Thursday, November 17, 2011

Israel’s Secret Iran Attack Plan: Electronic Warfare

Israel has been building stealthy, multibillion-dollar electronic weapons that could be deployed if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear sites, U.S. intelligence officials tell Eli Lake.
By Eli Lake
For much of the last decade, as Iran methodically built its nuclear program, Israel has been assembling a multibillion-dollar array of high-tech weapons that would allow it to jam, blind, and deafen Tehran's defenses in the case of a pre-emptive aerial strike.
A U.S. intelligence assessment this summer, described to The Daily Beast by current and former U.S. intelligence officials, concluded that any Israeli attack on hardened nuclear sites in Iran would go far beyond airstrikes from F-15 and F-16 fighter planes and likely include electronic warfare against Iran’s electric grid, Internet, cellphone network, and emergency frequencies for firemen and police officers.
For example, Israel has developed a weapon capable of mimicking a maintenance cellphone signal that commands a cell network to “sleep,” effectively stopping transmissions, officials confirmed. The Israelis also have jammers capable of creating interference within Iran’s emergency frequencies for first responders.
In a 2007 attack on a suspected nuclear site at al-Kibar, the Syrian military got a taste of this warfare when Israeli planes “spoofed” the country’s air-defense radars, at first making it appear that no jets were in the sky and then in an instant making the radar believe the sky was filled with hundreds of planes.
Israel also likely would exploit a vulnerability that U.S. officials detected two years ago in Iran's big-city electric grids, which are not “air-gapped”—meaning they are connected to the Internet and therefore vulnerable to a Stuxnet-style cyberattack—officials say.
A highly secretive research lab attached to the U.S. joint staff and combatant commands, known as the Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC), discovered the weakness in Iran’s electrical grid in 2009, according to one retired senior military intelligence officer. This source also said the Israelis have the capability to bring a denial-of-service attack to nodes of Iran’s command and control system that rely on the Internet.
Tony Decarbo, the executive officer for JWAC, declined comment for this story.  The likely delivery method for the electronic elements of this attack would be an unmanned aerial vehicle the size of a jumbo jet. An earlier version of the bird was called the Heron, the latest version is known as the Eitan. According to the Israeli press, the Eitan can fly for 20 straight hours and carry a payload of one ton. Another version of the drone, however, can fly up to 45 straight hours, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. 
Unmanned drones have been an integral part of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected insurgents. But Israel's fleet has been specially fitted for electronic warfare, according to officials.
The Eitans and Herons would also likely be working with a special Israeli air force unit known as the Sky Crows, which focuses only on electronic warfare. A 2010 piece in The Jerusalem Post quoted the commander of the electronic warfare unit as saying, “Our objective is to activate our systems and to disrupt and neutralize the enemy’s systems.”
Fred Fleitz, who left his post this year as a Republican senior staffer who focused on Iran at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in his meetings with Israeli defense and intelligence officials, they would always say all options were on the table.
"I think Israel has the capabilities with their air force and mid-air refueling to take on these sites," said Fleitz, who is now managing editor of "They would have to take out radar and anti-aircraft. They could also attack with missiles and their drone fleet."
