Shaking the Kaleidoscope in Iran (Foreign Policy)

Discussion of military action against Iran is again taking center stage. It takes me back to a late September 2002 meeting, when I brought a former senior Israeli official to see the late Congressman Tom Lantos, then the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee. Our meeting focused on Iraq, with Lantos arguing passionately for pre-emptive U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein, who he compared to Hitler.

Lantos dismissed out of hand our Israeli visitor's suggestion that a war might be destabilizing to the region and to Israel, telling us (and this is close to a direct quote):

The Middle East is like a kaleidoscope. If you pick up a kaleidoscope and look through it, you don't see anything special. But if you shake the kaleidoscope and look through it again, you see something more beautiful than was there before.

We were taken aback. One of the most powerful members of Congress -- a Holocaust survivor with unchallenged moral authority -- was saying, in effect, that the U.S. should wage war not to achieve a specific goal, but to shake things up, in the hopes that out of the chaos would emerge more attractive options.

Advocates of military action against Iran today are relying on a similar "shake the kaleidoscope" approach. Their arguments are predicated on the belief that all other presently available options are unacceptable. They believe that Iran is immune to pressure; that Iran will abuse diplomacy to run out the clock and go nuclear before the world can stop it; and that containment -- learning to live with a nuclear or even a "nuclear-capable" Iran -- is a non-starter.

Most war advocates concede that military action will at best delay -- not stop -- Iran's nuclear program. Most admit that it will probably kill many innocent Iranian civilians -- the same civilians whose human rights many of them also claim to defend (AIPAC's simultaneous campaign for human rights in Iran, and its campaign for an ever-harder line on Iran, culminating in the current effort to get the Senate to adopt a pro-war resolution, is a prominent example of this phenomenon). And most acknowledge that an attack on Iran could be profoundly destabilizing to the region and could threaten U.S. interests around the world.

 Yet their conclusion is that military action is nonetheless both desirable and inevitable. Why? Is it because they hope that shaking things up will lead to regime change? Or because they hope a new pro-U.S. Iranian opposition will rise from the ashes of war? Or because they hope the U.S. can leverage an Iran war to engineer a dramatic pro-West regional realignment?

 This all sounds familiar. In Iraq, the results of exactly this kind of recklessly "hopeful" approach to war continue to play themselves out on the ground every day (and are in no small part responsible for the challenge that Iran poses today).

Now, as the 2012 election season shifts into high gear, Iran hawks in both parties (and their Israeli counterparts) are chomping at the bit. They will no longer be placated by ever-escalating sanctions -- sanctions that for many were perhaps never about achieving U.S. goals, but about checking off a box on the way to war. They are increasingly pressuring Obama to "prove" his anti-Iran (and, it is implied, pro-Israel) mettle, with the threat hanging over him that Israel may at any time force his hand. Having de facto acquiesced to an Iran approach defined by sanctions and saber rattling, Obama is now faced with the question: if sanctions have proven inadequate to the task of achieving U.S. goals when will the saber be unsheathed?

Back in 2002, my Israeli visitor was shocked by Lantos' cavalier approach to war, but didn't actually oppose military action against Iraq. Indeed, the Israeli national security community largely viewed such action as a positive for Israel. Today, in contrast, senior Israeli military and security officials -- including former Israeli Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Ephraim Halevy, former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and, reportedly, current IDF Chief of Staff Tamir Pardo, Military Intelligence Aviv Kochavi, and Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen -- are openly disputing the pro-war arguments. They join a chorus of voices from the U.S. military, national security, and intelligence community warning against a rush to war.

When Congressman Lantos talked about shaking the Middle East kaleidoscope, an image came into my head: a kaleidoscope filled with people -- Iraqi men, women, and children, U.S. soldiers -- shaken until their bodies broke, creating bloody designs on the kaleidoscope's lens. That gruesome image comes to mind again today, as the chorus of voices calling for military action against Iran grows louder.

Clearly, there is no easy path forward on Iran, but any discourse about war must be a sober one, weighing all options -- including the option of re-committing to serious, sustained engagement -- and taking into account the full range of possible consequences. It must be a discourse in which the voices of reason and wisdom from America's (and Israel's) own military and intelligence communities are not marginalized in favor of the kind of dangerous ideologues and fantasists who made the case for war in Iraq.

With all that is at stake, nobody can afford to let such a decision be hijacked by those who want to shake the kaleidoscope and hope for the best.

(By Lara Friedman, originally published by Foreign Policy, February 21, 2012)