A media leak oddly revealed few days ago a conversation between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which the latter tells the former that he, Sarkozy is `fed up’ with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and `considers him a liar’. This comes some six weeks after German Chancellor Angela Merkel `read Netanyahu the riot act’ over the Israeli decision to build 1000 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Gilo.
Netanyahu is not used to being kicked around that way, at least not by Israel’s European allies. Are Sarkozy and Merkel merely saying more or less out loud what Obama dares not say? Are they `giving Netanyahu a message’ and if so, what? Merkel was annoyed (the word `infuriated’ was circulated in the media) by Netanyahu’s settlement announcement, Sarkozy’s outburst most probably has to do with something else – French (and perhaps U.S.) frustration with the Israeli Prime Minister over a possible Israeli military strike against Iran. It could be that Sarkozy’s comment was a simple warning: Don’t Do It; Don’t Attack Iran.
What is clear is that Israel is in a pickle over Iran. It is considering its options, one of which, once again, is to attack the Islamic Republic to destroy its nuclear program. At least that is the commonly used pretext.
Israel Caught Off Guard
Dinning out in Tel Aviv
For decades before the advent of the Arab Spring broke, Israel has tried to capitalize on the lack of democracy (or its weakness) throughout the Middle East and Arab world. But when the democratic wave broke region-wide, Israel, like the United States, was caught off guard. Excepting for a few isolated voices, there was no cheering on the Arab Spring in Tel Aviv.
To the contrary…
As the Arab Spring extended beyond Tunisia to the rest of the region, long held alliances between Israel, Egypt and Turkey began to fray – if not unravel. Sympathy for the Palestinians surged, Israel’s status plummeted, not just in the Third World, but also in Europe to a great extent. If Israel could still count on the U.S. Congress to genuflect, it is no longer true of the American people, who have begun to have doubts, including in the American Jewish Community.
Along these lines, something else happened.
The wind was taken out of the sales of the U.S-Israeli anti-Iranian campaign. On the surface the anti-Iranian alliance is a curious hodgepodge uniting Israel and seeming allies like Saudi Arabia in a common effort to produce `regime change’ in Iran. In less polite language, `regime change’ refers to nothing less than a combined effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran by any means necessary.
Still, the anti-Iranian coalition lost considerable momentum over the past year, undermining Israel’s position in the region as the Arab partners have been pre-occupied. As it turns out the argument that “Iran is a threat to the region” is falling flat yet again. On the contrary, numerous polls have indicated that the majority of the Arab World considers the US and Israel to be the primary threat in the region. The `threat’ Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the region faced had nothing to do with Iran. Instead it had its roots in the socio-economic policies and U.S. backed authoritarian regions which had long stifled development and democracy.
It should come as no surprise that as the Arab Spring extended far beyond Tunisia, that accordingly, the potency of the `Iranian Threat’ shrank and nearly collapsed, this despite attempts of the Israelis and certain figures in the Obama Administration, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, both with long histories of close cooperation with Israel in particular, to revive it.
A strengthened Iran – nuclear or not – represents for Israel a kind of geo-political adversary that hasn’t existed in the region since the punch was taken out of Egyptian nationalism in the 1967 Middle East war. It will force a revision of Israeli regional strategic thinking, undermine its regional hegemony, and force Israel, sooner or later to make concessions – including on the Palestinian question – that the Zionist state has long resisted. (1)
Attempting to recover from the initial shock, in a something approaching desperation, Israel has tried to shift the agenda and contain the Arab Spring. At the heart of Israel’s current strategy is:
- reviving the anti-Iranian alliance
- contain the Arab Spring
- regain some of its eroding political status and initiative
- at a time when there are growing questions in Washington concerning the U.S. – Israeli alliance, remind the United States that Israel can still be an important strategic ally, essential for the U.S. to accomplish its strategic goals
Gaza Flotilla, trying again…
Recovering from the blow to its influence, Israel concluded that the best way for it to help the United States contain the Arab Spring was to resurrect the anti-Iranian coalition, perhaps with new arrangement (that would involve France, Italy more directly).
Supported by Obama administration, Israel had to prepare for a new anti-Iranian campaign. To begin with, it had to `calm the waters’ fouled in recent years and then to work in a number of ways:
- The Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange was meant to temporarily downplay the Palestinian issue at this time. While it is true that the members of the recent Gaza flotilla were treated roughly, this time no one was killed. Timing not right
- Likewise, when Israel soldiers killed Egyptian border guards in a recent skirmish, Israel moved quickly to keep the issue from escalating into a more serious confrontation
- Although Israeli-Turkish relations have greatly soured, Israel offered Ankara emergency aid for its earthquake victims in Eastern Turkey.
