CFR/IISS Book: War With Iran Would be “A Mistake”

Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Affairs at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, just came out with a new book called The Sixth Crisis: Iran, Israel, America and the Rumors of War.

I haven’t read the book yet, but got an overview from the authors on Monday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. What seems to be remarkable about the book is that Allin and Simon — from the U.K. and Washington’s establishment think tanks — wrote it.  And their views are eminently reasonable.

Take this statement from Allin: “War with Iran would be a mistake, not just bad or tragic, but a mistake in the sense that it would be worse than not going to war.”

That was just the launching point.

Allin and Simon gave a frank talk — at a Congressionally-funded establishment think tank, no less — about the need to reevaluate the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran. Namely, because war is worse than not going to war, they think that perhaps it’s time to address “containment” as a potential policy.

“The U.S. will have to build and rely on a regime of contaiment aginst Iran, whether or not it succeeds in building a nuclear weapon,” Allin said.

Containment means two things: 1) Living with a potentially nuclear Iran; and 2) making sure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stops being the gift that keeps on giving for Iran — that is, contra Israeli and neoconservative statements, linkage is very much a concern.

“In thinking about containment, there is an important element of linkage to the Israel-Palestine issue,” said Allin. He quoted Mark Heller, an Israeli researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, who told the New York Times over the weekend that linkage is “a total illusion.” But Allin said Heller’s construction was setting up a “straw man.” Allin responded that if Heller wants to talk about “illusions,” it is also appropriate to speak of “delusions”:

It is a delusion to deny that there are things Israel can do and has been doing that makes the US ‘s challenges in the Middle East more difficult… The building of settlements in the Occupied Territories is near the top of the list.

Containment, as constructed by Allin and Simon, is not some policy of quiescence to all Iranian demands. Rather it’s a multi-pronged strategy of conventional power, nuclear superiority, and political deterrent. As Allin said, their plan is intentionally ambiguous about whether it seeks to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or using one once it does — because the plan seeks to do both.

However, containment presupposes a rational actor in Iran — something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with all his blustering about the “tyrants of Tehran” and the “messianic apocalyptic cult” that is the government, might be loathe to accept.

Nonetheless, Simon explicitly does not view Iran this way:

I think I’m speaking for both of us here: We tend to see Iranian foreign policy as essentially cautious and opportunistic… We tend less to see the Iranians as doing something really outrageous. Against this background of caution and opportunism, they can do some nutty things.

Simon went on to say that, obviously, the Israeli calculus is that a nuclear armed Iran will be emboldened to do even more “nutty things.”

“When we talk about an undeterrable, crazy, messianic regime, it is a little scary to acknowledge those elements,” added Allin. “On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that we throw strategic cost benefit out the window.”

And therein lies the rub: Simon and Allin didn’t take on the usual mantra that U.S. and Israeli interests dovetail perfectly — instead, there was a brutally honest discussion of where they diverge, bringing linkage back into the fold.

“The respective issues of Israel and Palestine and what to do about the Iranian nuclear question raise questions about what are the reciprocal obligations of allies,” said Allin. “Jerusalem does not trust Washington when Washington says that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, particularly because there are now people in this city, like now [Simon] and I, who are writing that the U.S. may have to live with a nuclear Iran.”

“There are differing threat perceptions at work,” acknowledged Simon. “At the end of the day, Iran is simply not as threatening to the U.S. as Israel. This differential threat perception is something that concerns Israelis quite a lot.”

“The second [issue] is a gap between U.S. redlines and Israeli redlines on the Iranian nuclear program. It seems that at the moment, our red line is a breakout capability and their red line is an enrichment capability,” he went on.

Allin added: “We hedge it and we’re mushy in the end, but we do argue that our version of redlines include weaponization” — or taking the actual step of turning a breakout capability into a nuclear weapon.

It’s worth noting the Israeli red line posited here — enrichment — has already been (and continues to be) transgressed by the Iranians. What exactly would drive Israel to act militarily against Iran to enforce an end to enrichment? Or, as Simon put it: “The question is: under what circumstances do they do it?”

