By Paul Mutter
Paul Mutter is a fellow at Truthout and a contributor to Salon, The Arabist, Foreign Policy in Focus and Mondoweiss. A graduate of Rutgers University, he blogs about – in no particular order of preference – the Saudi-American relationship, general defence/security issues in the Middle East, Israeli domestic politics and Islamist movements. Mr. Mutter is currently on leave from the graduate program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has been one of the key Israeli voices opposing an Israeli attack on Iran. Dagan strongly disagrees with Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s assertions that Israel has only a limited window of opportunity1 to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, even though according to repeated official American and Israeli intelligence community statements,2 as of 2003, Iran’s nuclear program has not included a capacity, or established a consensus, for pursuing weaponisation at this time.
But this time seems to be different, as Israel’s leaders increasingly gravitate towards a confrontational position seemingly at odds with the United States’ approach. Dagan’s vocal dissent over Iran – he says that “attacking Iran would mean regional war”3 and that “the level of destruction and paralysis of everyday life, and Israeli death toll would be high”4 – is indicative of a larger split between the more cautious Israeli military establishment and the country’s most hawkish politicians. Dagan is not the only Israeli intelligence expert to weigh in against military action.5 His, and other Israeli officials’ public statements on Iran, and the state of the Israeli government overall, evidence a growing contest of wills between the more cautious security establishment and the grandstanding political leadership.
Compared to officials like Ehud Barak, Dagan is dovish because he thinks the military option will create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which an enraged, and still unbowed, Iranian regime does finally decide to go all-out in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Dagan also fears that in the event of an Israeli attack, regional escalation involving Hezbollah, Israel, Syria and the Palestinians would be unavoidable. The former spy chief has, as a result of these concerns, for years followed a different approach towards Iran: Israel and the United States ought to ramp up ‘containment’ efforts against the Islamic Republic, looking towards a day when the weight of sanctions, diplomatic isolation and domestic dissent collapses the regime. As he told 60 Minutes this March, he thinks regime change should be the West’s endgame in Iran.6
And ideally, in the shorter term, ‘containment’ efforts to affect regime change will undermine Iran’s domestic and international position to the point that rather than risk economic and political collapse, it will back away from its nuclear program and stop supporting Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.
This was the strategy7 that Dagan first conveyed in 2007 to the Bush Administration, on Iran, the “five pillars” for regime change:
A) Political Approach: Dagan praised efforts to bring Iran before the UNSC, and signalled his agreement with the pursuit of a third sanctions resolution. He acknowledged that pressure on Iran was building, but said this approach alone will not resolve the crisis. He stressed that the timetable for political action is different than the nuclear project’s timetable.
B) Covert Measures: Dagan and the [then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns] agreed not to discuss this approach in the larger group setting.
C) Counter Proliferation: Dagan underscored the need to prevent know-how and technology from making their way to Iran, and said that more can be done in this area.
D) Sanctions: Dagan said that the biggest successes had so far been in this area. Three Iranian banks [were] on the verge of collapse. The financial sanctions are having a nationwide impact. Iran’s regime can no longer just deal with the bankers themselves.
E) Force Regime Change: Dagan said that more should be done to foment regime change in Iran, possibly with the support of student democracy movements, and ethnic groups (e.g., Azeris, Kurds, Baluchs) opposed to the ruling regime.
Dagan clarified that the US, Israel and like-minded countries must push on all five pillars at the same time . . . Dagan urged more attention on regime change, asserting that more could be done to develop the identities of ethnic minorities in Iran. He said he was sure that Israel and the US could “change the ruling regime in Iran, and its attitude towards backing terror regimes.”
The cable is silent about actual United States (and Israeli) support for covert actions in Iran. But Seymour Hersh has written that around this time, the United States shut down one special regime change project,8 only to seek greater funding9 for such initiatives in general. And according to Israeli columnist Ronen Bergman,10 Mossad has enjoyed “virtually unlimited funds and powers” to do the same. Israel’s drive to war now, according to unnamed sources cited by Bergman, stems from dissatisfaction among Israeli leaders regarding the relative successes of the West’s wider political program towards Iran, and the more specific efforts aimed at the nuclear program. American officials have now confirmed that in addition to the above measures, cover operations by Mossad have included targeted killings against Iranian nuclear scientists, providing funding and training to the anti-regime terrorist organization known as MEK11 to carry attacks out inside Iran.
