Wash. Post's Cohen's Misguided Push For A Strike On Iran

››› ››› MIKE BURNS

In a Washington Post column, Richard Cohen justified a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by claiming that it would delay Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor. But experts say that the Osirak reactor strike did not delay -- and might even have accelerated -- Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Citing Precedent Of Strike On Iraq, Cohen Claims A Strike On Iran's Nuclear Program Would Let Israel "Play For Time"

Cohen: Israel "Has A Short-Term Objective" In Regards To Iran's Nuclear Program -- "And That Is To Play For Time." From Cohen's March 19 column, headlined "Playing for time through a strike on Iran":

Nations have doctrines. The Soviet Union had the Brezhnev Doctrine and the United States had the Monroe Doctrine, among others. Even little Israel has one. I call it the Maybe the Dog Will Talk Doctrine, and it is based on a folk tale of the rabbi who makes a preposterous deal with a tyrant: If the tyrant spares the lives of local Jews, the rabbi will teach the tyrant's dog to talk. When the rabbi tells his wife what he has done, she calls him a fool. But, he says, "A year is a long time. In a year, the tyrant could die or I could die" -- and here he gives her a sly, wise-rabbi smile -- "or maybe the dog will talk."

All sorts of people -- defense intellectuals, military officers and even the president of the United States -- either have not heard of the Maybe the Dog Will Talk Doctrine or do not recognize its importance. (It was cited to me by an Israeli official.) Both Barack Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have characterized any Israeli attempt to disrupt Iran's nuclear program as a short-term affair. An Israeli raid "wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives," Dempsey said on CNN -- and he is surely right.

But Israel also has a short-term objective -- and that is to play for time. Israel notes that its 1981 bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq set back Saddam Hussein's program -- and did not result in some sort of massive retaliation. Something similar happened with the 2007 bombing of a Syrian installation. Neither operation was conceived as a long-term solution, but both accomplished short-term goals. In a year or two, much could change in the Middle East. The region's in turmoil. Dogs are talking all over the place. [The Washington Post, 3/19/12]

Experts Actually Say That Strike On Iraq Nuclear Reactor Did Not Delay Iraq's Pursuit Of Nuclear Weapons

Former Pentagon Official: "The Attack On Osirak Actually Increased Hussein's Determination To Develop A Nuclear Deterrent And Provided Iraq's Scientists An Opportunity To Better Organize The Program." In a March 2 Washington Post opinion piece, Colin Kahl, an associate professor in the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, wrote:

For Israelis considering a strike on Iran, Osirak seems like a model for effective preventive war. After all, Hussein never got the bomb, and if Israel was able to brush back one enemy hell-bent on its destruction, it can do so again. But a closer look at the Osirak episode, drawing on recent academic research and memoirs of individuals involved with Iraq's program, argues powerfully against an Israeli strike on Iran today.

[...]

By demonstrating Iraq's vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein's determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq's scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, "the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion." [The Washington Post, 3/2/12]

International Security Policy Professor: "There Is No Evidence That Israel's Destruction Of Osirak Delayed Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program. The Attack May Actually Have Accelerated It." In a spring 2006 National Interest article, Richard Betts, a professor of International Security Policy at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, asserted that "there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program." From the article:

Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.

Osirak is not applicable to Iran anyway, since an air strike on a single reactor is not a model for the comprehensive campaign that would be required to deal, even unsatisfactorily, with the extensive, concealed and protected program that Iran is probably developing. As the United States crafts non-proliferation policy, it should soberly consider the actual effect of the Osirak attack and the limitations of even stronger air action.

In contrast to a ground war, air power has the allure of quick, clean, decisive action without messy entanglement. Smash today, gone tomorrow. Iraq's nuclear program demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale. Recall the surprising discoveries after the Iraq War. In 1991 coalition air forces destroyed the known nuclear installations in Iraq, but when UN inspectors went into the country after the war, they unearthed a huge infrastructure for nuclear weapons development that had been completely unknown to Western intelligence before the war.

Obliterating the Osirak reactor did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb. Nine years after Israel's attack on Osirak, Iraq was very close to producing a nuclear weapon. Had Saddam been smart enough in 1990 to wait a year longer, he might have been able to have a nuclear weapon in his holster when he invaded Kuwait.

[...]

If anything, the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam's incentive to rush the program via the second route. It is unlikely that Saddam would have been able to develop nuclear weapons much faster through the Osirak reactor--given that he would have had to plan, construct and operate a reprocessing plant--than through enrichment. Israel's preventive strike was not an example of effective delay. [The National Interest, Spring 2006, via Findarticles.com]

Expert On Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Claim That Osirak Strike "Delayed Iraq's Efforts To Acquire Nuclear Weapons" Is Based On False Assumptions. In a May 2010 Huffington Post column, Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School, and an expert on weapons of mass destruction, argued that the strike on the Osirak reactor resulted in a concerted and clandestine effort by Iraq to create nuclear weapons. From the article:

Advocates of a military strike believe that the Israeli destruction of the Osiraq reactor complex in June 1981 delayed Iraq's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. This belief rests on two assumptions: that Iraq was pursuing a weapons option in a determined manner before the attack and that the destroyed reactor was intended to serve as a key component of these efforts. Both assumptions are false.