Whatever Israel ultimately decides to do about Iran’s program, one mission for now is clear. A senior Israeli official told The Daily Beast this month that one important objective of Israel's political strategy on Iran was to persuade Iranian decision makers that a military strike against their nuclear infrastructure was a very real possibility. "The only known way to stop a nuclear program is to have smashing sanctions with a credible military threat. Libya is the best example of this," this official said.
At the same time, if past practice is any guide, the Israelis would not likely strike at the same moment that their officials are discussing the prospect in the press. In other words, if Israel is openly discussing a military strike, it is unlikely to be imminent.
But if Israel goes radio silent—like it did in when it attacked a suspected nuclear site in Iraq in 1981—that may be an early warning sign that a strike is nearing. 
When Sam Lewis was U.S. ambassador to Israel during the transition from the Carter to Reagan administrations, he warned the new administration there was a chance then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin might bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.
“I had given a full alert to the new administration about the dangers,” Lewis recalled in an interview. “We’d been having discussions with the Israelis about how they wanted to stop the project, there was a lot of news and then it all dried up.”
Lewis and his staff had moved on. Then without warning on June 7, 1981, in something called Operation Opera, Israeli jets flew in the dead of night via Jordanian air space and incinerated the nuclear facility that was under construction southeast of Baghdad. “I did feel after the fact that we should have assumed this bombing was going to take place,” Lewis said. “After it was over, I was not surprised, I was annoyed by having been misled by the quiet as it were.”
There may be a lesson for the Obama administration as it tries to calibrate what Israel will do on Iran. Since taking office, the president has made major efforts to avoid any surprises in the relationship with Israel, particularly on the issue of Iran. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, tasked their first national security advisers to establish an unprecedented system for regular consultation between the two countries, featuring regular video-teleconferences.
They formed a standing committee on Iran as well, to check the progress of sanctions, share intelligence, and keep both sides informed. Despite all of this, Netanyahu has refused to give any assurance to Obama or his top cabinet advisers that he would inform or ask permission before launching an attack on Iran that would likely spur the Iranians to launch a terrorist attack on the United States or Israel in response, according to U.S. and Israeli officials familiar with these meetings. The Telegraph first reported the tension over the weekend.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "expressed the desire for consultation on any contemplated future Israeli military action, and [Ehud] Barak understood the U.S. position,” said one official familiar with the discussions.
The Israelis may be coy this time around because of the experience of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In 2007, the Israelis presented what they considered to be rock-solid evidence that Syria was building a covert nuclear facility at al-Kibar. They asked President Bush to bomb the facility, according to the new memoir from Condoleezza Rice.
“The president decided against a strike and suggested a diplomatic course to the Israeli prime minister,” she wrote. “Ehud Olmert thanked us for our input but rejected our advice, and the Israelis then expertly did the job themselves.”
One American close to the current prime minister said, “When Netanyahu came into office, the understanding was they will not make the same mistake that Olmert made and ask for something the president might say no to. Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”
-This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 16/11/2011
-Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo, Egypt, and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush's axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Israel And Iran: Covert Warfare Raises Risks Of Retaliation, And Conflagration

