The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens Dismisses The Intelligence On Iran

March 21, 2012 1:30 pm ET — Walid Zafar

It's becoming clear that the hawks are losing the debate on war with Iran. With negotiations scheduled for the weeks ahead, and President Obama's stern warning that war chatter is "not a game," the hawks have their backs to the wall. After years of having their rhetoric go largely unchallenged by the media, they suddenly must operate in an environment in which the military and the media are ringing the alarm bells.

Since they can't easily challenge the facts (or make up their own, as in the run up to war with Iraq), they're left making inane arguments — such as this one from the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens. Stephens believes the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program is not as important as what his gut tells him about what the Iranians are up to. (Of course, if the intelligence confirmed what he already knows in his heart of hearts, he might be singing a different tune.)

He writes:

...the New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are sure, or pretty sure, that Iran "still has not decided to pursue a weapon"-a view the paper says is shared by Israel's Mossad. The report echoes the conclusion of a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran put its nuclear-weapons program on the shelf back in 2003.

All this sounds like it matters a whole lot. It doesn't. You may not be able to divine whether a drinker, holding a bottle of Johnnie Walker in one hand and a glass tinkling with ice in the other, actually intends to pour himself a drink. And perhaps he doesn't. But the important thing, at least when it comes to intervention, is not to present him with the opportunity in the first place.

In other words, forget what the intelligence community (both here and in Israel) says about the state of Iran's nuclear program, because the very fact that Iran has a program in the first place is reason enough for war. Stephens seems to go further than even the Israelis, who want the U.S. redline to be nuclear capability, an already tenuous position given that Iran, technically, already has such a capability (hence the debate about Iran's decision to go for the bomb).

But there's more. The meat of Stephen's piece comes toward the end, where he discounts the idea that the Iranians would respond to an Israeli attack by going after U.S. targets. On Monday, the New York Times reported on a classified military simulation exercise that concluded that an Israeli strike "would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead." Stephens' piece is clearly an effort to challenge the Times report. He asks:

Is this outcome likely? Maybe, though it assumes a level of Iranian irrationality-responding to an Israeli attack by bringing the U.S. into the conflict-that top U.S. officials don't otherwise attribute to Iran's leaders.

This is typical of Stephens and the other neoconservatives. In their zeal to get the United States to attack Iran, they will ascribe irrationality to the Iranian regime when they warn that Iran might use a nuclear weapon against Israel, even though such an act would be suicidal (in that it would all but guarantee retaliatory strikes and the destruction of Iran). But when contemplating the possibility that Iran will strike U.S. interests in the event that they are attacked, the Iranians are suddenly too rational to take such dangerous actions.

Stephens's beliefs are contradictory, except for the consistent devotion to war as the solution to our differences with Iran. On the one hand, there is no way that we can live in a world where the Iranians have an enrichment capability (hence the Johnnie Walker reference) and yet, in the event that their country is attacked, the Iranians (most of whom support the nuclear program) would be level-headed enough not to take their anger out on the United States.

That doesn't make sense. But as we learned from the war in Iraq, rationality is the first casualty of selling a preventative war.

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