Jeffrey Goldberg Is Convinced That Israel Will Bomb Iran. Are You?

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic predicts—or relays the predictions of people who predict—that Israel will eventually launch an airstrike against Iran . He does this at great, great length, illustrating both the seriousness of the topic and the seriousness of the person who is writing about it.

It is important for Goldberg to be serious, because he was spectacularly wrong about the invasion of Iraq , on every count. It’s a popular sport on the Internet to wonder why and how he’s held on to his status as a Middle East expert after muffing the most important question about the Middle East in his professional lifetime. On his Atlantic blog , he comes off as both thin-skinned and smug toward his critics, but he’s clearly taken some of the criticism to heart: the Iran piece, unlike his Iraq writings, is carefully descriptive, rather than prescriptive. He’s not saying that Israel should bomb Iran; he’s making sure to point out that awful things will happen if it does. He’s just relaying what people—”roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers […] as well as many American and Arab officials”—say they think is going to happen, and why.

He begins an explanation of why a showdown between Iran and Israel seems inevitable: 

It is possible that at some point in the next 12 months, the imposition of devastating economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran will persuade its leaders to cease their pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is also possible that Iran’s reform-minded Green Movement will somehow replace the mullah-led regime, or at least discover the means to temper the regime’s ideological extremism. It is possible, as well, that “foiling operations” conducted by the intelligence agencies of Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and other Western powers—programs designed to subvert the Iranian nuclear effort through sabotage and, on occasion, the carefully engineered disappearances of nuclear scientists—will have hindered Iran’s progress in some significant way. It is also possible that President Obama, who has said on more than a few occasions that he finds the prospect of a nuclear Iran “unacceptable,” will order a military strike against the country’s main weapons and uranium-enrichment facilities.

But none of these things—least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the Middle East is not a foreign-policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran—seems, at this moment, terribly likely. 

What does “likely” mean? One of the main reasons that the disaster in Iraq happened was that people like Jeffrey Goldberg and the people he talked to fundamentally misunderstood how risk and probability worked. It was uncertain whether or not Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear program; it was uncertain whether or not such a program could produce working nuclear weapons; it was uncertain whether or not Saddam would be willing to use nuclear weapons if he had them; it was uncertain whether or not Saddam was actively allied with al Qaeda; it was uncertain whether or not, if Saddam had operational ties to al Qaeda, and if he had nuclear weapons, and if he were willing to use the nuclear weapons, he would be willing and able to delegate a nuclear attack to al Qaeda. Yet at the end of this long chain of conditional probability, the analysts came out certain that what was necessary—what was the best and safest strategy—was for the United States to invade Iraq right away, to avoid the risk of nuclear attack.

Now Goldberg has identified at least four scenarios, each of which would prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Each of the four seems improbable to him—but how improbable? If I roll a die, it’s most likely that I will not get a six. But if I roll it four times, a six is more likely than not.

Goldberg tried to work around this by asking officials directly what they think the chance of an Israeli raid is: “[A] consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” But the officials he asked were still trying to guess about the end of a chain of events.

The more information Goldberg presents, the harder it becomes to make sense of it. Is Israel going to make its decisions about war on the basis of apocalyptic numerology, as one Israeli official seems to suggest? “In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation,” the official told Goldberg—as if a nuclear Iran would have a different significance if the Jewish population of Israel were 7 million, or 5 million. Elsewhere, the piece implies that bombing Iran would be a brand-marketing campaign:

Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens.

Is Iran even able to make an atomic bomb? Goldberg quotes a National Security Council official saying that “the Iranians are not doing well” in their bomb program. This information leads further into a hall of mirrors: “When I mentioned this comment to a senior Israeli official, he said, ‘We agree with this American assessment, but we also agree with Secretary Gates that Iran is one year away from crossing the nuclear threshold.’”

Actually, as Goldberg explains, Robert Gates had said it was between one and three years away—”’In Israel, we heard this as nine months from June—in other words, March of 2011,’ one Israeli policy maker told me.”

At this point, a skeptic might wonder why Israel would bother launching an airstrike against a substandard bomb facility. Mightn’t that force Iran to build a better one, after the dust settled? But there is no time to be distracted by counternarrative. Jeffrey Goldberg sees a war coming.

The effect, in the end, is like a horrifyingly high-stakes version of the articles in which baseball analysts convinced themselves that the Seattle Mariners, the worst scoring team in the league last year, were going to be real contenders in 2010. There, at least, the only real damage was that Don Wakamatsu got fired.

What do we know about Iran and Israel? Iran is trying to build an atomic bomb. Many countries, by many means, are trying to prevent this from happening. Iran is hostile toward Israel, or at least its leaders are. Israel feels threatened by Iran, to some extent. The United States is being vague or opaque about exactly what military measures it might take about all this, or when.

Does this mean Israel is bound to attack Iran? Goldberg has spent years trying to answer the question, and he has nothing persuasive to show for it. It’s not that he’s not an expert. The problem, if anything, is that he is too much of an expert. He has more information than he knows what to do with (e.g. “Persian and Jewish civilizations have not forever been adversaries….[I]n the modern era, Iran and Israel maintained close diplomatic ties before the overthrow of the shah in 1979”). His analysis is stuck in a rut:

Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program

I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that….if .”

And if not?