By Tony Karon

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) and Revolutionary guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (Center L) pray as they stand behind the coffins of members of revolutionary guards who were killed during a blast in a military base, in Tehran November 14, 2011. (Photo: The Office of the Supreme Leader / Reuters)
If Iran's leaders actually believe their official insistence that last weekend's blast at the Bid Ganeh Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base was an accident, the event is unlikely to make any difference to regional stability. But if Iran, instead, believes claims -- and widely held suspicions in Tehran -- that the blast, which killed 17 Iranian guardsmen including a senior commander, was the work of Israel's Mossad security agency, the region could be in for a sharp uptick in turbulence.
Iranian analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi notes that officials in Tehran suspect foul play not only in the Bid Ganeh blast, but also in the death under suspicious circumstances in a Dubai hotel of the son of a prominent former Revolutionary Guards commander, and suggests that if these are deemed hostile events, pressure will grow on the Iranian leadership to retaliate.
Iran has over the past couple of years absorbed a series of covert warfare blows directed against its nuclear program -- assassinations of its scientists, sabotage of facilities and, most damaging, the Stuxnet computer worm that invaded and hobbled its uranium-enrichment centrifuge system -- which Tehran's leaders believe were largely the work of the Israelis, possibly in conjunction with other Western intelligence agencies. And tensions are rising as Israel threatens military action to stop a program whose potential military dimension was highlighted last week by the IAEA.
Thus far, however, Tehran has declined any significant retaliation for actions it clearly perceives as provocations. Some of the spin in Washington had floated the idea that the recent used car salesman-embassy bombing plot was, in fact, an instance of Iranian retaliation, but there are far too many grounds for skepticism over those allegations to suggest that Iran's capabilities had been reduced to such buffoonery. A more prudent explanation might be that Iran has until now restrained itself from retaliating for covert actions against its nuclear program, sensing that these might, in fact, be designed to provoke Iranian acts of retaliation that would, in turn, serve as a pretext for a full-blown military attack on Iran and its nuclear facilities.
"The Iranians believe that the recent assassinations have been at the hands of Israel," Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran, explained by email on Monday. "Yet, curiously, Western officials tell me that there have been no signs of any Iranian retaliation. Is it because they can't retaliate (unlikely) or because they are deliberately avoiding an escalation that they may believe to be a trap?"
Parsi argues that the Iranians may believe their nuclear program can't be seriously disrupted by sanctions and covert attacks. "If so, retaliating against the assassinations and risking an escalation may be less attractive to Tehran compared to continuing a status quo where Iran faces painful sanctions and pressure, but can still outpace the problems these punitive measures inflict on their nuclear program. However, this calculation may not hold as the intensity of the sabotage campaign increases. And that may just be the Israeli gamble."
It would certainly be more difficult for the leadership in Tehran to refrain from answering a painful slap at the IRGC, the military core of the regime's strength, than it has been to insist on restraint in the face of Stuxnet and the murder of scientists. If, indeed, the blast at  Bid Ganeh was more than an accident, its purpose -- besides striking a minor blow at Iran's ability to project power -- would be to provoke retaliation. And, of course, any steps that Iran took in retaliation would likely provoke further escalation -- both overt and or even covert -- from those targeted by Tehran. As the unnamed diplomat who briefed my TIME colleagues noted, there may be more attacks in the works -- or, in his words, "There are more bullets in the magazine."
Despite their obvious glee at the results of the explosion -- "may there be more like it," enthused Defense Minister Ehud Barak on being asked for comment -- Israeli officials are not claiming responsibility. Still, among those in Israel's security establishment most opposed to air strikes on Iran, the alternative usually includes covert action. And although the Israelis insist they have given the U.S. no assurance that Washington will be informed ahead of any Israeli air strike on Iran, any escalation of covert warfare entirely sidesteps the debate in Washington and other capitals on whether to launch an unprovoked conventional military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Right now, despite keeping the threat of bombing Iran's facilities proverbially "on the table", the Obama Administration -- guided by its military -- appears loathe to pursue a course of action that it believes would, at best, only delay the Iranians by up to three years, but would risk substantial costs to U.S. and Israeli interests, and global oil supplies. And Israel's closest European allies on Iran, Germany and France, have come out strongly against Israel initiating hostilities.
But if the Iranians started a war -- or were perceived to be starting a war -- that calculus could change. Two years ago, Aluf Benn, now the editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz, suggested that an act of provocation might be Israel's route to a military strike on Iran: "It is usually assumed," Benn wrote, "that Israel will seek to repeat the 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. This is only one scenario and not a likely one. There are other possibilities to consider: a war in the north [between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon]  that drags Iran in, or a strike against a valuable target for the Iranian regime, which leads Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to take action against 'the Zionist regime.' If Iran attacks Israel first, the element of surprise will be lost, but then Israel's strike against the nuclear installations will be considered self-defense."
That reasoning may prompt some within the corridors of power in Iran to counsel restraint even if Tehran concludes that Israel was responsible for the blast at Bid Ganeh. But there will be others who may not be willing to let Israel continue unanswered emptying "the magazine" described by the Western diplomat in TIME's story.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week reiterated the Pentagon's skepticism of the call for military action against Iran, stressing that at best it could delay the Iranians by up to three years, but would touch off a potentially far more damaging immediate conflict. "You've got to be careful of unintended consequences," Panetta warned. Indeed. But that warning may prove to apply as much to covert warfare as to overt warfare.
This commentary was published in Time on 14/11/2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

