Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Iran’s Nuclear Program: (Not) Selling a War

by Micah Zenko
March 19, 2012

President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office in Washington, DC (Courtesy Reuters/Jim Young). President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office in Washington, DC (Courtesy Reuters/Jim Young).


The public debate on whether the United States and other countries are able to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon exhausted itself years ago. Yet, discussion about confrontation with Iran will persist until one of two things happens: Tehran provides sufficient transparency over its suspected nuclear weapons activities to meet the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tel Aviv, and Washington; or Israel and/or the United States attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. Unless the major players are bluffing and ultimately back down—which has happened before—one of these determining actions will likely take place within the next two years.

If President Obama—or any future occupant of the White House—does decide to attack Iran, there is an important prerequisite that has remained largely unexplored: How would the president sell the war to the American people?

The president wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Iran has been demonized by the United States since the nascent Islamic Republic seized the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran and held fifty-two hostages from November 1979 to January 1981. Since then, polling has consistently demonstrated two strong beliefs: Americans do not like and are afraid of Iran. A recent Gallup poll found that 87 percent of Americans held an “unfavorable” opinion of Iran, a number that hasn’t changed in decades. In addition, in a September 2011 survey asking, “Which country is the greatest threat to the United States?” 63 percent of respondents listed Iran first or second. (In June 2009, 79 percent of respondents believed Iran to be a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat to the United States.)

Despite the polling numbers, Americans are largely split over a U.S. military attack on Iran (support ranges from 41 to 56 percent) and there is broad approval for stronger economic sanctions and diplomatic action. Interestingly, the action favored by most Americans (81 percent), “direct diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran,” is not part of the Obama administration’s strategy.

In addition to the lukewarm support among Americans for attacking Iran, President Obama or his successor would also have to tackle two problematic assessments from the U.S Intelligence Community (IC).

First, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has repeatedly reaffirmed since late January, “we don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.” Just yesterday, James Risen reported in the New York Times that the IC continues to believe (based on an assessment first made in November 2007) that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei halted his country’s nuclear weapons activities in 2003.

This might be hard for many to grasp, since polling has found the American people disagree with the collective judgment of the 210,000 civilian and military employees and 30,000 private contractors comprising the IC. A recent poll found that 84 percent of Americans think Iran is developing nuclear weapons, while another from February 2010 concluded that 71 percent of Americans believe that Iran currently has nuclear weapons.

Second, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that, despite all of Iran’s threats, “it is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack.” This assessment is undoubtedly difficult for some to reconcile with the rhetorical bluster of senior Iranian officials, including repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz if U.S. aircraft carriers entered the waterway.

In February, however, the USS Abraham Lincoln steamed through the strait without incident. In fact, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert told reporters that Iran’s naval forces have not responded with increased activity, adding: “The Iranian navy has been unto itself professional and courteous.” This confirms what U.S. Navy officials have told me in private conversations: for the past two decades, the U.S. and Iranian navies have carefully avoided direct confrontations, and routinely cooperate on a tactical level to rescue distressed ships or lost seafarers.

To build up support for a preemptive attack, the U.S. president could play to the widely-held conviction that Tehran is nearing—or crossed—the nuclear threshold, but he will also need to explain why the intelligence professionals, on the receiving end of over $75 billion in taxpayer funds, are wrong.

Presidents sell wars by offering a buffet of justifications in the hopes that citizens of varied beliefs and opinions will find something to sink their teeth into. If you are old enough, you may recall the multiple explications provided by senior officials for the use of military force in Iraq from 1991 to 2011, Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, Kosovo in 1999, or even in Libya last year; justifications included to protect civilians, overthrow regimes, send a “message” to other dictators, and repay European allies for support in Afghanistan.

The media circus surrounding the Iranian nuclear program has distorted the underlying rationale for any use of force. The United States must not attack Iran without clearly defined strategic objectives, a clear understanding of how attacking its suspected nuclear weapons facilities will advance those objectives, and a theory of victory for how those facilities could be destroyed at an acceptable level of cost. So far, both proponents of attacking Iran and the president have avoided addressing these three concerns with any clarity.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    False pretexts for invasions do not really need citizens’ support, as their purpose is merely to buy time. When it is found that the pretexts are based on fallacious information, actions have already been taken and the pretexts are no longer needed. Thus, in the calculation of presidential administrations, it is not really popular support that is courted so much as ways of mitigating intense negative popular reaction. Reliance on public ignorance, not only of the facts, but also regarding popular sentiment {what the person next to you is thinking), has proven effective in circumventing opposition to wars/invasions/attacks.