“In practice,” several hawkish Iran watchers wrote in a 2009 Brooking report,12 “these options [supporting a popular revolution, stirring up Iran's ethnic groups, or promoting a coup] could be pursued simultaneously and overlap in some of their elements,” exactly the approach Dagan suggested to the United States. Indeed, the most repeated assertion in the report’s “regime change” section is the need for “finding the right proxies,” whether they be Ahmadinejad’s political rivals or anti-regime guerrillas. The report notes that “even if this policy failed to overthrow the regime, supporting one or more insurgencies would put pressure on Tehran. It would divert the regime’s attention and resources, possibly limiting its ability to make mischief elsewhere in the region.”
In contrast, some American backers of a confrontation with Iran favour decisive, regime-ending action sooner rather than later that will not just address the nuclear question, but Iran’s geopolitical aspirations in general. A recent Foreign Affairs13 piece asks first and foremost why the West should just stop at bombing the nuclear sites. “Why not take the next step? After all, Iran’s nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness,” the authors wonder aloud. They also outline how to take that “next step,” to “expand its list of targets beyond the nuclear program to key command and control elements of the Republican Guard and the intelligence ministry, and facilities associated with other key government officials.”
A number of former Members of Congress and retired Department of Defense personnel are now also suggesting “kinetic action”14 along these lines. The root problem for the United States and Israel is, after all, this particular Iranian regime and its efforts to assert hegemony in the region (“the real threat is Iran’s conventional foreign policy safeguarded by nuclear weapons,” noted counterterrorism analyst Barry Rubin earlier this year15). Former CIA director, Michael Hayden, who ruled out an attack on Iran during George W. Bush’s second term, would agree: “It’s not so much that we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear capacity, it’s that we don’t want this Iran to have it … Slow it down long enough and maybe the character [of the Iranian government] changes.”16
In short, the nuclear question – whether Iran is bluffing, building or sitting on it – solves itself when the regime falls and the opposition takes advantage of the chaos to oust the ‘mad mullahs’. Remember Dagan’s words: the new Iran will be a “normal” Iran, that is, one that does not challenge US and Israeli hegemony through subversion and diplomatic manoeuvring among Islamist proxies.
The “go-slow”17 Iran watchers are increasingly being tuned out by the pro-war right in Israel and the United States. Rubin, Dagan and Hayden’s relative cautiousness – all three men wish to see the nuclear problem (and the régime) come to an end but have warned against taking military action – is being drowned out by shrill voices in Congress and neoconservative think tanks. There has been a big push18 by the Israeli Prime Minister and sympathetic Members of Congress, as well as Republican presidential frontrunners, to get Obama and the Pentagon to agree to more restrictive ‘redlines’ on Iran that would authorize the use of military force to prevent Iran from gaining the “capability’19 to build a nuclear weapon. The problem with this approach is that Iran probably already has20 such a ‘capability,’ so technically, Netanyahu’s ‘redlines’ have already been crossed and bombing should have begun yesterday. Both Obama and Netanyahu have ruled out ‘containment’ of a nuclear Iran, despite warnings that this framing of the issue ultimately results in the U.S. and Israel “facing an Iran with nuclear weapons after [they] have bombed it.”21
In the minds of those most eager for a military conflict, the Iranian nuclear program can be derailed through a bombing campaign. And among some of these advocates for conflict, regime change will then come quickly and with minimal international repercussions. The paper tiger ayatollahs will be burned by Western bombs, and then overthrown for good by their enraged subjects who will give up their nuclear aspirations and definitely not rebuild the program in secret to build nuclear weapons. And all without sending in a single Marine regiment on the ground.
This proposition, critics argue, requires a highly optimistic reading of Iran’s domestic situation. Iranian critics of the regime have expressed opposition22 to foreign military intervention in Iran, and many Iranians appear to support23 the nuclear program as a matter of national pride. Certainly, many Iranian émigrés (and Iranians within Iran) want to see the end of clerical rule and a more democratic government in office, but very few openly support employing “a military option”24 to try forcing this decision. The 1953 coup the United States and the United Kingdom bankrolled to restore the late Shah of Iran to power has not been forgotten. In Iran, the opposition ‘Green Movement’s’ official platform is based on “reform,”25 not Western-led “regime change.”