Economic Sanctions On Syria Could Tip The Balance

A suffering economy alone won't topple Bashar al-Assad's regime, but Arab sanctions would help drive it to negotiations
By Samir Seifan
Arab League secretary-general Nabil Alarabi
Arab League secretary-general Nabil Alarabi. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership. Photograph: Sabri Elmhedwi/EPA
The Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership also includes the threat of economic sanctions. The resolution did not specify what those punishments might be, and it will probably be left to each Arab state to decide individually.
The toughest Arab sanctions may halt imports of non-oil products from Syria, which form a large part of the country's exports. In addition, sanctions against dealing with Syrian banks will close the last channel with the international banking network. This would prevent the Syrian government and businesses opening letters of credit or making international bank transactions.
Arab economic sanctions will be added to other economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Syria, which have had a significant impact on the economic situation – particularly the decision to stop buying Syrian crude oil.
The regime is unable to find buyers for around 140,000 barrels of crude oil per day and the Syrian state treasury is losing around $5bn a year at today's oil prices. Syria was using this revenue to pay for imports and this loss is largely reflected in the availability of petroleum products in the market – especially diesel for heating in the coming winter. It is also reflected in the inability of the state to reimburse Shell and Total for their shares in oil and gas production.
These economic difficulties are adding to the difficult situation that has accumulated over the past seven months: governmental projects are stopped, private investment is stopped, capital has fled abroad, the tourism sector (which was making 12% of GDP) is close to zero, industrial production has shrunk and demobilised part of its workforce, agriculture is affected heavily due to the vast army operations, the market is shrinking, exports are reduced by half, unemployment has increased to around 25% and prices have risen due to a lack of many goods. All this is having a negative impact on the capabilities of the government and on standards of living for the majority of citizens.
The question is: can this difficult economic situation topple Bashar al-Assad's regime? Will it strengthen the opposition as people blame the Assad regime for deteriorating conditions, or will it push more Syrians to blame opposition demonstrators for "creating the unrest"?
They accuse the opposition because they are tired and want this situation to end soon. Many among the non-Sunni minorities are nervous about the future – especially sectarian conflict – and continue to support the regime, not out of love but out of fear.
Despite differing positions, though, many Syrians want regime change and are willing to bear the cost of change. It is likely that several million Syrians would take to the streets calling for regime change if the police and army withdrew from cities and towns (as proposed by the Arab League). Syrians believe that the Assad regime has closed the door of the future and they need to reopen it.
The difficult economic situation means the regime has ceased to be a source of benefits for the groups that are loyal to it. Instead, it is becoming a source of economic crises, unrest and trouble. This will continue as long as Assad regime is in power. Economic sanctions in general have sent a message to the business community to distance itself from the Assad regime. The whole economic situation could be a major reason for increased resentment, contributing to the regime's fall.
However, the nature of the crisis is more political than economic and some Syrians are still convinced by the regime's stories about plots and conspiracies. The same conditions of fear are dominating the Allawite ruling minority and pushing them to support Assad regime. The regime is playing a lot of games to stir up this fear.
But the balance is not on the side of the regime. The opposition is now calling for expanding civil disobedience, general strikes and closing markets. The economy will play a significant role in tightening the political situation around the regime.
The economy may contribute towards pushing the regime into accepting negotiations with the opposition for a peaceful transfer of power; if not, the international community will have to take the initiative. Either way, Syrians are not going back.
The difficult economic situation alone will not topple the Assad regime but it will constitute a very important component of the regime-toppling process.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/11/2011
Samir Seifan is a Syrian economist

