Threats to attack Iran are smoke. Sanctions on Iran are our tool. Weakening Iran is our goal.

Summary:  A follow-up post providing more evidence that neither the US nor Israel plans to attack Iran soon, based not just on the evidence and logic of the situation, but also on statements of senior Israeli officials.  This has been the standing forecast on the FM website since 2007.  See the links at the end for more information about our conflict with Iran.

Let’s not go there.

I received pushback from readers in response to The hidden objective of our alliance against Iran (June 11), showing that trade sanctions on Iran — not military strikes — were the primary tool of the informal US-Israel-Saudi alliance.  Their goal: to weaken Iran. Exaggerated, often fanciful, stories about Iran getting nukes and using nukes justify the sanctions. The news media narrative has this backwards.

This is logical as realpolitik — a safe means of meeting the individual goals of the tripartite alliance (explained in that post), and explains both the continued heated rhetoric despite so much evidence Iran stopped its direct bomb program in 2003 (for details see here and here).

Sanctions as the goal (not an intermediate step) also explains the strong criticism by so many officials in America and Israel of those beating war-drums (governments are not unitary entities; many officials in the US and Israel love wars).  Today we look at a few of the most prominent examples of the past year.  These officials do not challenge the basics of alliance policy — that Iran will get nukes soon (claims made incessantly since 1984) — merely the need for and risks of attacking Iran now.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan referred to the possibility a future Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard” during a conference held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Friday. Dagan’s presentation during a senior faculty conference was his first public appearance since leaving his former role as chief of the Mossad at the end of September 2010.

Dagan said that Iran has a clandestine nuclear infrastructure which functions alongside its legitimate, civil infrastructure. It is the legitimate infrastructure, he said, that is under international supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Any strike on this legitimate infrastructure would be “patently illegal under international law,” according to Dagan.

… When asked about what would happen in the aftermath of an Israeli attack Dagan said that: “It will be followed by a war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end.”

Haaretz, 7 May 2011


Cheerleaders for war

When it comes to fateful issues pertaining to security and the state, the head of the Mossad must say his piece after leaving the post, {Danny} Yatom {Director of Mossad 1996-98} told Israel Radio. Yatom said that he too opposed the idea of attacking Iran as it would not achieve the intended goal.
Haaretz, 8 May 2011

Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan on Wednesday said that a strike on Iran should only be considered as the last resort and after all other means and methods have been exhausted. Speaking at a conference at the Tel Aviv University, Dagan said: “A military attack will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race. Khamenei will say ‘I was attacked by a country with nuclear capabilities; my nuclear program was peaceful, but I must protect my country. ” The former secret service chief warned that if a regional war breaks after Israel attacks Iran, Hezbollah will join forces with the Islamic Republic, and Syria might also be dragged into the confrontation.
Ynet, 1 June 2011

Former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy warned against an Israeli strike on Iran, saying that the results of a confrontation could be devastating for the Mideast. “The State of Israel cannot be destroyed,” he told Ynet on Friday. “An attack on Iran could affect not only Israel, but the entire region for 100 years.” The former head of the Israeli secret service said Thursday during an army boarding school reunion that while Iran should be prevented from becoming a nuclear power, its capabilities are still “far from posing an existential threat to Israel.”

Ynet, 4 November 2011

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has added his voice to a growing chorus of Israeli officials against a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Olmert spoke to Israel’s Channel 10 TV from New York Sunday. “There is no reason at this time not to talk about a military effort,” he said, “but definitely not to initiate an Israeli military strike.” Olmert was Israel’s prime minister from 2006-2009.
Ynet, 29 April 2012

Speaking at a conference in central Israel, Yuval Diskin {Director of the Israel security agency Shabak 2005-11} said: “I don’t trust a leadership that relies on messianic leadership. Our two messiahs from Caesarea and from the Akirov Towers are not fit to stand at the helm of the government.” He slammed the Netanyahu and Barak over the Iranian nuclear program, saying that they “present the public with a mirage. “If Israel acts against the Iranian nuclear bomb, the attack will encourage the Iranians to produce a bomb even faster,” he noted.
Ynet, 27 April 2012

A strike on Iran is “not needed tomorrow morning,” but Israel does need to present a credible military threat alongside sanctions and diplomatic action, former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi said on Sunday. Speaking at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City, Ashkenazi said the right strategy was to continue the economic crackdown on Iran as well as actions that take place “under the radar.”