“There’s a poster that is ubiquitous in the Israeli Defense Ministry and Air Force (offices) of Israeli warplanes overflying Auschwitz,” he said. “This is a useful image to have in mind when you think about how Israelis view the stakes.”

The first Israeli consideration, said Simon, would be what the U.S. thought about an attack — it’s not in the interest of any Israelis to “fundamentally alienate the U.S.” That said, Simon acknowledged the possibility that Israel could nonetheless take action that “would disappoint any U.S. administration” — noting that former President George W. Bush opposed an Israeli attack on Iran during his tenure at the White House.

Secondly, said Simon, Israel has its own cost-benefit analysis: “Israelis would have to think that they’re going to get three to five years relief out of a raid. That is to say that they’d push back the Iranian (nuclear) program three to five years before having to go back and mow the lawn.”

But many analysts think an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would delay the program less than three years, due to the dispersal of Iranian nuclear assets and the difficulty in simultaneously wiping them out. Furthermore, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted, an attack on Iran “will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons.” Many analysts think that, absent an attack, the Iranian regime will stop short of a weapon and be satisfied with a breakout capability.

Simon added three further conditions for an Israeli strike: that diplomacy had run its course (in order to protect what’s left of Israel’s international standing); that no one else (i.e., the United States) was going to strike; and that the prospects for regime change in Iran become very dim, meaning so too would prospects for a regime that is less threatening even with bombs.

Simon added, “Historically Israel has acted when it sees its back against the wall. In 1981 (attack on Iraqi reactor) and (a 2007 strike on a Syrian facility) are examples of this. Each of these bold military moves took place when the Israeli cabinet sees their backs as against the wall.” Simon said the U.S. should try to “keep them from feeling this way.”

And how to do this? The aforementioned “containment regime,” for one. But there is also another tack that hasn’t been fully tried — and can’t be tried in ernest amid military threats (despite the latest version of an old canard that Arabs only understand force, as articulated by Netanyahu’s calls for a “credible threat of military action” to back up diplomacy).

“There is an argument you hear made that real game-changing engagement with Iran has not yet been tried,” said Allin. “That might be true. If you wanted real game-changing engagement with Iran you wouldn’t be talking about military options and tightening the noose of economic sanctions.”

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. QUOTE: “However, containment presupposes a rational actor in Iran — something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with all his blustering about the “tyrants of Tehran” and the “messianic apocalyptic cult” that is the government, might be loathe to accept.”

    So what if Netanyahu is reluctant to describe Iran as being run by a rational government? Who is he (who is Israel) to make claims for rationality, especially after the horrible over-reactions of the trashing of Gaza 2008/2009 (“the boss has gone crazy”), the murderous siege of Gaza (2006-present) and the excessive and murderous violence attending Israel’s illegal stopping of the Mavi Marmara.

    Indeed, Israel makes rather a point of SEEMING irrational. But that does not mean that it is not, also, actually irrational. It is a good strategy as long as the other “players” in Israel’s games are not willing to see if the craziness is a bluff. So far the USA has not been willing.

    The USA is especially trapped because, here, one is not usually allowed to discuss the problems and the possibilities in USA/Israeli relations, and that really cuts a lot of people out of the policy discussions (remember how Universities improved after Jews and women and people of color were admitted to faculties? Well, allowing Americans to talk and discuss Israel would have a similarly beneficial outcome. We would stop wasting all those brains).

  2. QUOTE: “* * * despite the latest version of an old canard that Arabs only understand force, as articulated by Netanyahu’s calls for a “credible threat of military action” to back up diplomacy).”

    Does Israel “understand” words or only force?

    Well, considering Israel’s reaction after winning the 1973 war against Egypt (giving Egypt a better deal than it had earlier demanded); and considering (by contrast) all the UNSC resolutions (without teeth), including UNSC-465 (1980) calling for removal of all settlers and — significantly for today’s discussions — dismantling of all settlements (then, presumably, located mostly in so-called neighborhoods of Jerusalem), it appears that Israel understands only force: mere talk has no effect on them (watch USA lips: you see words but no deeds).

  3. That more and more establishment voices are calling an attack on Iran a mistake means something. It means that such an attack is not going to take place. Have any of you gotten that message yet?

Comments are closed.