- Netanyahu has even floated thoughts – not to be taken too seriously – of re-opening negotiations with the Palestinians.
Both the United States and Israel have repeatedly tried to resurrect the Iranian threat at different times over the past decades, recently less effectively. This policy has become more and more stale, and less useful.
Indeed it is a stale, well worn strategy.
Iran in 2011 is beginning to resemble the build up to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, this despite the fact that an Iranian nuclear program for military purposes remains unproven. So here we go again – same old, same old with a few new twists. Goebbel’s famous statement about repeating a frequently repeated lie finally being accepted as truth comes to mind. And as the myth of the Iranian threat has been so often repeated, who knows, it might work.
To Get the Fear-Mongering Rolling
To get the fear mongering rolling, the Israelis got a little help in jump starting the hysteria from the Obama Administration, specifically CIA director David Petraeus, who helped poison the air by floating the unlikely accusation that the Iranians, through a Texas used car dealer in tandem with a Mexican drug gang were keen on assassinating the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in Washington D.C.
While this was even too much for the U.S. media, in retrospect an important point was missed – this was the opening round of a new offensive against Iran to be followed by others. That the incident was rather sloppily fabricated did not in the least bother Petraeus (or Obama) since U.S. administrations have been creating such scenarios for decades.
Round Two opens with the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program. Even before the report was issued (November 8, 2011), the media has `somehow’ grabbed hold of it. Frankly there is nothing new in this report fromprevious ones. Everything concerning an Iranian nuclear weapons program is little more than innuendo. But now the IAEA is headed by Yukiya Amano, much more pliant to U.S. pressure than his predecessor and the `suggestions’ of the report more ominous.
As with the accusation of the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador, with the new IAEA report proves little to nothing other than adding to the drumbeat for war. It should come as no surprise that Iran’s nuclear program is the lever Israel hopes to pull to bring its old allies back together into one happy war-mongering family
Israel raising the decibel level is a dangerous game in a region so overloaded with weapons and countries that don’t trust each other. But exaggerating the non-existing Iranian threat is part of the game for the US and Israel to bring the dangling elements of the alliance back in line.
Israeli Perceptions of Iran
Will Israel succeed in creating a second coming of the anti-Iranian front and dragging the United States and its NATO allies along with it? How far is it willing to go to shift the region’s priorities back in a direction which it prefers? What is it willing to do if it cannot resurrect the alliance?
If the evidence is lacking to substantiate the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, regardless, this has not dissuaded Israel from imagining its existence. With paranoia replacing analysis, the debate in Israel is not whether or not such a program is even being developed but how to attack Iran irrespectively.
It is clear that Iran’s current nuclear program – even one based upon the peaceful use of the atom – has provoked a level of insecurity in Israel. A nuclear Iran threatens Israeli self-confidence by crossing two “red-lines” in the Israeli strategic psyche.
1. First, the arsenal of a single country would pose an existential threat. Focusing on Iran’s ultimate destructive capability rather than its intentions, Israeli strategists therefore view a nuclear Iran apocalyptically.
2. Second, many Israelis believe that the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly would terminate the country’s ultimate insurance policy, fundamentally undermining Israel’s general deterrence posture.
Three schools of thought have emerged within the Israeli defense establishment concerning Iran crossing the nuclear threshold
- The first school sees a nuclear Iran as a cold-mindedly pragmatic country, which represents the ultimate strategic challenge.
- The second school perceives a nuclear Iran as a reckless, irrational regime, which constitutes a fully materialized existential threat.
- The third–and smallest—school sees an opportunity for reconciliation through mutual disarmament.
The proponents of the first school – those who subscribe to the Cold War notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – would reconcile themselves to the new strategic environment. For political and operational reasons, the MAD school considers military action against Iran ineffective and impossible before or after Iran gaining nuclear capability.
Constructing a new balance of terror
Assuming that Iranian leaders are radical but reasonable, MAD proponents rely on Israel’s ability to influence Iran’s cost-benefit considerations. This tendency approximates the Iranian nuclear mentality to the Soviet one. They assume that a nuclear weapons program reduces Iran’s sense of vulnerability, thus enabling more constructive dialogue and a higher degree of stability despite significant differences in strategic cultures and ideologies.
Determined to construct a “balance of terror” model, the MAD school favors termination of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. To them, revealing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, outlining its nuclear posture, and communicating red-lines and the prices for crossing them to a certain extent bolsters the credibility of Israeli deterrence.
