Mideast focused pundit Daniel Pipes has positively reviewed a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) that discusses “likely” Iranian responses to an Israeli “preventive strike”. Pipes, who in 2010 argued that President Obama should bomb Iran to “to salvage his tottering administration”, repeats Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights’ assessment of how Iran would react to an Israeli military attack before concluding that the consequences would be “unpleasant but not cataclysmic, manageable not devastating.” The underlying assumption in Pipes’ article is that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon rather than nuclear weapon capability, which is what the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) and US intelligence agencies have asserted. And according to Pipes’ line of reasoning, the consequences of striking Iran pale in comparison to the only alternative he provides: “apocalyptic Islamists controlling nuclear weapons“.
The claim that the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon by far outweighs the pain of the aftermath of going to war with Iran has emerged as a standard talking point among neoconservatives hawks. So too has a contradiction from their descriptions of the threat that the Islamic Republic allegedly poses to the region and the United States. On one hand, Iran is ruled by “apocalyptic Islamists” who are intent on destroying Israel. On the other hand, Iran’s leaders are rational enough to restrain themselves from responding too aggressively to a military attack on their soil. Writes former CIA mideast adviser Paul Pillar in the National Interest:
Deterrence of Iran with a nuclear weapon frequently gets described as far too thin a reed to lean on when facing ideologically crazed mullahs, but after the Iranians become targets of armed attack, they somehow become such calm and cautious decision makers that deterrence can be relied on greatly.
Pillar’s article points out that Eisenstadt and Knights’ approach is narrowly selective with the consequences that are addressed and that more focus needs to be on the broader consequences of attacking Iran, such as how another US waged war in the Middle East will be perceived by Arab populations and how possible blowback could affect US interests in the region, or what happens if Iranians respond with more than just a “short term nationalist backlash”.
Pillar also notes that Eisenstadt and Knights do not adequately address what “difference an Iranian nuclear weapon would make—to Iranian behavior, to peace and stability in the Middle East, or to anything else.” That’s a topic which Pillar has explored in depth and just this month prominent international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz ruffled more than a few hawkish feathers (Pipes’ included) by arguing that nuclear balancing could bring stability to the Middle East. See Pillar and Harvard’s Stephen Walt’s reactions to Waltz’s work here and here.
Finally, what are the legal implications of an Israeli “preventive” or “preemptive” strike on Iran? If a US preemptive strike against Iran would violate both domestic and international law, what about an Israeli strike which, by the way, would likely draw the US into the conflict as well?