“I think we still have time. It is not tomorrow morning,” Ashkenazi said. “It is better to persuade our friends in the world and the region that it is a global threat and [the government] has done a good job on this. In any case, Israel needs its own capability since we cannot [live] under an [Iranian] nuclear umbrella,” he said.

“We need crippling sanctions and much more severe sanctions. It might now be too late and too light and it needs to be supported by a credible military threat,” he added.

Jerusalem Post, 29 April 2012

Killing is fashionable in America

There are other interpretations of the situation. For example see “Ex-Mossad Chief: Israeli Attack Would Help Iran Go Nuclear” by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, 13 June 2012 — “Meir Dagan says Bibi and Barak are serious about attacking the Islamic Republic.”.

Important US voices agree that we should not attack now

The indication is that at best it [military action] might postpone it [Iran’s nuclear program] maybe by one or possibly two years. It depends on the ability to truly get at the targets that they’re after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at… [T]he consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret.
— Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, 2 December 2011 (DoD transcript)

[D]iplomacy and economic sanctions are better suited than military action to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, that Israeli security will be best served by military restraint combined with greater U.S.-Israeli cooperation, and that the Iranian people offer the surest hope for a future Iran that is more amenable to U.S. interests. An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence.
— “How to Defuse Iran’s Nuclear Threat“, RAND, Spring 2012 — “Bolster Diplomacy, Israeli Security, and the Iranian Citizenry”

[A] a clean, calibrated conflict is a mirage. Any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences…. A U.S. strike would damage key Iranian facilities, but it would do nothing to reverse the nuclear knowledge Iran has accumulated or its ability to eventually build new centrifuges. A U.S. attack would also likely rally domestic Iranian support around nuclear hard-liners, increasing the odds that Iran would emerge from a strike even more committed to building a bomb.
— Colin H. Kahl (Deputy Asst SecDef for the Middle East 2009-2011, “Not Time to Attack Iran – Why War Should Be a Last Resort“, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2012

Past predictions on the FM website that no attack was imminent on Iran

Looking back it’s astonishing to read the many predictions by major experts that the US or Israel would bomb Iran soon.  Or very soon.  Analysis on the FM website has suggested otherwise (after 2010 the picture grew darker).

(a)  Will Israel commit suicide? More rumors of a strike at Iran , 22 December 2007:

For all these reasons I doubt Israel will attack Iran.  But that is just a guess.

(b)  Will we bomb Iran, now that Admiral Fallon is gone?, 17 March 2008:

Is this analysis, prophecy, or fun speculation for the box-office?  Not much substance here by which to decide.  I suspect the prize is behind door #3:  no war with Iran.  Bush has neither the political capital nor laid a sufficient foundation with either the American people or our allies.

(c)  Are Israel’s leaders insane? Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so., 15 August 2010.  A rebuttal (correct, in fact) to Goldberg’s forecast in “The Point of No Return“ (The Atlantic, September 2010) that “there is a better than 50% chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.”

… attacking Iran would the point of no return for Israel. I doubt they’ll do it. The leaders of neither Iran nor Israel are psychos.

(d)  The reports in 2009 that Iran was close to having a  bomb were false:  Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 February 2009.  Three years later western intelligence confirms this.

For more information about our conflict with Iran

See the FM Reference Page about Iran, with these sections:

  1. Background Information about Iran
  2. Posts about Iran
  3. About Iran’s nukes
  4. Information operations to build support for war with Iran
  5. Posts about a strike by the US at Iran
  6. Posts about a strike by Israel at Iran
  7. Strafor about Iran’s atomic programs

18 thoughts on “Threats to attack Iran are smoke. Sanctions on Iran are our tool. Weakening Iran is our goal.”

  1. I completely agree with your article. The only thing I note on the horizon that does not agree with your analysis is the slow descent of the Western powers into involvement in the Syrian civil war.

    I don’t know what form of action the West will take but it seems increasingly evident that some sort of military intervention is going to happen in Syria at some point in the future. This is a result of the West gently but continually beating the war drum trying to get the two sides to cooperate. Now the West feels like it has to act or have its bluff called.

    The people who are fighting hardest against this strategy are the realpolitik strategists who most likely created the strategy to use the threat/fear of a military strike against Iran to get their sanctions. But they are increasingly overruled by people with other agendas. It occurs to me that the same thing could happen in Iran.

    I fear that we are to the stage in Imperial Overstretch where, in the long run, we will always respond to a potential threat with military force.

    1. “does not agree with your analysis is the slow descent of the Western powers into involvement in the Syrian civil war.”

