Nuclear expert urges cautious approach to Iran powderkeg

At this time of rising tensions between Iran and Israel, a prominent nuclear proliferation expert warns that taking too aggressive an approach could have the opposite of its intended effect.

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference earlier this month. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) last week, Barack Obama warned Israel against a rash, unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and called for restraint in dealing with the possible threat from Tehran.

"Already there is too much loose talk of war," the US president said. "For the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster."

If the current moment marks one of the few real threats to the rock-solid friendship between Israel and the United States, it also marks a significant test of the most prominent, and widely reviled, theory of John J Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

Four years ago, Mearsheimer co-wrote The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, questioning the US-Israel special relationship and alleging that Aipac, the largest and most powerful pro-Israel American lobbying group, greatly influenced US policy in the region. The book, written with the Harvard professor Stephen M Walt, proved controversial in the Jewish-American community and among Washington's pundits.

Yet if Aipac holds such sway over Washington decision-making, one wonders if the Obama administration should today be more aligned with Tel Aviv in regards to Iran. "The Israelis are playing with fire, talking about taking the US into a war that it does not want," Mearsheimer said during a recent interview. "If we do get into a war and it doesn't go well, people will blame the Israelis, and quite correctly."

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1947, Mearsheimer enlisted in the US army at 17, attended West Point and became an officer in the US air force. He studied international relations and earned his doctorate from Cornell University. Stints at the Brookings Institution, Harvard University and the Council on Foreign Relations eventually led to a faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1982.

In the wake of The Israel Lobby, Measheimer reiterated his support for Israel's existence and for the US coming to its aid when it is under threat. But last September he sparked controversy anew when he endorsed The Wandering Who?, a book by Gilad Atzmon, a British jazz musician and admitted "self-hating Jew", that entertains the question of whether the Holocaust might have been a good idea.

Several prominent American journalists and the University of Chicago's student-run quarterly Counterpoint argued that the blurb, in which Mearsheimer called the book "fascinating and provocative", hinted at anti-Semitism. "If Professor Mearsheimer is to retain any of the grace of an accomplished scholar and do right by his home for nearly 30 years," the editors of Counterpoint warned, "there is but a single option: retirement."

Six months later the professor remains in his post. "What is in Atzmon's book is not a reflection of my views," Mearsheimer says. "The fact is that I frequently write blurbs for books that I disagree with at a foundational level."

With possible strikes against Iran looming, Mearsheimer, a nuclear proliferation expert, has again come to the fore in recent weeks. He says Israel does not have the capacity to take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure and that even if the US and Israel were to jointly do so, Iran would be able to rebuild relatively quickly. "You're only buying yourself a few years of time," he says. "In three or four years we'd be in a war with them, and Iran would be mad as hornets and redouble their efforts."

Still, Obama has left all options on the table, including a military strike, even as the US has pushed a vigorous sanctions policy. Europe recently agreed to impose an oil embargo on Iran, and that and other measures may be starting to bite the Iranian economy.

Last week, global powers offered to resume negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue for the first time in more than a year. A February report from the International Atomic Energy Agency showed a nearly 50 per cent jump in Iran's stockpile of the kind of enriched uranium that is closer to weapons-grade than the type often used in power stations. The report also found that most of the latest output had come from a new facility inside a mountain bunker.

Iran maintains it is not building a nuclear weapon, but Mearsheimer says it makes sense for Iran to try to do so. Yet he also says such weapons have little offensive capability and would trigger a regional arms race. "Iran is better off in a Middle East where most countries do not have nuclear weapons," he says.

Another key consideration is Syria. The fall of the Assad government would probably limit Iran's ability to support Hizbollah and Hamas and significantly reduce Tehran's regional influence. US officials said last week that US intelligence reports described a sharp increase in intelligence and munitions support for Syrian troops as the Assad regime mounted its recent offensive on the beleaguered city of Homs.

Obama agrees that the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is a major concern, but he frames the development globally, citing the risk of a weapon falling into the hands of terrorists and the likelihood of a nuclear arms race across an unstable region.

The US and Israel clearly differ on how long they are willing to wait before judging the success of sanctions and diplomacy. Israel believes its window for military action is closing. "None of us can afford to wait much longer," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Aipac just hours after his meeting with Obama last week. "I will never allow my people to live in the shadow of annihilation."

Mearsheimer believes Israel may be willing to live in that shadow until the end of the year. In his 2011 book, Why Leaders Lie, he contends that state-to-state lies are relatively uncommon, and successful ones even less so. Leaders tend to use dishonesty domestically, in part because most states rarely take the word of foreign leaders on important issues.

Fearmongering tends to be a much more effective tactic. "Israelis have been engaged in threat inflation with regards to Iran since the early 1990s, and over the past year it's really intensified," says Mearsheimer. "If you want the US to get tough with Iran ... the best way is to portray Iran as the second coming of the Third Reich."

In 2006 Netanyahu warned: "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany." In fact, nearly every year since 2004 the world has prepared for an Israeli strike on Iran. This season the possibility appears greater, as several reports have Israeli officials preparing to act unilaterally.

If it did so, the US would inevitably come to Israel's aid, with serious ramifications domestically and in terms of regional tensions. "We've got Israel's back," Obama recently told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

Opinion polls show only one in five Israelis support an attack on Iran without US support, and top Israeli officials have said it would be a mistake. Perhaps little surprise, then, that Aipac recently launched what The New York Times called an "extraordinary campaign" to promote the threat from Iran and pressure US officials to harden their stance.

Republican senators such as John McCain have pushed Obama to get tough. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson recently called for the wiping out of 74 million people. "Iran deserves to be annihilated," he said on the late-night show Red Eye. "I think they're lunatics. I think they're evil."

In recent weeks, observers have begun to compare the current situation with Iran to George W Bush's inflation of the threat from Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 2002. Editors at The Washington Post and The New York Times have criticised their own reporters for overstating the evidence on Iran's nuclear progress.

More recently, American liberal opinion on Israel has bent towards Mearsheimer's view. Several major foreign policy voices have argued that in obsessing over Iran, Israel has taken its eye off the ball. "Iran should be called the Great Distraction," David Rothkopf, editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote last week. He says Israel is ignoring "the real existential threats on and within its own borders".

In his magazine's March 12 issue, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, sounded a similar note. "When the government speaks daily about the existential threat from Iran, and urges an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it ignores the existential threat that looms within," he wrote, adding that the problem starts "with the occupation of the Palestinian territories".

These views echo Mearsheimer and Walt's recent column in the Financial Times. "The Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel," the duo wrote. They argued that settlements could lead to "an apartheid state, threatening Israel's legitimacy and long-term survival".

As the drumbeat for war with Iran downshifts into a diplomacy-plus-sanctions waiting game, Mearsheimer's next book may come into play. He's writing about nationalism in the Middle East and believes Iran's patriotic fervour is likely to play a greater role in the months to come than that of Israel. As he sees it, a key problem of the US plan is that sanctions against Iran, unless they absolutely cripple the country's economy, could have the opposite of the intended effect.

"What we're doing is punishing Iranian society, we're saying if you don't agree to our terms regarding your nuclear programme, we will punish your people," he explains. "But what Americans don't understand is that in this age of nationalism, countries like Iran are invariably able to absorb huge amounts of punishment and not surrender. People will not revolt, they will not blame their government, but rather be angry at the US and Israel."

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.