Obama administration officials, as well as U.S. lawmakers and European diplomats passionately made the argument this spring that tough sanctions on Iran were necessary to avoid war. But contrary to their predictions, the drumbeat for war — particularly from Israel – has only increased since the UN Security Council adopted a new resolution against Tehran in June.
The latest in this crescendo of voices is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, “Point of No Return. ” As the title suggests, it essentially makes the case (though in an uncharacteristically subtle manner by neoconservative standards) that there are no choices left — war is a fait accompli, and the only question is whether it will be initiated by Israel or by the United States.
“If the Israelis reach the firm conclusion that Obama will not, under any circumstances, launch a strike on Iran, then the countdown will begin for a unilateral Israeli attack,” Goldberg writes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Goldberg’s description, is a man whose back is against the wall. He cannot accommodate the Obama administration on the Palestinian issue because that would upset his 100-year old father, and he cannot afford to have faith in Obama’s strategy to prevent a nuclear Iran through peaceful means because the threat from Iran is “existential.”
Goldberg interviewed roughly 40 former and current Israeli officials for his piece. Although his access to Israeli officials certainly doesn’t seem to be lacking, the same cannot be said about his treatment of the assumptions behind the Israeli talking points.
The most critical assumption that Israeli officials have presented publicly for the past 18 years — long before the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped on the scene — is that the Iranian government is irrational and that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel.
These departing points in the Israeli analysis eliminate all options on Iran with the exception of preventive military action. An adversary who isn’t rational cannot be deterred nor contained, because such an actor — by definition — does not make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis. In addition, if the foe is presented as an existential threat, then preventive action is the sole rational response. These Israeli assumptions short-cut the entire policy process and skip all the steps that normally are taken before a state determines that force is necessary.
Judging by Israel’s rhetoric, it is easy to conclude that these beliefs are genuinely held as undisputable truths by the Israeli security apparatus.
But if judged by its actions rather than its rhetoric, a very different image emerges — one that shows an astute Israeli appreciation for the complexity of Iran’s security calculations and decision-making processes, and a recognition that conventional arguments are insufficient to convince Washington to view Iran from an Israeli lens.
Goldberg mentions in his article that the Jewish people and the Iranians have a long and common history. It is a history that has been overwhelmingly positive until recently. Iran is still home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel itself, and the Jewish community’s impact on Iranian culture, politics and society runs deep.
In modern times, a strong security relationship developed between these two non-Arab states due to their sense of common threats — primarily strong Arab nationalist states such as Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as well as the Soviet Union (which, besides its own designs on the region, was the military backer of these Arab powers).
From the Israeli perspective, this relationship was strategic. The periphery doctrine put in place by David Ben Gurion dictated that Israel’s security was best achieved by creating alliances with the non-Arab states in the region’s periphery to balance the Arab states in Israel’s vicinity. Iran was the most important periphery power, due to its strength and its coveted energy resources.
For the Shah of Iran, however, the relationship was at best a marriage of convenience. An alliance with Israel was needed to balance the Arabs, but only until Iran was strong enough to befriend the Arabs from a position of strength. “If Iran becomes strong enough to be able to deal with the situation [in the region] all by itself, and its relationship with the United States becomes so solidified so that you won’t need [Israel], then strategically the direction was to gravitate to the Arabs,” Gholam-Reza Afkhami, a former advisor to the Shah, told me in 2004.
In spite of the different value that Iran and Israel ascribed to their relationship, geopolitical factors ensured that it was kept in tact — even after the Islamic fundamentalists took power in Iran through the 1979 revolution.
Goldberg’s lengthy essay fails to recognize that throughout the 1980s, in spite of the Iranian government’s venomous rhetoric against Israel and its anti-Israeli ideology, the Jewish state sought to retain relations with Iran and actively aided Iran in the Iraq-Iran war. Only three days after Iraqi troops entered Iranian territory, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan interrupted a private visit to Vienna to hold a press conference to urge the United States — in the middle of the hostage crisis — to forget the past and help Iran keep up its defenses.