      I don’t understand. How does that disagree with this post?

      (a) It talks only about relations with Iran, nor does it provide a basis on which to generalize this.

      (b) This does not say that we will not attack Iran in the future. The previous, to which this is a follow-up, said:

      Sanctions worked well to weaken Iraq, and will do the same to Iran, The sanctions against Iran began in 2006, and become tight and oppressive later this year (see Wikipedia). Perhaps in five or ten years Iran too will become vulnerable for invasion, occupation, and neutering. Especially if economic hardship creates internal strife (aided by US and Israeli subversion programs, including support for anti-regime terrorists).

    2. All I’m saying is that your theory is sound but it can be hijacked by events and people with a less real version of politik. Anytime you get loud and obnoxious in somebody’s face you have to expect somebody on your side to take you seriously, regardless of whether or not you meant it.

  2. FM’s analysis here certainly sounds convincing. It tends to the explain the absurd bellicosity of American rhetoric combined with the astonishing lack of military action to back up that rhetoric.

    Alas, China appears to not have bought into the American-urged sanctions against Iranian oil sales: “China refuses to join the sanctions bandwagon“, Radio Zamaneh, 4 February 2012.

  3. Lets for a moment assume the article’s analysis to be true, and lets also assume that the other big players in Realpolitik are aware of this, most importantly, Russia and China, secondly so, India, Turkey and Pakistan.

    How would the dynamic situation evolve? there are some interesting articles argueing that Iran is some sort of redline in Eurasia’s neverending great game. Its certainly a gate to Russias soft underbelly, and very fitted to expand in Central Asia, due to historical and cultural reasons, it would definately add to China’s sense of encroachment.

    I completely agree that this is a textbook sanctions a la Iraq operation, but is Iran Iraq? is Russia the same Russia it was in 1990’s, how would a rising China react? Would the international system currently in place manage to cope with such a challenge?

  4. Oh, the irony of that second picture in which the words “Go Israel” have a stars-and-stripes pattern. The message is all too clear. If we can get Israel to launch the first strike for us, then we have the perfect excuse to “jump on the bandwagon” and join the war (in defense of our Israeli allies, naturally) — and of course, if it goes badly, then we also have the perfect convenient scapegoat on whom the US government can pin all the blame and absolve themselves of all wrongdoing. “It wasn’t our fault…Israel attacked Iran, and we had to protect our allies in Israel!” — as if the Military Industrial Complex and their allies in the US government haven’t been agitating for war with Iran for the past five years or more!

  5. There is an entire literature in the international security field on the efficacy of sanctions. I’ll save you the trouble of reading it: Sanctions rarely if ever work.

    1. Depends on what your goal is. If it is regime change or disarmament then you are right. If it to weaken a nation and to spur the target nation into intemperate acts that will make the sanctions seem reasonable then FM is more likely to be right.

      This plan worked very well in Iraq for over 10 years so it is reasonable to assume that it can work again. Iran currently has more options than Iraq did at the end of the Gulf war so success cannot be assumed.

    2. “Sanctions rarely if ever work.”

      That’s far too broad a statement. Define “work”. There are many sanctions that were effective: South Africa in the 1990s, Libya 1996-2006, Indonesia in 1999, Serbia in 2000, and Iraq 1990-2003. They require clear goals, broad international support and careful use along with other tools (they’re neither paneceas nor magic wands).

      The sanctions against Iran seem likely to work, to some degree, as they probably have a similar goal to the Iraq sanctions: to weaken the target. Anything more than that — such as getting Iran to stop their (legal) enrichment programs — is a cherry on top.

      For a good introduction to this literature see “Iran and the Great Sanctions Debate” by Meghan L. O’Sullivan (Prof of International Affairs, Harvard), Washington Quarterly, October 2010.

    3. “Sanctions rarely if ever work.”

      Even if they do work, a person who chooses to go by the handle “ArmsMerchant” is hardly likely to admit it! It seems to me than an “ArmsMerchant” would have a personal interest in claiming that sanctions don’t work, given that one of the most popular alternatives to sanctions is — surprise, surprise! — armed force.

    1. Sanctions worked extremely well to discredit and ultimately weaken the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.
    2. Sanctions worked extremely well to weaken and soften up Saddam’s military in preparation for the 200 invasion.
    3. Sanctions have had a real effect in Burma (now known as Myanmar, apparently) insofar as the military dictatorship running that country has liberalized to the point where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi can now leave the country for the first time in 20 years. She languished under house arrest for years, if you recall, now she’s free to travel to the West.