In the mid-1970s Iraq began to develop a nuclear weapons option as part of a wider expansion of their nuclear power program. Iraqi sources demonstrate that there was no dedicated organization, staff or funding for the purposes of acquiring nuclear weapons prior to June 1981. In other words, Iraq had not begun to act on Saddam's nuclear weapons ambition in a serious or determined manner.

The Israeli attack triggered Iraq's determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. In September 1981, three months after the strike, Iraq established a well-funded clandestine nuclear weapons program. This had a separate organization, staff, ample funding and a clear mandate from Saddam Hussein. As the nuclear weapons program went underground the international community lost sight of these activities and had no influence on the Iraqi nuclear calculus. [The Huffington Post, 5/11/10]

National Security Policy Expert: "The Osiraq Attack May Have Actually Stimulated Rather Than Inhibited The Iraqi Nuclear Program." In a July 2005 article in The Nonproliferation Review, Dan Reiter, now the chair of the Emory University Department of Political Science and a specialist in international conflict and national security policy wrote:

It may be that even a marginal delay in the Iraqi nuclear program might have been politically significant, given some reports that at the time the Gulf War broke out, Iraq was as little as one year away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though the October 2004 Duelfer report notes several remaining obstacles to Iraqi weaponization in 1991. Paradoxically, the Osiraq attack may have actually stimulated rather than inhibited the Iraqi nuclear program. The attack itself may have persuaded Saddam to accelerate Iraqi efforts to become a nuclear weapons power. While we can only speculate on this point, we do know that Saddam publically portrayed the attack as having successfully destroyed the Iraqi nuclear program. Following Osiraq, the entire Iraqi nuclear effort moved underground, as Saddam simultaneously ordered a secret weapons program that focused on uranium separation as a path to building a bomb. Saddam may have increased his support his support for the nuclear program after the Osiraq attack, rehabilitating an important Iraqi nuclear physicist from prison and by one account increasing the man power and resources devoted to the nuclear program by more than 15-fold.

In short, before the Osiraq attack, both the French and the IAEA opposed the weaponization of Iraq's nuclear research program, and had a number of instruments to constrain weaponization, including control over, including control over reactor fuel supply and multiple and continuous inspections. After the Osiraq attack, the program became secret, Saddam's personal and material commitment to the program grew, and the non-proliferation tools available to the international community became ineffective. [The Nonproliferation Review, July 2005, emphasis added]

Former CIA Director Hayden Warned That A Strike On Iran Would Almost Guarantee That Iran Acquires Nukes

Hayden: Iran Attack Would "Guarantee That Which We Are Trying To Prevent -- An Iran That Will Spare Nothing To Build A Nuclear Weapon And That Would Build It In Secret." At an event hosted by a non-partisan public policy institution, the Center for the National Interest, Michael Hayden, director of the CIA during the Bush administration, warned that an attack on Iran would "guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret." [DeepJournal.com, 1/26/12]

Recent Polls Show A Majority Of Israelis Oppose A Unilateral Strike On Iran

Justifying A Possible Israeli Strike On Iran, Cohen Claimed That "Iran's Program Looks Different From Tel Aviv Than It Does From Washington." From Cohen's column:

Sanctions may cause Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, if indeed that's where it is now heading. But critics of Israel's approach have to understand that Iran's program looks different from Tel Aviv than it does from Washington. In the long run, an Israeli attack on Iran will accomplish nothing. In the short run, it could accomplish quite a lot. [The Washington Post, 3/19/12]

But A Haaretz Poll Found That 58 Percent Of Israelis "Opposed An Israeli Strike On Iran, Without U.S. Backing." The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported:

Most Israelis believe that if the United States does not attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel must no try to do so alone, according to a Haaretz poll.

The Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University on Sunday and Monday during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, also showed that the prime minister's Likud party would win big in the next election, taking between 35 and 37 seats.

Likud, the rest of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox parties would get between 71 and 74 mandates. Under such a scenario, only Netanyahu would be able to form a government.

However, Netanyahu, who returned to Israel on Wednesday, is facing a complex political situation.

On the one hand, he and his party seem to be in top political form. On the other, 58 percent of those polled opposed an Israeli strike on Iran, without U.S. backing. [Haaretz, 3/8/12]

Israel Democracy Institute: 62.2 Percent Of Israelis "Moderately Oppose" Or "Strongly Oppose" An Israeli Attack On Iran Without U.S. Cooperation. A poll by The Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute in February found that 36.1 percent of Israeli's "moderately oppose" an Israeli attack on Iran without U.S. cooperation and 26.1 percent "strongly oppose" such an attack. From the poll:

poll

[The Guttman Center, February 2012]

Poll: 56 Percent Of Israelis Oppose A Pre-Emptive Israeli Strike On Iran. Israel National News reported on March 22:

A new poll released Wednesday finds that most Israelis are against a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The poll, which was conducted by Panel Project and reported on Channel 10 News, asked Israelis about their feelings regarding an attack in Iran, the performance of the prime minister and who is best suited to serve as prime minister of Israel.

The poll found that the majority of Israelis, 56 percent, are opposed to an Israeli attack against Iran. Only 23 percent support such an attack, while 21 percent said they had no opinion. [Israel National News, 3/22/12]

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Richard Cohen
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