2012 Predictions of war with Iran that didn’t Happen (20th Anniversary Edition)

It’s June 15, 1992. A news nugget on page A-12 of the Washington Post reports that the chief of Israel’s Air Force believes military action might be necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons:

Maj. Gen. Herzl Budinger told Israeli television that if Iran’s intensive effort to develop atomic weapons is not “disrupted,” the fundamentalist Islamic nation will become a nuclear power by the end of the decade. Earlier, the air force commander told reporters that “the greatest disruption possible, whether military or political,” is necessary to keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East and prevent a world war. By “disruption,” Budinger said he meant “international political action, and aggressive action, if needed.”

This was the birth of what we can now look back on as two decades of threats by Israel to “bomb Iran” — with or without the consent, assistance and/or leadership of the United States — to prevent Iran’s impending development of nuclear capability.

Iran was struggling to recover economically from the ravages of its eight year war with Iraq (1980-1988). Its firebrand revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had died three years earlier. A US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 34-91, Oct. 1991) viewed Iran’s president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as a pragmatic nationalist who “is likely to move slowly and prudently to repair relations” with the US but conceded that “Iran’s major foreign policy goal is to foster a more stable regional environment conducive to Iranian security and economic development.” Although it would be a “nuisance,” Iran’s becoming “more dangerous” was viewed by the NIE as a “less likely scenario.” The Israeli defense establishment thought otherwise.

Fast forward a decade. Weeks after Iran had quietly assisted the US in achieving its initial victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush branded Iran as part of an “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union speech. In an interview with the London Times, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on the international community “to target Iran as soon as the imminent conflict with Iraq is complete.” Sharon insisted that the day after the Iraq war (which had not yet begun) ended, the war against Iran must begin.

Fast forward another decade…

During 2012, not a month passed when the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran didn’t generate hyperventilated headlines. To mark the end of the 20th anniversary of “the Iranian threat,” here’s a look back at some of the articles that kept the about-to-happen war against Iran’s nuclear program in the headlines last year.

January 2012: The year started with a bang…at least in the press. Foreign Affairs features an essay “Time to Attack Iran” by Matt Kroenig, reinforced by “The Case for Regime Change in Iran”, a commentary by Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt, alongside of which are two pieces critical of Koenig’s arguments: “Not the Time to Attack Iran” by Colin H.Kahl” and “The Flawed Logic of Striking Iran” by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro. Also weighing in with a totally contrarian view was neorealist Kenneth Waltz, who contributes “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” to the debate. An astute critique of Fly and Schmitt, which remains timely, is Simon Tisdall’s piece in the Guardian, “An Iran War is Brewing From Mutual Ignorance.”

A noteworthy pro-war attention grabber that reaches a much wider and more diverse audience outside policy wonk circles is Ronen Bergman’s cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “Will Israel Attack Iran?”, which concludes, “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”  Ira Chernus provides a takedown of Bergman’s arguments a few days later in the Huffington Post. Also contradicting Bergman is a draft of an Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) report, arguing that Iran would not be capable of building a nuclear weapon in 2012 and that a a military attack wouldn’t effectively prevent Iran from building one if it made the decision to do so.

February: David Ignatius reveals in a Washington Post op-ed, “Is Israel Preparing to Attack Iran?”, that US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s biggest worry is that Israel may be preparing to attack Iran in the spring. Ignatius’ scoop goes viral, eliciting commentary from all directions within the mainstream media and blogosphere. Charles Krauthammer immediately infers that such a leak would not have occurred unless an Israeli attack was “certain” and concludes it’s a done deal. Gareth Porter argues that the leak brings into sharper focus “a contradiction in the Barack Obama administration’s Iran policy between its effort to reduce the likelihood of being drawn into a war with Iran and its desire to exploit the Israeli threat of war to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran”. In the New York Times, former Israeli military defense chief Amos Yadlin demands “an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity — and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest — Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so.” Jonathan Marcus at BBC News provides a step-by-step blueprint of “How Israel Might Strike at Iran.”

March: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu tells Israeli media that he had assured President Obama during their talks in Washington that Israel had not yet decided whether or not to strike Iran in the next few weeks. Within days, a front page piece in the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israeli daily Israel Hayom by headlined “Difficult, Daring, Doable”, propounds the feasibility and desirability of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Mark Perry exposes what his sources believe to be a secret Israeli plan to attack Iran from Azerbaijan; the neoconservative and right-wing media are divided as to whether the story is a hoax or another deliberate leak by the Obama administration intended to thwart Israeli plans.

April: It’s spring and there are no signs of an Israeli attack. Slate’s Fred Kaplan suggests that Israel might launch an “October surprise” just before the US elections:

If they started an attack and needed U.S. firepower to help them complete the task, Barack Obama might open himself up to perilous political attacks—for being indecisive, weak, appeasing, anti-Israel, you name it—if he didn’t follow through. It could cost him the votes of crucial constituencies.

May: In the May/June issue of World Affairs Journal, Elliott Abrams and Robert Wexler debate whether the time for an Israeli attack on Iran has finally arrived. Abrams calls for immediate action and Robert Wexler argues “not yet.” After numerous reports in the right-wing blogosphere cite Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz in arguing that Israel is about to attack Iran, Gantz slams the “public chatter” about the Iranian nuclear issue by people who used to know things about Iran’s nuclear program but no longer do,” while assuring the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel is “super ready” for military action. A temporary lull in war rhetoric from Israel fuels mid-month speculation that the top echelons of the Israeli government are in “lockdown” in preparation for a military strike. The surprise formation of a national unity government, Reuters infers, is reflective of Netanyahu’s desire for “a strong government to lead a military campaign,” particularly one that includes Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli Chief of Staff and a veteran soldier in the coalition:

‘I think they have made a decision to attack,’ said one senior Israeli figure with close ties to the leadership. ‘It is going to happen. The window of opportunity is before the U.S. presidential election in November. This way they will bounce the Americans into supporting them.’

