Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
Biden admin seems to greenlight Israel bombing Iran
The U.S. Ambassador to Israel said that "Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran] and we've got their back."
U.S. Presidents used to ask Congress and the American people for a declaration of war. A couple days ago, President Joe Biden had the U.S. Ambassador to Israel deliver the preamble to one at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“The Iranians are providing drones to Russia and those drones are killing innocent Ukrainians. There is no chance today of us going back to the negotiating table,” Nides tells the Conference of Presidents, at the group’s event in Jerusalem.
“As President [Joe] Biden has said, we will not stand by and watch Iran get a nuclear weapon, number one. Number two, he said, all options are on the table. Number three, Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with and we’ve got their back,” Nides adds.
“The threat of a nuclear Iran is not just for Israel, it is for the Middle East and America. We are focused on this,” says the ambassador. “The cooperation between Israel and the US vis-a-vis Iran is lockstep. Every day.”
In other words, the United States is done talking to Iran peacefully, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is encouraged to carry out his plans — which are bombing Iran — and America will help. In case the message wasn’t clear, the U.S. and Israeli militaries also recently ran a massive joint training exercise.
Oh, and the Biden administration is publicly claiming connections between Iran and Al Qaeda.
The “charitable interpretation” is that Biden is bluffing, trying to “deter Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold” while telling Israeli leaders something different in private. If so, he is putting a lot of trust in Netanyahu’s restraint. The American people have no input into whether their country is about to become involved in a war — and are reduced to guessing games about their leaders’ intentions.
So, here we are. It’s been a long time in the making.
U.S. presidents since George W. Bush have threatened Iran over its nuclear research. The issue was not whether Iran was actually building nuclear weapons — the CIA believes that Iran stopped trying for those in 2003 — but whether Iran’s overall capabilities approached some vaguely-defined danger zone. Just like Nides’s remarks, these threats have often been phrased in ways that did not attract too much public attention, but that were incredibly hard to walk back.
At the same time, the United States made it clear through its actions that the nuclear program was the only real bargaining chip Iran had, and the threat of invasion would perhaps be even higher without it. The game of chicken continued until Barack Obama’s second term, when Tehran finally agreed to restrict its nuclear activities and open them to inspections, in exchange for world powers letting Iran back into the international economy.
A couple years later, Donald Trump pulled the rug out from under the agreement and issued a new set of demands. Then he publicly threatened to bomb Iran, killed an Iranian general, and again mulled over bombing Iran. Biden has so far settled on a diet version of Trump’s policy, insisting that he wants to return to the Obama-era deal, but that the pressure will continue until Iran makes several new concessions.
Iranian leaders more or less concluded that there was no point in talking, and that Iran had to radically improve its bargaining position. They threw off restraints on the nuclear program, and as a cherry on top, began arming the Russian forces in Ukraine. The latest crisis has been set off by the discovery of weapons-grade uranium in Iran earlier this week.
At the same time, the Biden administration smells blood in the water. Iran just underwent a months-long uprising that gave birth to a tenacious opposition movement. An internal regime collapse is now a possibility discussed by serious people. European allies that had second-guessed Washington during the Trump era are now firmly on board with U.S. policy. America’s back, and it’s ready to rumble.
The hawks spent several years mocking concerns about war with Iran as overblown. Now the doves’ most dire warnings seem to be proven right. It doesn’t really matter, though. The damage is done and the arsonists can offer their expertise as firefighters.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Biden administration officials have hinted at one option they see. National Security Council member Brett McGurk said in November 2021: “when it came to military force for behavior change, that is a pretty fuzzy objective for a military force. When it comes to military force to prevent a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is a very achievable objective.”
So, bomb Iran enough to damage its nuclear program, without actually invading or saying the words “regime change.”
Because Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered around the country and buried deep underground, even a “limited” campaign would require massive bombing. And even the most hawkish Israeli experts believe that Iran could rebuild after a few years, which means that Israel or the United States would have to keep “mowing the lawn” every so often.
A country that is cut off from the world, roiled by internal violence, and under a “low-intensity” military siege — that’s Iraq between 1991 and 2003. During the initial 1991 war, U.S. leaders like Dick Cheney explicitly said that they didn’t want to march on Baghdad or topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. By 2003, those same U.S. leaders were saying that a regime-change invasion was the only option.
A similar kind of slow boil has been underway with Iran. They’ve even brought back the same characters:
Although the public appetite for military interventions in the Middle East has dried up, and “radical Islamic terror” is a no longer a central concern, the idea of conflict with Iran is more normalized than ever in American politics. Any escalations are just cable news background noise, as long as politicians don’t say the magic word “war.”
Presidents have never made it clear what legal justification they would use to bomb Iran. Bush asked Congress for permission to invade Iraq, but Obama and Trump learned that they could just launch airstrikes and then figure out which American law might justify it. Talking up Iran’s alleged links to Al Qaeda is setting up the groundwork for one possible legal strategy.
Again, it’s anyone’s guess how they would actually do it, because these conversations largely take place behind closed doors. Once the public learns for certain, it will be too late to object.
On the level of international law, the case for bombing Iran would be the same as Russia’s case for invading Ukraine: they’re an evil-intentioned country and their capabilities are growing. (In other words, legal nonsense.) Russia’s “special military operation” does sound like the euphemisms the U.S. government uses to avoid calling a war a “war.”
Most likely, the United States would encourage Israel to attack first, then argue that U.S. forces have to defend themselves from an impending Iranian retaliation. That has already been happening in Syria, where U.S. forces have allowed Israel to use the airspace around their bases to strike Iranian forces, and then claimed self-defense when Iran fires back.
Britain and France used a similar tactic during the Suez crisis of 1956. The two powers quietly encouraged Israel to attack Egypt, then declared they had to intervene against Egypt once the fighting had started. (It’s worth noting that Britain had similar anxieties about maintaining its control over oil markets and credibility with client states that America does today.) The “Suez moment” is today seen as the last gasp of the British Empire.
The American people have not been given a chance to have an honest conversation about what a major war with Iran would look like. General Kenneth McKenzie recently told journalist Robin Wright that “We would be hurt very badly. We would win in the long run. But it would take a year.” Every other politician has worked to build the expectation that Iran is just another group of guerrillas in caves that can be plinked away with drones.
That isn’t even getting into the economic cost of the war. Given the amount of oil that flows through the Persian Gulf, and the amount of financial capital sitting in both Israel and the Gulf, the global economic chaos caused by Iranian missiles and drones could rival the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
The general public will not understand the enormity of what is happening until reports of heavy damage start coming in. (Keep in mind, American troops have not faced serious enemy airstrikes since the Korean War.) Once again, it’s anyone’s guess how that plays out domestically — where all the shock and frustration and anger goes — because politicians have avoided these conversations.
Contrary to popular belief, U.S. politicians do learn lessons from overseas conflicts. It’s just that the lessons are about making war easier to wage. Vietnam taught Washington that drafting Americans provokes much more antiwar resistance than a volunteer army. The latest conflicts have taught Washington that trying to build a public case for war is politically risky, but just creating a fait accompli is easy.
The next war will start with “precision defensive strikes” announced out of the blue. Cable news will give them thirty seconds of airtime. The American people will not be given a chance to deliberate. Nor will they be told to prepare for the horrors to come.
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.