- Helena Cobban
blogger, Quaker activist and veteran journalist. She is a contributing editor for the Boston Review and writes regularly on the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor and the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. Her blog is at JustWorldNews.org and her latest book is called Re-Engage: America and the World after Bush.
The New York Times reported Friday that Israel recently carried out a major military exercise that Pentagon officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter planes took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. [includes rush transcript]
We turn now to news from the Middle East. The New York Times reported Friday that Israel recently carried out a major military exercise that Pentagon officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter planes took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. Helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
An Israeli military spokesperson said the country’s air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.” An Israeli politician told the London Times, meanwhile, that this was “a dress rehearsal” and Iran should “read the writing on the wall.” Iran said it considers such an attack “impossible” but warned of a “devastating” response in the event of such an attack.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, during an Al Arabiya television interview, said he would resign if a military strike were carried out on Iran.
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: [translated] If there ended up being a military action against Iran at this time, then I will be unable to continue my work.
ElBaradei added that “I don’t believe that what I see in Iran today is a current, grave and urgent danger. A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball. If you do a military strike, it will mean that Iran, if it is not already making nuclear weapons, will launch a crash course to build nuclear weapons with the blessing of all Iranians, even those in the West.”
Well, we’re joined right now by blogger, Quaker activist and veteran journalist Helena Cobban from Washington, D.C. She is a contributing editor for the Boston Review and writes regularly on the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor and the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. Her blog is justworldnews.org. Her latest book is called Re-Engage: America and the World After Bush.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Helena. Can you talk abut the Israeli military exercise and what this means?
Hi, Amy. Hi, everybody out there. Yeah, I was fascinated by the report for a number of reasons. One was the name of Michael R. Gordon, New York Times reporter, at the top on the byline, one of the two names on the byline. Michael Gordon was one of the people who during the whole Judith Miller event, series of events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, was in a sense working with Judy Miller, just taking these unnamed Pentagon sources and presenting them unexamined as the truth on the front page of the New York Times. And here he was doing exactly the same thing. The whole story was sourced to unnamed Pentagon officials. And clearly, the Pentagon wanted this, or these people in the Pentagon wanted this news to get out onto the front page of the New York Times.
So, I put on my thinking cap, and I was thinking, like, what is going on here? It’s not exactly what it seems to be. I wish obviously that Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, his co-byline writer there, had asked some of the more interesting questions. For example, these exercises were held at the end of May and the beginning of June; why didn’t we learn about them then? Why was it leaked now? That’s one good question. Another good question is, what is the involvement actually of some portions of the US military in all this? Because the exercises took place in a portion of the East Mediterranean that is certainly NATO air space. So, you can’t say that nobody in the US military knew about this. There has to have been some degree of complicity.
Then, if they are indeed preparing — Israel is really preparing for an attack on Iran — and this is where it gets extremely scary — we, as Americans, need to understand that that has major and very, very catastrophic consequences for us, because there is no way that any kind of an Israeli bombing raid against Iran could reach the targets that they seek there without going through US-controlled airspace either in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, NATO air space in Turkey or whatever. So, the US would be complicit in that attack, would be seen as that, and would therefore be subject to reprisals, because, you know, launching a military attack on another country is an act of war. Maybe we’ve forgotten that. I guess, no, we haven’t forgotten that, because that’s what we did in Iraq in 2003.
So, if we are complicit in Israel’s act of war against Iran, then the 160,000 US military service people in Iraq are sitting ducks for Iranian reprisal. This is very scary stuff. And, you know, obviously the supply lines that support them in Iraq are long and vulnerable and mainly go through the waters of the Gulf. They could be cut off by the Iranians, but, you know, if the Iranians just did a couple of small things in the Straits of Hormuz and shut the Gulf, and that obviously also majorly affects the international oil market. So, one thing we did see when the report came out Friday was that oil prices spiked again, just with this kind of very sketchy report that the Israelis were upping the ante, upping the tension level against Iran. The oil prices spiked again.
So, this has major consequences for us as Americans. And I have a whole bunch of questions as to what was really going on. I mean, I cannot believe that anybody in the Pentagon would seriously be complicit in allowing Israel to use US planes that were given to Israel for defensive purposes only, to allow Israel to go ahead and bomb Iran, knowing that there would be, as the Iranians have promised and threatened — and we have every reason to believe them — major reprisals against everybody complicit in that attack afterwards. You know, so this is really the Israelis being very reckless in matters where it is the US that is primarily vulnerable.
