Nine years ago, after a frenzied political and media campaign to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and thereby represented an intolerable threat to American and global security, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew its dictator.
When the formal military occupation ended eight and a half years later, the cost of that invasion had been immense. A minimum of 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed and countless maimed, with millions more Iraqis forced to flee their country. On the American side, more than 4,000 service members were dead and another 30,000 or more wounded, many grievously, apart from the enormous economic costs.
And all of that bloodshed and sacrifice was largely built on a lie.
That brings us, of course, to Iran. In recent months, a growing chorus of media outlets and the three front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination have been fanning the flames for an attack on Iran, insisting that it has embarked inexorably on a course to develop nuclear weapons with the gravest consequences for humanity. These often fevered and breathless reports on Iran's nuclear program presume that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would immediately threaten to deploy them against Israel, or by transferring them to terrorists, against us and the rest of the Western world.
For example, a long and widely discussed article in The New York Times Magazine in January included, in its opening paragraph, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's unchallenged assertion that the destruction of Israel is Iran's "strategic goal," requiring possibly imminent military action. ABC, NBC and CNN have each featured reports assuming the worst about Iran's capabilities and intentions, with no effort to offer alternative perspectives. Sometimes major media presume that Iran already has nuclear weapons. Last Monday, for example, the banner for a CNN segment about possible military action against Iran read "A Military Strike On Iran's Nukes?"
Unfortunately, the more sober and protean realities of Iran's likely intentions and capabilities diverge sharply from the message that most Americans are receiving.
A few facts:
1) The National Intelligence Estimate of the United States concluded in 2007 that Iran had suspended work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and, as of today, that remains the conclusion of American intelligence.
2) The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has key oversight responsibilities for Iran's nuclear facilities and has been harshly critical of Iran's level of cooperation with the agency, still does not believe that Iran has a current nuclear weapons program, despite widespread mischaracterizations of the agency's findings.
3) Israeli intelligence has similarly concluded that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program.
Many of these same agencies express concern that Iran is trying to develop capabilities that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. But this is a far cry from a country in possession of, or on the brink of possessing, atomic bombs.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has, in recent years, clearly stated that nuclear weapons violate Islamic principles and that Iran will not build a weapon. In fact, Khamenei issued the latest such statement just in the past week. Mere words, you say? By the same token, Iran's presumably malevolent intentions derive largely from the words of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We are constantly told that Ahmadinejad has vowed to destroy Israel. This is actually debatable, but Iran's president certainly traffics in provocative and incendiary rhetoric.
It's also true that Ahmadinejad has swum in the sewage of Holocaust denial. That makes him reprehensible. But his rhetoric has essentially no bearing on Iranian foreign policy. That's because the Iranian presidency is not the summit of power in Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei is commander in chief of Iran's armed forces; he controls its security services and has ultimate authority over Iran's government, including the president. He has repeatedly expressed antipathy toward Israel and Zionism, but no serious observer believes this implies a military posture toward Israel, whose armed might far surpasses that of Iran.
Were we having a fair-minded debate about Iran's nuclear intentions, we'd pay more attention to the words of the country's undisputed leader on the issue than we would to an obnoxious and rabble-rousing second lieutenant. And, of course, we'd be compelled to ask—if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon—what then? The United States has approximately 8,500 nuclear warheads and multiple means by which to "deliver" those to the heart of Iran. Israel, the presumptive target of an Iranian strike, has between 300–400 nuclear warheads. An honest, sane conversation about the threat posed by Iran would require plausible arguments to demonstrate that Iran's real leaders, the ayatollahs, have, as a policy goal, national suicide.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Armed Forces, recently described Iran as a "rational actor." Do the new armchair warriors know something that he doesn't? Furthermore, experts believe that an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities would be an extremely costly endeavor and likely would require actual boots on the ground. Notably, a substantial majority of Israel's most prominent living intelligence officials have publicly spoken out against a possible Israeli air strike as a potentially disastrous overreaction to what they deem an overblown threat. Recently retired chief of Israeli intelligence Meir Dagan, considered a "hawk's hawk," described a possible Israeli attack as "the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
One significant difference between 2003 and 2012 is that, until now, the current administration has not itself been beating the drums for war, and President Obama has been chastising recently those who talk loosely of war as if it's a "game." But the larger media prattle about Iran as a potentially grave threat—based on a weak and highly selective factual foundation—furthers the depressing normalization of the idea and practice of visiting immense suffering on other people, especially Arabs and Muslims. Mainstream media discourse has lacked a sense of proportion about the reality of the threats posed compared with the costs involved in our evermore itchy trigger fingers. Think as ill of Iran's president as you like. But could it really be true that our major news organizations have learned so little from their disastrous mistakes of a decade ago?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Idle threats."