From Israel’s perspective, an Iraqi victory would have been disastrous due to the boost it would give the Arab bloc against Israel. By aiding Iran, Israel hoped to prove to the new rulers in Iran the strategic utility of continuing the Iranian-Israeli security collaboration.
Key to this was convincing Washington to engage with Iran. This desire eventually climaxed in the Iran-Contra scandal — an Israeli initiative led by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin aimed at bringing the U.S. and Israel into a “broader strategic relationship with Iran.” American neoconservatives at the time aided the Israeli effort to lobby the U.S. to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran, and to ignore Iran’s venomous rhetoric against the Jewish state.
In 1982, Ariel Sharon (then Israel’s defense minister) proudly announced on NBC that Israel would continue to sell arms to Iran — in spite of an American ban on such sales. This occurred while Iran routinely introduced resolutions to expel Israel from the United Nations — to which the Israelis responded by selling more arms to the Khomeini regime.
With the end of the Cold War came the end of Israeli overtures to Iran. The defeat of Iraq in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the two common threats that had formed the basis for any Israeli-Iranian collaboration. Though this improved the security environments of both Iran and Israel, it also left both states unchecked. Without Iraq balancing Iran, Tehran could now become a threat, Israeli strategists began to argue. Combined with efforts to define a new order for the region, Iran and Israel were thrown into a strategic rivalry that has continued and intensified till today.
It was at this time, in late 1992, that Israeli Labor Party officials began to publicly depict Iran as an existential threat. Rhetoric reflected intentions and, having been freed from the chains of Iraq, Iran was acquiring the capacity to turn intentions into policy, they argued. The charge was led, incidentally, by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, who only five years earlier had advised Washington to disregard the rhetoric of the mullahs and view Iran as an opportunity rather than a threat. “Death is at our doorstep,” Rabin concluded in 1993 of the Iranian threat, though only five years earlier he had maintained that Iran was a strategic ally.
But it wasn’t new Iranian capabilities or a sudden discovery of Iran’s anti-Israeli rhetoric that prompted the depiction of Iran as an existential threat. Rather, it was the fear that in the new post-Cold War environment in which Israel had lost much of its strategic significance to Washington, improved relations between the US and Iran could come at the expense of Israeli security interests. Iran would become emboldened and the U.S. would no longer seek to contain its growth. The balance of power would shift from Israel towards Iran and the Jewish state would no longer be able rely on Washington to control Tehran. “The Great Satan will make up with Iran and forget about Israel,” Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University in Israel told me during a visit to Jerusalem.
While this Israeli fear of abandonment was poorly understood in Washington at the time and believed to be exaggerated, the rationale for Israel’s concerns has grown significantly over the years due to disagreements with the U.S. on what the ultimate American red line on Iran’s nuclear program should be.
During the Bush administration, no daylight could be detected between Washington and Tel Aviv’s positions — enrichment in Iran was not acceptable, period. The Obama administration has been much more ambiguous on this point, however, fueling fears in Israel that America would ultimately — within a larger settlement with Tehran — accept enrichment on Iranian soil under strict international inspections.
This has, understandably, fueled more Israeli wariness of Obama’s engagement policy with Iran, leaving the Jewish state fearing the success of diplomacy more than its failure, since success by American standards would not qualify as success by Israeli standards.
Two days after President Obama’s election victory in November 2008, then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni expressed her categorical opposition to U.S. engagement with Iran. “We live in a neighborhood in which sometimes dialogue — in a situation where you have brought sanctions, and you then shift to dialogue — is liable to be interpreted as weakness,” Livni told Israel Radio. Asked if she supported any U.S. dialogue with Iran, Livni replied in no uncertain terms: “The answer is no.”
A year later, on the eve of sensitive negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva on a fuel swap aimed at removing 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium from Iran, Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed his fears that anything less than a total halt to uranium enrichment would still leave the possibility of Iran making bomb material. “Not only should enriched material be removed, but enrichment must be stopped in Iran,” Barak said. He added that diplomacy must be given only a “short and defined” time before “serious and immediate” sanctions are imposed on Iran.
