs are not very good at destroying knowledge and expertise? Would the Iranian response be appreciably different from that of Iraq after Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981 (Iraq redoubled its nuclear efforts while turning to different methods for producing fissile material)?

“The most neglected questions concern other consequences of a U.S. strike or any other U.S.-Iranian combat, even if such combat did not lead to a prolonged occupation. How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? How would it exploit U.S. vulnerabilities next door in Iraq, where it has barely begun to exploit the influence it has assiduously been cultivating? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf?

“Other effects concern Iranian politics. How much would the direct assertion of U.S. hostility strengthen Iranian hard-liners, whose policies are partly premised on such hostility? How much would it add to all Iranians' list of historical grievances against the United States and adversely affect relations with future governments?”

I spoke to Pillar recently, and he said that the advocates of attacking Iran are in a definite minority within the foreign policy community. “I think a strong majority of informed foreign policy observers would believe it would be a big mistake,” he said.

Of course what really counts is what one or maybe two people in the White House think. “To the extent that I’m worried -- and I am worried,“ Pillar said, it’s not about what President Bush and Vice President Cheney are hearing from experts – it’s about “what is going through the psyche of those two individuals.” That’s a real concern: Pillar says he fears that one morning he’ll wake up to hear on the radio that U.S. warplanes are headed back from Iran.

Pillar, who himself is available for interviews, suggests reporters also talk to

  • Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. In his July 2005 Foreign Affairs article, Regime Change and Its Limits, Hass wrote: “U.S. strikes might succeed in destroying part of Iran's weapons program and set it back by months or even years. But even if this were to occur, Iran would surely reconstitute its program in a manner that would make future strikes even more difficult. Moreover, Iran has the ability to retaliate by unleashing terrorism (using Hamas and Hezbollah) against Israel and the United States or by promoting instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. A U.S. strike on Iran would also further anger the Arab and Muslim worlds, where many already resent the double standard of U.S. and international acceptance of Israel's and India's nuclear weapons programs. Much of the Iranian population, currently alienated from the regime, would likely rally around it in the case of a foreign attack, making external efforts to bring about regime change that much more unlikely to succeed. Attacking Iran would also lead to sharp and possibly prolonged increases in the price of oil, which could trigger a global economic crisis. Nor would the United States avoid these costs if Israel carried out the strike (a scenario suggested by Vice President Dick Cheney in January 2005), since Israel would be widely viewed as doing the United States' bidding.”
  • Steven Simon, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow. In an April 2006 New York Times op-ed, coauthored with Richard Clarke, Bombs That Would Backfire, Simon wrote: “[H]ow would bombing Iran serve American interests? In over a decade of looking at the question, no one has ever been able to provide a persuasive answer. The president assures us he will seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis. And there is a role for threats of force to back up diplomacy and help concentrate the minds of our allies. But the current level of activity in the Pentagon suggests more than just standard contingency planning or tactical saber-rattling. The parallels to the run-up to war with Iraq are all too striking: remember that in May 2002 President Bush declared that there was ‘no war plan on my desk’ despite having actually spent months working on detailed plans for the Iraq invasion. Congress did not ask the hard questions then. It must not permit the administration to launch another war whose outcome cannot be known, or worse, known all too well.”
  • Shaul Bakhash, George Mason University professor and former Iranian journalist. In his January 2005 NiemanWatchdog.org article, A guide to reporting on relations between the U.S. and Iran, Bakhash wrote: “Historically, in the last century and a half, political change in Iran has been accelerated by engagement with the West; political upheaval has coincided with periods of extensive engagement with the outside world. It can be plausibly argued that Iran's wider engagement with the international community, foreign investment, an expansion of employment and a growing middle class would feed the forces of change, rather than strengthen the regime. [By contrast,] advocates of military strikes against Iran's nuclear targets need to consider Iran's likely response carefully. Iran is hardly likely to engage the U.S. militarily. Its modus operandi is well known. It is likely to use its assets in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere to cause difficulties for U.S. forces and to undermine U.S. interests. Whatever the long-term damage done to Iranian interests, the American/Israeli experience in Lebanon shows the Islamic Republic is adept at this kind of shadow war.”

Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a NiemanWatchdog.org contributor, also urges reporters to interview:

  • Wayne E. White, former State Department Middle East analyst and Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute. In his February McClatchy Newspapers op-ed, Iran: Best to Avoid Another Gulf Crisis, White wrote: “Already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be sheer folly for the US to take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Such a move could trigger a protracted conflict and have myriad adverse consequences, from destabilizing the Persian Gulf and Iraq to a sizeable spike in world oil prices.”
  • Ray Takeyh, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow. In his March Foreign Affairs article, Time for Détente With Iran, Takeyh wrote: “If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.”
  • Leon Hadar, Cato Institute research fellow. Hadar writes in his September 2006 op-ed, US-Iran Shootout Is Inevitable: “As the Bushies see it, they need to ‘do something’ to ‘correct’ the current balance of power which has been shifting in favor of Iran (thanks to US policies, that is)…. Leaving office with Iraq in ruins and Iran emerging as the military hegemon the Persian Gulf – equipped with nuclear military power! – would damage whatever remains of the Bush-Cheney ‘legacy.’"
  • Juan Cole, University of Michigan history professor and blogger.  Cole wrote in his June 2003 article in the Nation, Taking Aim at Iran: “There is a real danger that the Washington hawks will undermine the reformist movement in an Iran still touchy about foreign intervention by making the liberals look like Western puppets. Iranian hard-liners have been warning for decades about evil American intentions, and the US hawks inside and outside the Defense Department are only playing into their hands and giving them credibility with this saber-rattling.”
  • W. Patrick Lang, former military intelligence officer, consultant and blogger. In a March 2006 article in the National Interest coauthored with Larry C. Johnson, Contemplating the ifs, Lang wrote that “before we embark on another military operation, we must reckon the costs; we must ensure that we are willing to pay those costs; and we should ensure that neoconservative enthusiasts would not be tempted to say--if venturing into Iran becomes a misadventure--that it was impossible to foresee negative consequences.”

UPDATE: Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, also suggests a few more good sources for reporters. Rose himself, speaking at a February 2007 National Interest roundtable entitled Revisiting Iran?, had this to say:

“Containment . . . deserves more respect than it gets, since it has been quite good over the years at managing risks at acceptable costs. The danger Iran poses may be real, but it is far less than the dangers that were posed by, say, the Soviet Union or Mao’s China—and in both of those cases the United States managed to outwit, outlast and outplay its rival. It did so by, among other things, keeping its head, rejecting suggestions to strike first and relying on time to reveal its own system’s strengths and its opponents’ weaknesses.

“The reason so many in Washington have forgotten this is not because Iran is uniquely terrifying, but because the United States is uniquely powerful. Only now that it is a global hegemon can it calmly consider an unprovoked strike against a substantial regional power, simply because it worries about what that power might do with the weapons it might eventually acquire. The whole discussion is a sobering reminder that America’s foreign policy faces two separate challenges: managing the world and managing itself.”

Rose urges journalists to speak to:

  • Vali Nasr, professor, Naval Postgraduate School and adjunct senior fellow, Council of Foreign Relations. In a February Washington Post op-ed, The Iran Option That Isn’t on the Table, Nasr and co-author Takeyh (see above) wrote: “As Iran crosses successive nuclear demarcations and mischievously intervenes in Iraq, the question of how to address the Islamic republic is once more preoccupying Washington. Economic sanctions, international ostracism, military strikes and even support for hopeless exiles are all contemplated with vigor and seriousness. One option, however, is rarely assessed: engagement as a means of achieving a more pluralistic and responsible government in Tehran.”
  • Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center. In a 2005 article for the Hoover Digest, Iran: What Are the Options? Kemp wrote that “an attack would only delay the regime’s ambition, and third-party countries would likely aid a post-attack Iran such that the delay would not be very significant. Even more important, some senior Iranian officials are not convinced that moving from a nuclear infrastructure to the actual fabrication and deployment of nuclear weapons is in Iran’s national interest. But the more likely a U.S. attack seems, the less influence such doubters are liable to have. A U.S. attack could also be counterproductive politically, in that those opposed to the regime could be harmed by a welling up of Iranian nationalist fury.”
  • Yitzhak Nakash, professor at Brandeis University. As part of a symposium for Dissent in early 2007,  Nakash wrote: “American advocates of military or other tough action against Iran have based their case on the argument that its hard-line government’s pursuit of a nuclear program constitutes a grave threat to peace and stability worldwide. In reality, the development of a nuclear program is mostly a matter of national pride. A U.S. military strike against Iran, even if executed successfully, would unite Iranians and further isolate America in the international arena. A sanctions regime, including a travel ban on Iranian officials, would yield few benefits and is not likely to stop Iran from developing its nuclear program. Sanctions did not prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear device in October 2006.”
  • Ali Ansari, professor  at the University of St. Andrews and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies. In an article in the Summer 2007 issue of Nieman Reports, A Master Narrative About Iran Emerges, Ansari wrote that “while some journalists have belatedly sought to reflect on their poor performance during the walk-up to the Iraq invasion, few lessons appear to have been absorbed. Signs abound that too many journalists are making similar mistakes in their coverage of Iran, as skepticism and hard questioning give way to a slippage back into worn-out narratives.”

How Likely Is an Attack?

Neonconservatives have long been offended by Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric -- and their passion for a military response heightened once the evidence emerged that Iran was pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

As I wrote in my June 4 column for washingtonpost.com, Cheney, By Proxy, there are indications that Cheney fears that the president is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously and may be planning an end-run strategy that would box Bush in, making him feel he has no option but to attack. One such scenario: Nudging Israel into bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

But now there’s a new twist: Unproven administration allegations that Iran is providing training and weapons to anti-U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my August 10 column, Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?, I made note of a report that the vice president is advocating for air strikes inside Iran that, while nominally in defense of American troops, would be hugely provocative and could easily lead to an escalation of hostilities.

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker has been almost alone in documenting the ongoing military planning – and operations – in support of a possible attack. In his April 2006 article, The Iran Plans; Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? Hersh wrote:

“The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.”

See also Hersh’s November 2006 article, The Next Act: Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more?

The American public is not in favor of an attack on Iran. According to pollingreport.com, a CNN poll in May found 63 percent of respondents opposed to military action in Iran. But that number would presumably go up even higher if the media was a bit clearer about the likely downsides. 

Scepticism seems justified, right?
Posted by Eric Roth - University of Southern California. Lecturer of an upper division writing course. I also freelance, authored Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics, and run the website www.compellingconversations.com .
11/30/2007, 09:24 PM

Tom Johnson asked a series of excellent questions that reports and editors should ask of so-called experts.

Given the widespread delusion that Iraq would be a "cake walk" and the trooops would be there "weeks,not months", some scepticism of Bush administration claims seems justified. Right?

How the press can prevent another Iraq
Dan Froomkin writes that journalists, and through us the public, have a grave responsibility to not be complicit in another march to war on false pretenses. So what lessons should we have learned from Iraq?

Michael Ledeen's dangerous Iran obsession
Blogger Steve Clemmons deconstructs the neocon obsession with waging war against Iran as soon as possible.

Asking the wrong questions on Iran
Journalist Tony Karon writes in his blog that "the basic question on Iran should be exactly the same one the U.S. failed to ask on Iraq: Will military action against Iran leave the U.S. and its interests and allies in the Middle East in a more secure position or in greater peril."

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.