But there is no guarantee that politicians will heed the opinion of security professionals in the U.S., Israel and Britain against attacking Iran

The fact that senior security officials in the United States and Israel have publicly opposed an attack on Iran indicates considerable anxiety among them over the intentions of their elected representatives, but it also diverts attention from other very serious issues. To start with, some of the U.S. professionals concerned may be trying to ensure that the advice they give the politicians now is not treated with the contempt President George W. Bush showed them over the cautionary analyses they gave him about the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or with the indifference the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair showed his public-service advisers when they questioned the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This time, the officials have been very explicit. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is only one of a panoply of current and former officers who have stated that an Israeli attack on Iran will only delay Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon and will not stop it. General Dempsey added that he did not want to be “complicit” if Israel chose to make an attack. In Israel, Meir Dagan, the former head of the intelligence service Mossad, has said that a pre-emptive attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard; many other senior Israeli officers have also opposed an attack until all other means have been exhausted.

Further opposition comes from the British government; the Attorney General’s Office has advised the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Ministry of Defence that as Iran is not a “clear and present threat,” it would be a clear breach of international law for the United Kingdom to assist forces that could be involved in a pre-emptive strike. Although the U.K. has not ruled out war altogether, it has surprised Washington by resisting informal U.S. lobbying for use of the British islands of Ascension in the Atlantic and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean as bases for war with Iran.

Could escalate uncontrollably

A pre-emptive attack would also present formidable technical difficulties and could easily escalate uncontrollably. The former Clinton administration aide Heather Hurlburt, now of the National Security Network, writes in the online journal The Daily Beast that the likely targets are much further away than the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Israel destroyed in an unprovoked attack in 1981; the Israeli bombers had to be fully fuelled so that they did not need to refuel, and may also have benefited from negligent Iraqi air defence. Hurlburt points out that Israeli aircraft cannot carry the heavier U.S. bombs needed to damage the reinforced Iranian sites, and that the whole of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure cannot be destroyed in a short operation. Furthermore, as in Libya, some of the plants are in civilian areas, though western officials’ concerns about civilian casualties would ring hollow after the mass deaths caused by sanctions on Iraq and the civilian deaths which followed the invasion.

Many of the critics, however, neglect central political issues. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that even if Iran had the bomb, no intelligent person with one nuclear weapon would attack a country which had 5,000 of them.

Second, as Glenn Greenwald notes in The Guardian, Thomas Donnelly’s paper “A Strategy for a Nuclear Iran” is clear about the real reason for U.S. hostility to an Iranian nuclear weapon: “The surest deterrent to American action is a functioning nuclear arsenal.” The clear assumption is that anything that prevents the United States from attacking any country is a threat. As if in confirmation, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has recently said, “when you have a nuclear weapon, nobody attacks you.”

Donnelly, one of the authors of the American conservative document Project for the New American Century, wrote his Iran paper in 2004, when the Iranian uranium enrichment programme — which even Israeli intelligence accepts is partly for medical purposes — was no doubt far less advanced than it is now. Yet continuing U.S. hostility to Iran is manifest; Democrat Representative Brad Sherman says that if sanctions harm the Iranian people, “Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

Cuban crisis

Any U.S. president might hold and act on such opinions. Noam Chomsky, recalling the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis for The Guardian, cites recent work on President John F. Kennedy’s declassified tapes to show that Kennedy authorised several covert operations against Cuba and that during the crisis he was far more confrontational than earlier accounts had taken him to be. It was probably through sheer luck and nothing else that nuclear war did not occur. Although Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov of the Soviet submarine B-59 decided not to fire nuclear torpedoes when the U.S. aircraft carrier Randolph started depth-charging his vessel off Cuba, another officer might have acted differently. Chomsky also cites U.S. officers who detail “errors, confusions, near-accidents and miscomprehension” in the crisis — and who state that official commanders had no way of preventing a rogue crew-member from starting a war; many of the U.S. military personnel also held their political leaders in contempt. Today, there is little or nothing to ensure that, irrespective of the security professionals’ opinions of the politicians, they will not be ignored over Iran, just as they were over Iraq.

arvind.sivaramakrishnan@thehindu.co.in

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