The Obama administration was angered by Barak’s statement, according to Israeli papers, but it also revealed the real fear of the Israelis — that successful diplomacy would lead to an agreement between the U.S. and Iran that would limit but not end Iran’s nuclear program while leaving Israel alone in facing the Iranian challenge. Iran’s strengthened position in the region would be recognized by Washington, legitimizing the shift in the balance of power in Iran’s favor and ending American efforts to reverse that shift.
Even an Iran that doesn’t have nuclear weapons but that can build them would damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It would damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans.
This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to deprive Iran of points of hostility that it could use against the Jewish state. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time.
However problematic this scenario would be for Israel, it does not constitute an existential threat. Presenting it as such may have the benefit of pressuring the U.S. not to engage with Iran in the first place, or at a minimum create hurdles to ensure that diplomacy doesn’t lead to any U.S.-Iran agreement. But that is not the same as declaring that the Israelis truly believe Iran to be an existential threat, as Goldberg argues.
In fact, several senior Israeli officials have rejected that claim and pointed out the risks it puts Israel under. For instance, Barak told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in September 2009 that “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel.” A few years earlier, Haaretz revealed that in internal discussions, then-Foreign Minister Livni argued against the idea that a nuclear Iran would constitute an existential threat to Israel. This past summer in Israel, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi told me the same thing and pointed out that speaking of Iran as an existential threat exaggerates Iran’s power and leaves the false — and dangerous — impression that Israel is helpless and vulnerable.
This echoed what Halevi told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in 2007. “[Iran] is not an existential threat. It is not within the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel — at best it can cause Israel grievous damage. Israel is indestructible,” he said.
Rather than a factual, critical presentation of where Israel currently stands on Iran and why, Goldberg’s article is perhaps better understood as the starting salvo in a long-term campaign to create the necessary conditions for a future war with Iran.
Whether characterizing it as “mainstreaming war with Iran” or “making aggression respectable,” Goldberg’s article serves to create a false narrative that claims that the two failed meetings held between the U.S. and Iran last October constitute an exhaustion of diplomacy, that deems the Obama administration’s crippling, indiscriminate sanctions on Iran a failure only weeks after they’ve been imposed, and that then leaves only one option remaining on the table: an American or Israeli military strike. And on top of that, if President Obama doesn’t green light a bombing campaign, Israel will have no choice but to bomb itself, even though it isn’t well-equipped to do so, according to Goldberg.
It is important to note that the aim of this unfolding campaign may not be to pressure Obama into military action. It could just as much serve to portray Obama as weak and indecisive on national security issues that are of grave concern to the U.S. and that are of existential nature to Israel. This portrayal will give the Republicans valuable ammunition for the November congressional elections as well as for the 2012 presidential race.
Indeed, the likely political motivation for this unfolding campaign should not be underestimated. Just as much that the building blocks of the Iraq war were put into place under the Clinton years — most importantly with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 — serious preparation for selling an Iran war to the American public under a Republican president (Palin?) in 2013 must be undertaken now, both to establish the narrative for that sell and to use the narrative to remove any obstacles in the White House along the way.
What is lost in this shadow discussion that only pays lip service to the repercussions of war is the impact any military campaign — or the mere constant speculation of military strikes — will have for the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and human rights.
Iranian activists have warned that even raising the specter of war undercuts the opposition in Iran. In the words of the prominent Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji , “Since Iranians, in particular opposition groups, do not want to see a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq in Iran, they’ve actually had to scale back their opposition to the government [during the Bush administration] in order not to encourage an invasion [by the U.S.]”
The Obama administration’s less bellicose approach to Iran provided space to the pro-democracy movement that Iranian activists were quick to seize upon in 2009. “The mere fact that Obama didn’t make military threats made the Green Movement possible,” Ganji said. “A military attack would destroy all of that.”
If Goldberg’s article is the starting salvo of a campaign that does not take into consideration the existential threat this constitutes to the Iranian pro-democracy movement, and that aims to push out Obama and push in a Republican president amenable to a U.S. war against Iran for the sake of avoiding an Israeli war against Iran, then the risk of war in the short term may not be as great as Goldberg claims.
But the long-term risk of a war that is boldly framed as a test of an American president’s commitment to Israel should not be easily dismissed.
First published in salon.com.
Dr. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States“.