Iraq's Federalist Project Reflects A Resurgent Sectarian Conflict

There's new support for federalism in Iraq, but this is not a healthy sign.
By Reidar Visser
There was a time when all Washington policy-makers wanted to see in Iraq was a pro-federal movement among the minority Sunni Arab population. Back in 2005, at the time of the drafting of the new constitution, the Bush administration worried that scepticism towards federalism among Sunnis might torpedo the whole constitutional referendum. (It almost did.) In 2007, at the height of the "soft partition" debate in Washington, then-Senator Joe Biden made several enthusiastic attempts at enlisting Sunni support for federalism, but to no avail.
Similarly, when the Akkaz gasfield in Anbar province first made headlines in 2007, it was US generals, rather than Sunni Iraqis themselves, who spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of energy development in the Sunni-majority region.
Today, finally, Sunni interest in federalism exists in Iraq. In fact, it exists in several forms. Since 2010, pro-federal movements have been noted in both Anbar and Nineveh governorates. But most substantially, there is now a formal request from the governorate council in Salahaddin, the home province of Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein, for a referendum to be held on a federal status for the governorate.
If successful, the referendum would put Salahaddin on par with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is the only existing federal region in Iraq as of today. In theory, the request for a referendum should be honoured automatically and immediately by the central government, but similar requests from two Shiite-majority governorates (Basra and Wasit) have been ignored by Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.
The Sunni discovery of federalism in Iraq has taken place not as the result of a sudden realisation of the beauty of local government, but rather as response to a process of increased marginalisation and even humiliation at the level of the central government.
A keyword in this respect is "de-Baathification". Iraq has a de-Baathification law from 2008 aimed at regulating the access of officials of the former regime to positions in today's bureaucracy. With the exception of the security sector, the law in itself is relatively permissive, allowing reinstatement of most officials except those who were in the top echelons.
The problem is the way it is applied, as well as the substantial amount of extra-judicial de-Baathification that is taking place in Iraq. Since the run-up to the parliamentary elections of March 2010, the pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist parties have propelled anti-Baathism to the forefront in several illegal variants, including attempts to sack Sunni members of the Iraqi bureaucracy that have a Baathist past but whose professional reinstatement is covered by the de-Baathification law of 2008.
Conversely, Shiites with a Baathist past are generally left untouched, and even continue to serve in positions in the security sector from which they should have been removed according to the law.
This played at least some role in the latest federalism bid in Salahaddin, alongside complaints relating to the general economy of the governorate. Shortly before the bid was launched in late October, a number of university officials in the province were sacked with reference to allegations about a past in the secret services of Saddam Hussein. Days later, much of Iraq was engulfed in a massive security sweep with hundreds of arrests in which vague accusations of Baathism again were used as a rationale by the government.
The recent pro-federal current in Sunni majority-areas of Iraq is not a reflection of any positive political trend in the country. Rather than representing a linear trend of progress since 2007, it is testimony to how politics have retrogressed since 2009 after having first recovered from the sectarian strife of the preceding years. In 2009, Mr Al Maliki championed a return to more centralist policies that was hailed by Sunnis and Shiites alike as a sign of Iraq bouncing back from the sectarian strife that had almost created a civil war between 2005 and 2007. In 2009, non-sectarianism and anti-federalism went hand in hand.
Rather, it is the rapid downwards trend in Iraq since the parliamentary elections in 2010 that has prompted some Sunnis to think in terms they themselves swore they would never employ just a few years ago. The secular Iraqiyya party - which enjoys a particularly solid support base in Sunni-majority areas - came first in those elections, but has been unhappy with the way the post-election process has distributed power in the new Iraqi government.
-This commentary was published in The National on 14/11/2011
Reidar Visser is an historian on Iraq

The Nuclear Options

Barack Obama's Iran policy is frustrating, slow-moving, and fraught with uncertainty. But have you taken a look at the alternatives?
By James Traub