The second school–those subscribing to the hard-nosed doctrine of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—refuses to accept the new strategic environment, maintaining instead that Iran should be removed forcibly from the nuclear club, in much the same way as Israel approached Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and, reportedly, the Syrian reactor in 2007.
Many in this group view Iranian leaders as reckless decision-makers, ready to commit collective martyrdom or transfer nuclear weapons to radical proxies, and therefore they would consider nuclear deterrence irrelevant. Others argue that a stable MAD regime with Iran is impossible because Iranian decision-makers might misinterpret Israel’s strategic considerations.
Appealing to the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, several of which were preceded by inaccurate Arab strategic estimates, the proponents of this view emphasize the disproportionally higher price of miscalculation this time. Advocates of this school question the value of terminating the policy of ambiguity, arguing that even a “bomb in the basement” preserves sufficient deterrent power, whereas disclosure might expose Israel to international pressure and stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.
In light of the world’s unwillingness to intervene, members of the Begin school argue that Israel alone is responsible for preventing Iran from gaining the necessary technology.
Their optimism regarding the possible Iranian retaliation is based on the history of Israeli resilience in the face of Iraq’s scud attacks in 1991, and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s rocket strikes. Also, they take solace in the widespread belief in the inaccuracy of Iran’s missiles and would place their trust in Israel’s Arrow and PAC-3 missile defense capabilities.
The third school–a distinct minority– challenges prevailing views in the Israeli security establishment and among the public by calling for Israeli nuclear disarmament. These nuclear abolitionists suggest dismantling Israel’s nuclear capabilities as part of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, which would presumably enable regional cooperation and the construction of anti-Iranian security architecture. However, in order to verify their basic assumptions, many abolitionists might first gravitate toward the MAD school, which they would perceive as an intermediate stage on the path toward their final goal.
For political and operational reasons, the Israeli security establishments are reluctant to strike Iran without U.S. support. The three schools disagree on whether a nuclear Iran or a deteriorating relationship with the United States would pose a greater threat to Israel’s security. The Begin school argues that when its existence is at stake, Israel does not need permission from anyone to determine its own fate.
The MAD group is probably opposed to an attack, in light of Washington’s reservations. After all, an Israeli strike might cause Iranian retaliation against U.S. regional targets, increase anti-Americanism worldwide, drag the United States into an undesired military confrontation; this was clearly spelled out few days ago by the US secretary of defense, disturb the oil market and shipping lanes, and eventually sour the special relationship between Israel and the United States, thus ultimately eroding Israel’s deterrence posture.
Developing a nuclear deterrence posture for the non-existing Iranian threat, would run counter to Israel’s long-standing view of the “bomb in the basement” as a last resort, to be used only when the country’s survival is threatened.
In order for Israel to live with Iran, its strategic mentality would have to adjust and its leaders would have to grapple with several cognitive dissonances. First and foremost, the Israeli government would have to wrestle with the image of Iran that it has constructed. Deconstructing and reworking the image will not be easy. For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to popular fears by cultivating the specter of a second Holocaust in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is equated with Hitler and Iranian leadership as fanatical and irrational.
If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Israeli government will likely seek to assure its population that Israel possesses effective countermeasures and that a stable MAD regime is feasible. However, to make this explanation convincing, the Israeli establishment will have to spell out that Iran is a rational strategic player that can be deterred. Such a message would be confusing and disorienting for Israelis because it contradicts everything that the Israeli government has been preaching to itself, its citizens, and the world for decades.
Second, if the MAD school prevails, Israeli strategists will be forced to adapt to a new reality that runs against their very nature. Israel has long seen military superiority as the cornerstone of its security and its deterrence posture.
Third, given the regional redistribution of power, Israel’s military action would be relatively restricted and diplomatic channels might take on greater importance, upending the Israeli tradition of marginalizing diplomacy when it comes to matters of national security.
Fourth, Israel might have to project a new image of itself as a careful and composed actor rather than the “crazy when furious” reputation that the Israel Defense Forces have cultivated. In a nuclear standoff, this traditional image would not necessarily contribute to a stable deterrence regime.
Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational sources there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.
- The United States has its own reasons for opposing Iran, including the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Iran’s historic role as a pioneer of nationalizing (or trying to) oil resources, and the very fact that the Islamic Republic largely outside of U.S. political and economic influence. At a time of tightening oil supplies and future intense competition over energy sources, `disciplining’ Iran to play the energy role more conducive to U.S. interests has become something of an obsession in Washington. `Taking out’ Iran weakens China and gives the United States greater strategic leverage over global economy in general.
Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver and publishes on Imam Kazerooni Blog
Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News