Commentary Magazine


Rush to War?

The discussion of the burgeoning Iranian nuclear program took a peculiar turn last month. There was talk of a “rush to war.” The president himself decided he could use the discussion to his political advantage by attacking his Republican rivals for talking far too loosely about going to war. He accused them of “casualness,” of “popping off,” of failing or refusing to recognize the gravity of the situation. “This is not a game,” Barack Obama said.

No, it’s not. And there is no “rush to war.” Quite the opposite, in fact. It has been a decade—a decade—since the West became aware Iran was going nuclear. The discussion of the need to do something about the Iranian nuclear threat had already become so commonplace in April 2007—five years ago—that John McCain made an odd and antic joke about it on the campaign trail, warbling the words “Bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann.”

The first major article in this magazine on the subject, Norman Podhoretz’s “The Case for Bombing Iran,” was published in June 2007. McCain sang his ditty and Podhoretz wrote his article five years after the West first learned from a high-ranking defector about the extent of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

In November 2003, 18 months after the defector’s report, the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran’s efforts already consisted of “a practically complete front end of a nuclear-fuel cycle, including uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, heavy-water production, a light-water reactor, a heavy-water research reactor, and associated research-and-development facilities.”

Then, even for those who expressed early and profound concern about all this, there was no talk of war. The discussion centered on covert actions against the Iranian regime that might help spur political change in Iran, due to the fact that there had been a hopeful election in 2000 and that Iranian youth chafing under the boot of the mullahs had become very pro-Western. Parliamentary elections in 2004 empowering Islamists and the election of the fanatic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 suggested the regime was tightening its grip. Perhaps encouraging those who wanted to elude that grip would be a fertile strategy.

Ahmadinejad’s increasingly terrifying rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map and the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program—as reported not by evil neoconservatives but by the sainted United Nations—altered the calculus. The dangers posed by a nuclear Iran were horrific enough, given the likelihood that others in the unstable region would nuclearize and that Iran would disseminate fissile material to terrorists. But Ahmadinejad’s airy certainty that Israel’s destruction was at hand—which immediately raised the possibility of a nuclear exchange for the first time in history—suggested the world could not wait to see whether he was serious. The combination of the proliferation threat and the rhetorical threat was what led every single candidate for the presidency in 2008, save Ron Paul—but including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—to declare flatly that Iran could not be permitted to get the bomb.

But how could it be prevented? Trying to answer that question was what led to the initial discussions of the need to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in their adolescence. Doing so would have required using the tools and weapons of war, of course, but no one—no one—was actually proposing an Iraq-style war. As Norman Podhoretz put it in his 2007 article, “Since a ground invasion of Iran must be ruled out for many different reasons, the job would have to be done, if it is to be done at all, by a campaign of air strikes.”

No one takes this lightly. Nearly every scenario you can imagine that involves a direct engagement with the Iranian threat is a bad one. But it remains as true today as it was when John McCain said it, without music, in 2007: “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option. That is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Obama says he endorses this view. Strange that he should attack others for holding it.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.




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