Despite the anti-regime Iranian terrorist group MEK’s association26 with Republican and Democratic politicians, and the backing it receives from Mossad, MEK reportedly has a very poor reputation27 in Iran because of its decision to seek sanctuary in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (from where it continued to launch attacks against the regime and is now likely going to have to vacate altogether).28 Jundallah, an ethnic separatist movement that operate across Afghan, Pakistani and Iranian territories, that Mossad has reportedly29 engaged with, is unlikely to gain real support within Iran because of its ethnic (Baluchi) and religious (Sunni) minority emphases.
Those demanding military action to precipitate regime change rely on the assumption that the Iranian people will be seized by a nationalistic fury directed not at the United States and Israel, but at their own leaders. History is not exactly replete with examples of populations turning on their leaders when outmatched by superior air power. The air-defence impotence of Germany, the USSR, the UK, North Vietnam, North Korea and Japan in 20th century conflicts did not result in the masses turning on their leaders and installing a new order. Events in Serbia (1999) and Libya (2011) seem to have given interventionists hope that a “brief” air war can cripple the Iranian leadership – though in Serbia, “brief” meant almost three months worth of NATO sorties and Libya’s new government is facing down many difficulties in keeping order amongst rival armed militias exploiting the post-Qadhafi vacuum.
And Iran’s regime, for all the political arguments30 going on between the Supreme Leader and presidental factions, is much more entrenched than Libya’s or Serbia’s were. Through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij, Iran’s religious leaders have created an “uncivil society” alongside the Shia clerical establishment, a society whose survival is firmly linked to maintaining an authoritarian, Islamist government by any means necessary. And for all the dissent in the ranks, the Islamic Republic’s security forces and their masters have faced many real challenges to their control since their inception, including a vicious war31 initiated by Iraq in the 1980s.
It is clear that a consensus32 is missing among intelligence and opinion leaders in both the United States and Israel on Iran right now, with spooks like Dagan or Hayden on one side and an array of much more hawkish individuals on the other. A joint US-Israeli missile defence exercise, Austere Challenge 12, that could have antagonised Iran, has been postponed until later in 2012, with the US and Israel now seemingly engaged in a “whisper campaign”33 to muddy the waters over who called it off at the last-minute, on top of Israel’s pre-existing efforts to shape the media message on the Iranian nuclear program34. Despite this seeming split, or perhaps because of it, official Israeli rhetoric and ‘will they or won’t they?’ intimations grow ever louder.
1. Ron Kampeas, “Israel: Time of Iran reckoning is closer,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 3, 2012, http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/02/03/3091498/israel-time-of-iran-reckoning-is-closer
2. Ray McGovern, “US/Israel: Iran NOT Building Nukes,” Consortium News, January 24, 2012, http://consortiumnews.com/2012/01/24/usisrael-iran-not-building-nukes/
3. Amos Harel, “Former Mossad chief: Israeli attack on Iran must be stopped to avert catastrophe,” Haaretz, December 1, 2011, www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/former-mossad-chief-israeli-attack-on-iran-must-be-stopped-to-avert-catastrophe-1.399046
4. Gareth Porter, “U.S. Leak on Israeli Attack Weakened a Warning to Netanyahu,” Inter Press Service, February 4, 2012, http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106652
5. Larry Derfner, “Security expert: Attacking Iran isn’t worth it,” +972, February 6, 2012, http://972mag.com/warriors-against-war-with-iran/34831/
6. Haaretz, “Former head of Israeli Mossad: Now is not the time to attack Iran,” Haaretz, March 9, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/watch-former-head-of-israeli-mossad-now-is-not-the-time-to-attack-iran-1.417426
7. “Text of leaked diplomatic cable between US and Israel,” The Raw Story, November 29, 2010, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/11/29/text-leaked-diplomatic-cable-israel/
8. Farah Stockman, “US unit created to pressure Iran, Syria disbanded,” The Boston Globe, May 26, 2007, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2007/05/26/us_unit_created_to_pressure_iran_syria_disbanded/?page=full
9. Seymour M. Hersh, “Preparing the Battlefield,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/07/080707fa_fact_hersh
10. Ronen Bergman, “Will Israel Attack Iran?,” The New York Times Magazine, January 25, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/magazine/will-israel-attack-iran.html
11. Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, “Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News,” NBC News, February 9, 2012, http://rockcenter.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/09/10354553-israel-teams-with-terror-group-to-kill-irans-nuclear-scientists-us-officials-tell-nbc-news