  • Posted by Clint Sharpe

    Iran is not obligated under international law to make the IAEA/US/Israel happy.

    It is obligated to fulfill its Safeguards Agreement w/ the IAEA — which it is already doing.

    So the question is why is Iran being harassed now when it is clear — according to our IC and Mossad — that Iran HAS NO NUCLEAR WEAPONS program currently?

    It is well known that the IAEA under Amano is biased and compromised in its impartiality. (See articles in Guardian and CSMonitor)

    The rationale for war and sanctions has been THOROUGHLY debunked by one of the only brave voices — and one of the only technically competent people — to have commented on this issue:


  • Posted by Sharif

    The blame for the warmongering can be laid at the feet of the Likudnik AIPAC and a handful of alarmist (non-)think tanks. e.g. Albright’s ISIS:


    Spinning the Details

    Major U.S. news outlets, like the Times and the Post, also have shorn off some of the nuances that remained in the IAEA’s report, which distinguished its more authoritative analysis regarding Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear experiments from a sketchier understanding of the post-2003 period when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the work had stopped.

    The newspapers tended to merge the two periods, relying on interpretations from “experts” like former weapons inspector David Albright, who was the principal source for a front-page Washington Post news article on Monday about the IAEA’s impending report – and who was famously wrong about Iraq’s WMD in 2002-2003.

    “The [Iranian nuclear bomb] program never really stopped,” Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said, according to the Post. “After 2003, money [in Iran] was made available for research in areas that sure look like nuclear weapons work but were hidden within civilian institutions.”

    The IAEA was more circumspect in its conclusions, although it is a truism that academic research on a wide variety of topics can, theoretically at least, be applied to building a nuclear bomb. Which is apparently one of the reasons why assassins have targeted Iranian physicists for murder in recent years.

    In its Thursday editorial, the Post raised no objection to that strategy of killing Iranian scientists – except to indicate that it didn’t go far enough. The Post’s neocon editors wrote:

    “The Obama administration and other Western governments must recognize that the sanctions [on Iran] that have so far been put in place, and covert operations aimed at sabotaging Iranian centrifuges and killing scientists, have not succeeded in changing the regime’s intentions or stopping its work.”

    The Post’s editors seem to accept the fact (and the rationalization) for assassinating Iran’s scientists, but the practice, if done against scientists in Western countries or in Israel, would surely be denounced as terrorism.

    Similarly, it almost goes without saying that the Post and the Times saw no reason to mention that Israel possesses a sophisticated nuclear arsenal and – unlike Iran – has refused to subject itself to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the scrutiny of the IAEA.

    No one in the U.S. mainstream news media seems to find it the least bit hypocritical that Israel would be supplying evidence to the IAEA about the alleged secret nuclear ambitions of Iran when Israel itself is a rogue nuclear state.

  • Posted by John R. Kelley

    A full analysis of the situation would include a segment that assesses the risk of miscalculation by each party, as well as the associated resultant cost. The very need for a risk assessment implies that there are trade-offs to be considered in a world of imperfect information. Exacting standards of proof will not be useful by any parties’ decision to act. History and public statements by all parties must certainly be considered. The gamesmanship factor is high, so a subjective ‘leveling’ must be applied to the problem. Finally, the world has not heard from the people of Iran who spoke with courage in recent years. As tensions rise and time passes, those people may yet indicate the direction they desire, not unlike the recent courage displayed by the people of Syria. Should such a similar uprising occur, the US will not be able to take a stance of mere verbal support. However, Israel does not have the same risk/cost profile as the US. In the final analysis, all quantitative factors, conjured and proven, will not obviate the near-impossible quantification of (governing) subjective factors.==JK

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    I do not see any reason not to agree with Peter Duveen that when the decisions have already been taken, the pretexts are no longer needed.

    It will be extremely inhuman to attack an independent sovereign state in search of still non-existing nuclear weapons and causing deaths of innocent men, women and children. I strongly hope that President Obama will not repeat bad history created by George Bush. He unleashed a horrible war on Iraq for weapons of mass destruction which were never found.

    If North Korea with nuclear warheads, can be managed , a similar type of approach be adopted for Iran as well.

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