And, you know, it’s strange to me that people in the Pentagon — and there still are a few neocons dug deep into the Pentagon, though I think the Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is much more sensible and realistic than people like Rumsfeld, Doug Feith, Wolfowitz, when they were there, but there still are a few neocons dug deep into the Pentagon. There are some neocons, lots of neocons still lined up in Vice President Cheney’s office. So, are these people, you know, actually conniving with Israel and doing something that is risky, extremely risky, extremely grave, regarding our interests as the US citizenry? So, you know, I’ve been blogging about that a bit.
Let me ask you about a comment made by Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and op-ed columnist for the New York Times. On Fox News Sunday, he said President Bush is more likely to attack Iran if he believes Senator Barack Obama is going to be elected. He said if the President thought John McCain was going to be the next president, he would think it more appropriate to let the next president make that decision than do it on his way out, said Kristol. Your response, Helena Cobban?
Well, I don’t know whether Bill Kristol is channeling the President, whether he’s accurately representing the way the President thinks. He may be accurately representing the way Vice President Cheney thinks. You know, Cheney is a very powerful and nefarious figure in the administration, evidently.
But, you know, I think we all need to take about three steps back and just look at this based on the facts. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear program? We do not know that they have a nuclear weapons program. You know, we had the NIE back last November that told us they had actually suspended important aspects of the nuclear weapons program back in 2003. And nobody has said that they have reconstituted those aspects of the weapons program since then. So the basis for any kind of attack, either by the US or by Israel or by anybody, just doesn’t exist under international law, just as it didn’t exist back in 2003 against Iraq.
I want to turn to another issue, the truce between Israel and Hamas. This is the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just describing the truce or calm that was announced last week.
PRIME MINISTER EHUD OLMERT: [translated] It should be clear, we did not and will not conduct negotiations with any terror organizations. We have no illusions. What they are calling a “calm” is fragile and likely to be short-lived. I want to make clear that the Hamas is the aggressor in Gaza, and it is the one responsible for any violations of the calm. Should the shooting and the terror attacks continue, Israel will be forced to act in order to remove the threat off its citizens.
And this is a reaction from the Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri.
SAMI ABU ZUHRI: We call upon the international community to quit the policy of isolation with Hamas and adopt the policy of dialog. Adopting the policy of calm by the occupation meant that isolation and boycott had failed.
Helena Cobban, what is happening in this truce?
Well, it’s fascinating. I’ve been following this issue for a long time. And back in January, I actually was in Damascus, and I interviewed Khaled Meshal, who’s the head of Hamas. Now, you know, the Bush administration has been working for a long time to either crush or completely isolate and marginalize both Hamas and Hezbollah. But Hamas and Hezbollah, you know, they are Islamist political movements that have real roots in their society, that have proven themselves in elections, free elections, in their societies. They’re very different from al-Qaeda. And I think we as Americans need to understand that and need to understand that you cannot crush these organizations.
So, actually, the Israelis, an important section of the Israeli political elite, including Prime Minister Olmert, recognized that there is no military action that they can take in Gaza that can crush Hamas, that the only way to get Hamas to stop rocketing Israel is to engage in a ceasefire, a reciprocal ceasefire with Hamas. So, Israel is not going to be launching its big military operations into Gaza that have killed so many people over the past years. Israel is not going to be launching those assassinations, those extrajudicial execution operations against Hamas leaders that they’ve been doing — 180 of them, I believe, in the last few years, including historic leaders of Hamas. So, they’re not going to be attacking Hamas, and Hamas is not going to be attacking Israel. I think it’s a real breakthrough.
It was mediated by Egypt, and that’s significant, too, because Egypt, of course, is a big US ally. And what we see right now is all these US allies in the region, in the Middle East, completely going off the reservation, if you like, beyond what the Bush White House wants them to do. In fact, the Bush White House is kind of left running along behind, trying to explain, like, how did Israel do this indirect deal with Hamas? Why did Egypt get involved in it? How did Qatar, our ally down in the Gulf, why did they broker this deal that allowed Hezbollah to, you know, actually make some significant gains in Lebanon? And what is Turkey doing, rushing around making peace between Israel and Syria at a time that Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney want us to continue isolating and marginalizing and crushing the Syrian regime?
So, a lot is happening in the region, where the regional powers are dealing with each other, mediating ceasefires and de-escalatory moves with each other, that the US is just absent from, and that’s interesting and significant, because for the last thirty years the US has sought to monopolize all peacemaking diplomacy in the Middle East. And now the parties themselves are treating Washington as irrelevant.
We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Helena Cobban, of justworldnews.org, latest book, Re-Engage: America and the World After Bush.