12. “Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran,” Brookings, June 2009, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2009/06_iran_strategy/06_iran_strategy.pdf
13. Jamie M. Fly and Gar Schmitt, “The Case for Regime Change in Iran,” Foreign Affairs, January 17, 2012, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137038/jamie-m-fly-and-gary-schmitt/the-case-for-regime-change-in-iran
14. Jim Lobe, “U.S. Group Urges ‘More Credible’ Military Threat Against Iran,” Inter Press Service, February 1, 2012, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106619
15. Barry Rubin, “Israel Is Not About to Attack Iran and Neither is the United States: Get Used to It,” Rubin Reports, January 26, 2012, http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2012/01/israel-is-not-about-to-attack-iran-and.html
16. Josh Rogin, “Bush’s CIA director: We determined attacking Iran was a bad idea,” Foreign Policy, January 19, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/01/19/bush_s_cia_director_we_determined_attacking_iran_was_a_bad_idea
17. Russ Wellen, “Will the Right Listen to Its Go-Slow Guy on Iran?,” Foreign Policy in Focus, January 14, 2012, http://www.fpif.org/blog/will_the_right_listen_to_its_go-slow_guy_on_iran
18. Michael Tomasky, “Obama’s ‘No Containment’ AIPAC Speech Made War With Iran Inevitable,” The Daily Beast, March 6, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/06/obama-s-no-containment-aipac-speech-made-war-with-iran-inevitable.html
19. Mark Landler, “U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran,” The New York Times, March 3, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/world/middleeast/israels-backers-in-aipac-press-obama-to-harden-iran-policy.html?_r=2&hp=&pagewanted=all
20. Nancy Shoenberger, “Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on the Middle East, Proliferation, and Why Israel Couldn’t Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Program Even if It Wanted To,” Vanity Fair, March 2, 2012, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2012/03/lawrence-wilkerson-middle-east-nancy-schoenberger-israel-iran-nuclear-weapons
21. T. X. Hammes, “On Bombing Iran, A False Choice,” Policy Mic, March 5, 2012, http://www.policymic.com/debates/5013/on-bombing-iran-a-false-choice/headline_story
22. Shabnam Nourian, “Iran’s opposition in exile speaks out against possible military strike,” Deutsche Welle, November 11, 2011, http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15525888,00.html
23. Robert Wright, “Why Regime Change Won’t Work in Iran,” The Atlantic, January 18, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/why-regime-change-wont-work-in-iran/251603/
24. “PAAIA Releases 2011 National Survey of Iranian Americans,” Payvand Iran News, December 7, 2011, http://www.payvand.com/news/11/dec/1089.html
25. Muhammad Sahimi, “The Green Movement Charter,” Frontline, June 16, 2010, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/06/the-green-movement-charter.html
26. Jasmin Ramsey, “Iranian terrorist group has close US allies,” Al Jazeera, August 4, 2011, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/08/201184132732146192.html
27. David Elliott, “Iran’s Greens Warn U.S. Against Supporting the Mujahedin,” National Iranian-American Council Blog, August 16, 2011, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Feroh5pUYhMJ:www.niacinsight.com/2011/08/16/irans-greens-warn-u-s-against-supporting-the-mujahedin/+Iran%E2%80%99s+Greens+Warn+U.S.+Against+Supporting+the+Mujahedin&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a
28. Ian Duncan, “State Department calls on Iranian exile group to move,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2012, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/02/state-department-calls-on-iranian-exile-group-to-move.html
29. Mark Perry, “False Flag,” Foreign Policy, January 13, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/13/false_flag
30. Robert F. Worth, “Iran’s Middle Class on Edge as World Presses In,” New York Times, February 6, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/world/middleeast/irans-middle-class-on-edge-as-international-tensions-rise.html?seid=auto&smid=tw-nytimesglobal&pagewanted=all
31. Reza H. Akbari and Azadeh Pourzand, “Potential Attack Threatens Peaceful Movement for Change,” Frontline, December 29, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/12/opinion-potential-western-military-strike-threatens-peaceful-movement-for-change.html
32. Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Jay Solomon, “U.S. Warns Israel on Strike,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204409004577159202556087074.html
33. Laura Rozen, “Pentagon pushes back on rumors U.S. delayed Israel war game,” Yahoo! News, January 17, 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/envoy/pentagon-pushes-back-rumors-u-initiated-delay-israel-193305315.html
34. Sheera Frenkel, “Israel push on Iran included a steady dose of media leaks,” Miami Herald, March 7, 2012, http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/07/v-fullstory/2681445/israel-push-on-iran-included-a.html