June: In another op-ed, David Ignatius rings alarm bells:

It’s clear that Israel’s military option is still very much on the table, despite the success of economic sanctions in forcing Iran into negotiations. ‘It’s not a bluff, they’re serious about it,” says Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. A half-dozen other experts and officials made the same point in interviews last week: The world shouldn’t relax and assume that a showdown with Iran has been postponed until next year. Here, the alarm light is still flashing red.

July: Chief of Staff Benny Gantz refutes rumours that he is opposed to war with Iran. “The IDF will carry out orders to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if it receives them from the government,” he declares. Mofaz leaves Netanyahu’s coalition, revivifying the need for Israeli elections. Charles Krauthammer opines to Fox News that Israel will attack Iran if it appears that President Obama will win re-election.

August: During Panetta’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu informs him during closed talks that Israel is prepared to defend itself from Iran with or without the help of the US and that he is prepared to accept the consequences. Barak Ravid of Haaretz reports that others at the meeting believed that Netanyahu’s comments were part of a “psychological warfare” campaign waged by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak “in order to pressure the U.S. into attacking Iran itself.” Two weeks later, Panetta tells the press that the Israelis have not yet “made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” while Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey incurs the wrath of Israeli political leaders when he asserts that an Israeli attack “could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities”.

September: Among the questions that Lesley Stahl asks “The Spymaster” — the former head of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan — in a Sixty Minutes interview is whether an Israeli attack on Iran could succeed. Although she opens the interview with a Dagan quote asserting that “Israel attacking Iran was the stupidest idea [he] had ever heard,” she insistently argues that he ought to believe otherwise, sometimes even putting words in Dagan’s mouth despite his clear resistance.

Netanyahu’s speech before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27 becomes an iconic moment when the Israeli leader literally draws a line with a red marker on a crude graphic of an incendiary device. “Ladies and gentlemen, the relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb,” he said. Netanyahu’s use of the “Wile E. Coyote” rendition of an Iranian nuclear weapon evokes disapproving frowns as well as irreverent mockery: “I’m hearing ridicule of that stunt from people in the United States government who are a) militant on the subject of Iran, and b) needed by Israel to carry-out effective anti-proliferation efforts,” Jeffrey Goldberg fumes in The Atlantic. Goldberg, normally a staunch defender of Netanyahu, also complains:

Netanyahu’s constant threats, and warnings, about Iran’s nuclear program have undermined Israel’s deterrent capability. Netanyahu spent much of this year arguing, privately and publicly, that soon it would be too late to stop the Iranians from moving their centrifuges fully underground. He knows full well that the Iranians could soon enter the so-called zone of immunity, by moving the bulk of their centrifuges into the Fordow facility, where Israeli bombs can’t reach. But he’s now kicked the can down the road until next spring.

October: Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak tells Britain’s The Daily Telegraph that Iran has used up to a third of its enriched uranium to make fuel rods for a medical research reactor, thereby delaying progress towards a weapon for 8-10 months. Barak speculated that Iran’s “ruling ayatollahs” may be trying to reduce tension over the nuclear issue until after the US presidential election, or convince the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iran’s willingness to cooperate. Barak said this did not change Israel’s view that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The threat of an October surprise immediately before the US election subsides. The alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud party with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s even more hardline Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our home”) party leads to concerns that the PM is forming a war cabinet that would make a military confrontation inevitable. According to Aluf Benn of Haaretz:

…he announced that the top priority of his next government will be preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.

November: Netanyahu vows to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, even if it means defying the US. In a joint press conference at the Pentagon, after Panetta implied that retiring Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed that “there is time and space for an effort to try to achieve a diplomatic solution” with Iran — which Panetta said “remains, I believe, the preferred outcome for both the United States and for Israel” — Barak undercuts his host, stating that Iranian leaders would have to be “coerced” into ending their nuclear program. Barak predicts this will happen in 2013.

December:  On Dec. 31, in a Haaretz article headlined “Bibi’s Strange Silence on Iran,” Uzi Benziman wonders what has become of the Iranian threat, which suddenly vanished from Israel’s national conversation, with the exception of a single unremarkable mention as part of a list of challenges in a political party speech by Netanyahu last week:

Since his [Netanyahu’s] In a joint press conference at the beginning of the month with Panetta, retiring Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak anyahu’s] resounding appearance at the United Nations, where he pointed to the Iranian threat by means of a ludicrous drawing, this fateful issue (from his perspective ) has somehow dropped from the public eye. It’s a strange turn of events considering the fact that the Iranian nuclear program topped Netanyahu’s agenda during his entire current term in office, and that the manner in which he handled it cast a pall of palpable existential threat over Israel.

But according to former Obama national security adviser Dennis Ross, 2013 will be “the decisive year” in the showdown with Iran’s nuclear program. “If by the end of 2013 diplomacy hasn’t worked, the prospects for use of force become quite high,” he said.

A new year, with new possibilities, which will probably include more talk of an impending war with Iran (that Lobe Log will continue to track and report on). Elections are coming up in both Israel and Iran, opening the door to a range of events that can seriously impact the US and Israel’s Iran policy, as well as Iranian foreign policy. And while total peace may be unlikely, one can at least hope that past predictions of war with Iran will be as accurate in 2013 as they have been in the past.

Photo: Adbusters

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.