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David Sanger on Iran, Israel and the Nuclear Threat

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On Tuesday, I attended a luncheon lecture by renowned New York Times correspondent David Sanger here at the Fletcher School on Iran. The talk was organized with the help of Professor Vali Nasr, the Fletcher Iran Working Group, Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, and International Security Studies Program.

As with most public events, the talk was more of an opportunity to confirm things being heard and understand the mindset of the various actors from an influential and informed voice, rather than a treasure trove of new information. These are some of the key points I picked up.

  • While it is clear that Iran’s nuclear program has encountered difficulties and slowed down (part of which is political), Sanger doesn’t think that the Iranians need an actual bomb to make their point. He said, “I still don’t think they have made the decision to go for a weapon, and I’m not sure they need to. A virtual weapon gives them as much leverage as an actual weapon”.

Others have also made this point. My former professor at the University of Virginia, Michael Krepon, puts it this way:

If Iran’s national leaders calculate that there are greater risks in crossing nuclear red lines than in observing them, they might stop short of acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders might decide not to go the whole nine yards if perceived penalties – being locked into pariah status, facing punishing economic sanctions, and having Muslim neighbors take out their own nuclear insurance policies – are considered to be sufficiently injurious.

  • On Israel’s thinking regarding Iran, Sanger said that if he were Israeli and he was considering an attack on Iran, he would do so before the US presidential election, since the timing and context would give President Obama room to express concern at the consequences while stating his understanding about why it was done to preserve Israel’s security. That timeline is consistent with what we have been hearing over the last couple of weeks.
  • While there is a whole spectrum of views in Israel, there is a growing thought process among some that if attacked, Iran would not respond significantly with direct attacks on US and Israel since that would trigger a war that it would lose. According to this line of thinking, the response would be much less dramatic and very asymmetrical, focused on responding in Afghanistan and other places for instance. This is crucial because if the Israelis perceive the Iranian response to be much weaker, that could increase the likelihood of a strike.

David Ignatius also briefly mentioned this school of thought in his Washington Post piece earlier this month. Here’s Ignatius:

Israelis are said to believe that a military strike could be limited and contained…Iranians would retaliate, but Israelis doubt that the action would be an overwhelming barrage, with rockets from Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. One Israeli estimate is that the Jewish state might have to absorb 500 casualties…Israelis point to Syria’s lack of response to an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor there in 2007. Iranians might show similar restraint, because of fear the regime would be endangered by all-out war.

  • On the American side, Sanger said some in the Obama administration do still believe that a nuclear Iran is containable. And with its aggressive cyber program and tough sanctions (the first round of sanctions, in his view, to actualy bite), the administration “cannot find the rationale” for contemplating a military invasion right now.
  • Moving forward, even tougher sanctions could be possible on Iran since these are not the toughest sanctions yet. Kicking Iran out of SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, is one option, although the US worries that this might affect regular Iranians and may interfere with other American intelligence priorities. Vali Nasr also added that while sanctions may weaken the regime, it may also undermine the regime’s ability to negotiate and merely reinforce its commitment to attaining a nuclear capability. That’s consistent with what he told the New York Times last month:

“Look at it this way…sanctions are weakening the regime, but they’re also putting pressure on the regime, which is arriving to the point where the Iranians have no motivation other than to get their nuclear capabilities faster.”

On a more humorous note, Sanger said that if Iran was indeed behind the scrappy attempts at assassinating a Saudi ambassador in Washington and the recent bombing attempts, then “they certainly haven’t brought out their A-team”. The audience erupted in laughter. But one has to wonder what lies ahead should Tehran decide to continue on its current path. Like many vexing foreign policy problems, there aren’t really any good options.

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