Why Conservative Media Are Wrong About Attacking Iran

Conservative media are pushing for Israel or the United States to launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, claiming that inaction will cause great harm to Israel. In doing so, however, they are ignoring questions about whether Iran is planning to build nuclear weapons at all and minimizing the dangers of war with Iran.

In a February 6 Townhall.com piece, Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison, senior fellows with the Family Research Council (FRC), argued that Israel should “strike [Iran] now” as its “very survival is on the line,” adding, “As worrisome as an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities might be, Iran with a nuclear weapon is infinitely more.” They concluded:

Today, surrounded by mortal enemies, with their backs to the wall, Israelis are told to take more “risks for peace” by a US. administration that is outraged by the sight of too many Jews in Jerusalem.

If we wait until the Iranians have sunk their nuclear weapons deep into hardened bunkers it will be too late. The Obama administration will not act in time. Later, will be too late.

Israel: Don't wait; hit the Iranian nuclear facilities now. The world will thank you for it.

During the February 7 edition of his Fox News show, Sean Hannity said that "[t]here is a rise of Islamic extremism that is happening under [Obama's] watch, and he's not doing a thing," adding, "[h]e ought to be dropping bunker buster bombs on Iran's nuclear sites."

On February 8, The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens appeared on Fox News' Happening Now to discuss his recent piece on whether Israel should bomb Iran. During the segment, Stephens said that “Israel should bomb Iran if it's going to strike decisively,” adding: “If it's going to have a surgical attack that will set the Iranians back by six months or one year then the question becomes, What's the point of that? But if it's going to use a strike as a first stage in a broader program of regime change joined by the United States, then that's worthwhile.” Stephens concluded the segment by saying:

As the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it, Iran is now entering what he calls a zone of immunity. They will have too much material too deeply buried to be susceptible to an Israeli strike. And that window is closing for them. Unless they take advantage of this opportunity they will have to live with a nuclear Iran, which will be devastating for Israel's interest.

And on the February 12 edition of Fox News' America's News Headquarters, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said that “if we don't become very serious and convince the Iranians that we will use significant military force to stop them they're going to just keep moving straight ahead,” adding, “I think we're going to have to be prepared to use military force.” He concluded:

I want this administration to get realistic and get tough about Iran. Stop this nonsense about talking to them, which goes back to when he was debating Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton told him to his face that he's naïve. Stop it. Cut it out, Mr. President. They don't want to talk to you. You know what they want to hear from you? That you're tough. That you are capable of attacking them if that is necessary and that you're not going to sit there and labor over it. That you are willing to do it if that is necessary to stop them from becoming a nuclear power. And he should say to them, in the toughest language he can come up with, there's no way on earth I'm going to let you become a nuclear power. It's just too darn dangerous.

There are several things wrong here.

First, Blackwell, Morrison, and Hannity never mentioned the fact that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would only delay, not put an end to, any nuclear ambitions that Iran might have. Indeed, according to Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, an attack would at most delay Iran's nuclear program by a few years. From a November 2011 Defense Department press briefing:

Q: Another hot-button issue: Iran. There's been a lot of chatter about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Can you walk us through or comment at least on the complexities and the effectiveness issue of this kind of a campaign?

Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen both said over the last couple of years that bombing, at best, would set back their program by three years at most. Do you still agree with that assessment? Just walk us through the complexities and the blowback, the unanticipated effects of something like that.

SEC. PANETTA: Well, I certainly share the views of Secretary Gates and General (sic; Admiral) Mullen that they've expressed with regards to this in terms of the impact that it would have.

Second, Blackwell, Morrison, Stephens, and Giuliani provide no evidence to support the notion that Iran would behave more aggressively in its region were it to possess nuclear weapons. As Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, has explained, “Nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else.” Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community and a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, similarly explained that "[r]ather than analysis, the notion of greater Iranian aggressiveness is supported by nothing more than a vague sense that somehow those nukes ought to make such a difference."

Then there is the suggestion by Blackwell, Morrison, Stephens, and Giuliani that Iran is likely to have a nuclear weapon soon, despite the fact that 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates found no conclusive evidence that Iran is even trying to build a bomb. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated the uncertainty over whether Iran is trying to build a bomb in January 31 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

These conservative media also fail to mention the potential consequences of a strike on Iran. Meir Dagan, the former director of Israel's national intelligence agency, the Mossad, has said that an Israeli strike on Iran would likely lead to a regional war. And as The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, were Israel to attack, “regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran's centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran's nuclear program -- they stand a good chance of,” among others things, “changing the Middle East forever,” “sparking lethal reprisals,” “rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally,” and “of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973.”

Furthermore, Panetta has said that a strike against Iran might affect U.S. troops in the Middle East. Speaking about a potential strike against Iran's nuclear facilities at his November 2011 press briefing, Panetta said:

I think you've got to -- you've got to be careful of unintended consequences here. And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region. And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.

In addition, some Israeli leaders reportedly do not believe that Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel but are instead concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran “would change the balance of power in the Middle East.” According to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman (emphasis original):

I know that most of Israel's leaders do not believe that Iran is going to use nuclear weapons against Israel. The problem is not the nuclear threat. The Iranians are not stupid. They want to live.... And I think that most leaders, and me personally as well, see that there are only a few people who believe that Iran would be hesitant enough to -- sorry, brutal enough and stupid enough to use nuclear weapon against Israel.

The problem is that once Iran acquires this ability, it would change the balance of power in the Middle East. And a country that possesses nuclear weapon is a different country when it comes to support proxy jihadist movement. And these Israeli leaders afraid would significantly narrow down the variety of options from the point of view of Israel, just to quote one example coming from Minister of Defense Barak, when he said, just imagine--he told me in a meeting we had on the 13th of January in his house -- said, just imagine, Ronen, that tomorrow we go into another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon like we did in 2006, and this time we are determined to take them out. But Iran comes forward and say, to attack Hezbollah is like attacking Iran, and we threaten you with nuclear weaponry.

Now, Minister of Defense Barak says it's not necessarily that we would be threatened not to attack, and we would decide to cancel the war, but it would certainly make us think twice.

All of this counsels against a rush to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. But you won't hear it from the right-wing media, who are too busy beating the drums of war to worry about consequences.