    It really does depends what you mean by “sanctions work.” Are they an effective substitute for war? Almost never. Do they produce reliable regime change? Very seldom. Do sanctions weaken repressive regimes? They sometimes do. Can sanctions change the policies of repressive regimes? They often seem to.

  6. This is a valiant effort, but it’s not correct.

    1. Sanctions did not topple South African apartheid–SA’s internal contradictions put so much stress on the regime that it came apart. But absent those pressures, economic sanctions alone were ineffective.
    2. Sanctions did not significantly weaken Saddam’s military–resources continued to be diverted from the civilian sector to the military (and Saddam’s own coffers).
    3. Sanctions worked in Burma–after 20 years! OK, I guess they “worked.” Or maybe not. That’s the wonderful thing about social science–you can prove anything if you select the right data.

    The problem is that internal pressures are typically much more of a threat to the regime’s power and survival than the costs that can be imposed by external actors from thousands of miles away.

    Of course, sanctions can be effective if you lower the goal posts so far down that your objectives (e.g., “weaken”) are almost meaningless. But as a high-road alternative to war, they’re almost always useless, except to make the policy makers feel good.

    This is not to advocate war (God knows we have enough people in our government doing that), but rather point out that in most cases, “sanctions” sound like a reasonable course but in reality are just a dodge.

    1. I don’t believe much of your comment is accurate.

      “Sanctions did not topple South African apartheid”
      Who made such a broad claim? More said that sanctions did “discredit” and “weaken” the S African regime. That’s quite obvious.

      “Sanctions did not significantly weaken Saddam’s military”
      Disagree. They weakened both the morale and physical resources of the military, and the regime. For example, access to spare parts (eg, aircraft) was greatly reduced.

      As you stated earlier there is a large literature about sanctions, which largely disagrees with your statements. Sanctions are effective under the right circumstances, with broad international support, combined with other tools, and reasonable expectations. They’re a tool, not a magic wand (which seems to be the strawman you’re discussing).

  7. Two experts explain that sanctions are the means, regime-change the goal, nukes just an excuse

    How the Obama Administration Is Stalling Its Way to War with Iran“, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, TomDispatch, 19 June 2012


    Since talks with Iran over its nuclear development started up again in April, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Tehran will not be allowed to “play for time” in the negotiations. In fact, it is the Obama administration that is playing for time.

    Some suggest that President Obama is trying to use diplomacy to manage the nuclear issue and forestall an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets through the U.S. presidential election. In reality, his administration is “buying time” for a more pernicious agenda: time for covert action to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program; time for sanctions to set the stage for regime change in Iran; and time for the United States, its European and Sunni Arab partners, and Turkey to weaken the Islamic Republic by overthrowing the Assad government in Syria.

    Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, hinted at this in February, explaining that the administration’s Iran policy is aimed at “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that — strange things can happen in the interim.” Former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy — now out of government and advising Obama’s reelection campaign — told an Israeli audience this month that, in the administration’s view, it is also important to go through the diplomatic motions before attacking Iran so as not to “undermine the legitimacy of the action.”

    New York Times’ journalist David Sanger recently reported that, “from his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons” — even though he knew this “could enable other countries, terrorists, or hackers to justify” cyberattacks against the United States. Israel — which U.S. intelligence officials say is sponsoring assassinations of Iranian scientists and other terrorist attacks in Iran — has been intimately involved in the program.

    Classified State Department cables published by WikiLeaks show that, from the beginning of the Obama presidency, he and his team saw diplomacy primarily as a tool to build international support for tougher sanctions, including severe restrictions on Iranian oil exports. And what is the aim of such sanctions? Earlier this year, administration officials told the Washington Post that their purpose was to turn the Iranian people against their government. If this persuades Tehran to accept U.S. demands to curtail its nuclear activities, fine; if the anger were to result in the Islamic Republic’s overthrow, many in the administration would welcome that. …

  8. It is a three tier strategy, people get the wrong signal thinking Israel is conducting a containment policy, Iran has taken that to be the case. First you have sanctions regime, an convert operations. Second a military option, thirdly you have the security walls, upgrading the Jericho, increased upgraded warheads, the alternative to the Suez backed by what will be the worlds largest economy, the base in Azerbaijan, the F-35 nuclear capable, the increased subsurface fleet. That can be mistaken for containment the third tier, but all levels an counters to the Iranian matter have been planned for, all scenarios.

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