Iranian President Ahmadinejad
President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to make a sharp break with George W. Bush's policy on nuclear non-proliferation. Obama and his team believed that the only way they could get allies to support a tough line against countries like Iran or North Korea that were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was to comply with the United States' own obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its nuclear stockpile. One of Obama's leading nonproliferation experts admitted to me in the early days of the administration that this sounded very much like "an article of faith" adopted by untested idealists. "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated," he said. "The administration will be going to these countries to say, 'We're doing our part; now you have to do your part.'"
You could read the report on Iran's nuclear program released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say, "Proposition refuted." Certainly Obama's critics have. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney writes that thanks to "the administration's extraordinary record of failure," Iran is "making rapid headway toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons." In fact, the report dwells almost entirely on events that happened long before Obama took office and essentially offers an official imprimatur to the widespread view that Iran has been seeking for years to develop a nuclear warhead and is continuing to do so. Neither Bush nor Obama has stopped Iran from pursuing a goal to which Iranian leaders are single-mindedly dedicated -- nor could they have. But Obama's strategy has thrown a spanner into Iran's nuclear works. On balance, the proposition survives.
Iran is still enriching uranium and is now estimated to have enough to produce four bombs. Enriching uranium to the level required for a weapon is the hardest part of the nuclear process; the advances in hardware uncovered by the IAEA only confirm the belief that Iran is going to the immense trouble of developing an enrichment capacity in order to be able to build a bomb. But according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of centrifuges spinning at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant peaked at 9,000 in November 2009 and has since fallen. What's more, the average productivity of each centrifuge has fallen over the past year. And Iran may no longer be able to build more centrifuges. There are various reasons for these problems: the Stuxnet virus, which crippled Iran's productive capacity; poor centrifuge design; metal fatigue; and the shortage of key materials owing to U.N. sanctions passed in 2010.   
Obama doesn't get credit for metal fatigue, but he probably does for Stuxnet, which appears to have been a joint Israeli-American venture. In fact, Obama's Iran policy is less rule-abiding, and more sophisticated, than the administration lets on and its critics allow. But it would be a mistake to think that it's only the dark arts that matter. Obama's initial efforts to engage Iran through diplomacy went nowhere, but allowed U.S. officials to argue inside the United Nations and the IAEA board of governors that they had made a good-faith effort to end the isolation that the Bush administration had imposed on Iran. The president's embrace of nuclear abolitionism and his strong push for an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians countered the argument, common throughout the developing world, that the United States was a nuclear hypocrite -- that it was violating the same international rules that it was insisting that Iran observe. The combination of engagement and NPT-compliance has helped Obama persuade Russia, China, and other states to pass tough sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.
I asked Nicholas Burns, the career diplomat who handled the Iran file as undersecretary of state in Bush's second term, how he assessed Obama's strategy. Burns argues that both Bush and Obama pursued a "two-track" policy of carrots and sticks, but says that Obama "has been very effective in gaining the upper hand in terms of public opinion over [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership." Iran's president played up his anti-Americanism to achieve heroic status in Bush's last years. Now he is almost wholly isolated. Burns describes the Obama strategy, with something like professional admiration, as "very artful."
I can hear Romney sputtering, "Who cares if Ahmadinejad has no friends if Iran is still enriching uranium?" The goal, after all, is not to be artful but to stop Iran from producing a bomb. But isolating the Iranian leadership, like slowing down the centrifuges, is a means of buying time. And time does not have to be on Iran's side, though it has been so far. David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, compares the struggle against Iran to that against apartheid South Africa: a long-term campaign of isolation.
Administration officials say that their strategy is working because diplomacy has stripped away the Iranians' global standing, while sanctions have begun to cripple their economy. The White House responded to my request for comment by pointing me to a Washington Post story that quotes Ahmadinejad defending his economic record before Iran's parliament by complaining that "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore." The U.S. goal is to make Iran pay a high enough price for its nuclear program -- while at the same time holding out the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic rapprochement -- that the leadership will ultimately agree on some face-saving solution that allows Iran to pretend that all it was seeking all along was access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad may even have been making such a bid in his recent offer to stop enriching uranium in exchange for guaranteed access to a supply of 20 percent enriched uranium from abroad. It would hardly be unprecedented: In the past, leaders in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere have abandoned nuclear programs in the face of pressure.
Or maybe Ahmadinejad was messing with the West, as he has in the past. Iran is not South Korea; it is both a rising regional power and a revolutionary state, and its leadership, whatever it says, seems to be united in viewing a nuclear weapons capacity as an ideological and geopolitical necessity. Iran may be more like the Pakistan of the 1970s, whose people were prepared to "eat grass," as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, to get the bomb. Neither carrots nor sticks may induce the Iranians to abandon their quest. If that's so, then nothing save war, or at least the credible threat of war, will work. Obama, of course, has not foreclosed that option, but Romney vows that as president he would "prepare for war."
So those are our choices: a frustrating, second-best policy of playing by the rules in order to gather and preserve a coalition, gradually raising the pressure, buying time, and putting off the day of reckoning in the hopes that something will change and the Iranians will decide they'd rather not eat grass -- or prepare for war. But you can't threaten a war unless you're willing to launch one; and an aerial assault on Iran, whether carried out by the United States or Israel, would provoke a spasm of revenge attacks against America, and wreck the country's standing in much of the Islamic world and above all among the pro-American people of Iran -- all to the end of damaging, not destroying, Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It would purchase delay at an unimaginable cost. And it would guarantee that the Iranians would eat grass to build a bomb.
Compared to that, a second-best policy looks pretty artful.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 11/11/2011
-James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation