Israel’s Military Threat against Iran Is a Bluff That Keeps Giving

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed to have told President Barack Obama that either America stops Iran or Israel will.  Not surprisingly, the interview sparked quite a controversy, and only a day later, General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”

So once again, in spite of President Obama’s best efforts, the military option was put back on the table and the atmosphere for dealing with Iran was turned into “Do as we say — or else. . . .”  Even if the president wants to give diplomacy a chance, disbelievers have been quick to limit Obama’s options by seeking to set arbitrary deadlines for negotiations — or by threatening Israeli military action if America doesn’t act with its military might.

Reality is, however, that talk of an Israeli military option is more of a bluff than a threat — but it is a bluff that never seems to stop giving.

Israel does not have the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.  Even the most successful bombing campaign would only set back the known program for a few years — without affecting any potential clandestine program.  This is not classified information.  Military experts are well aware of Israel’s capabilities — and its limits.

Yet, the threat of military action, or rather the bluff, serves a purpose: Threats of military action militarizes the atmosphere.  It creates an environment that renders diplomacy less likely to succeed — it may even prevent diplomacy from being pursued in the first place.

In the Iranian case, Netanyahu’s tough talk undermines the Obama administration’s prospects for diplomacy in the following ways.

Getting to the negotiating table has proven an arduous task for the US and Iran.  Both sides are currently testing each other’s intentions, asking themselves if the other side is serious about diplomacy or if the perceived desire for talks is merely a tactical maneuver to either buy time or build greater international support for more confrontational policies down the road.  From Tehran’s perspective, uncertainty about Washington’s intentions during the Bush administration was partly fueled by the insistence of the military option remaining on the table.  Tehran seemed to fear entering negotiations that could have been designed to fail, since that could strengthen the case for military action against Iran.

Today, talk of Israeli strikes has similar effects.  Tehran has repeatedly failed to appreciate the policy differences between Washington and Tel Aviv, oftentimes seeing them as either a perfectly coordinated team or as a single entity.  Consequently, explicit or implicit threats of Israeli military action reduce Tehran’s confidence in Washington’s intentions.

Furthermore, Iran’s sense of a threat from the US (and in extension Israel) is believed to be one of the driving forces of Iran’s nuclear program.  Whether Iran seeks a weapon or a civilian program that provides Iran with a weapons capability, the program’s existence provides Tehran with a level of deterrence against the perceived US threat.  The Obama administration’s approach seems to have been to reduce Iran’s sense of threat in order to kick-start negotiations.  The threat of Israeli military action does the opposite — it fuels Iranian insecurity and closes the window for diplomacy.

Moreover, Israel uses this threat to pressure Washington and the EU to act tough.  This has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy towards Iran since the mid-1990s.  Even though Israel is reluctant to put itself on the frontline against Iran, fearing that this would counter its message that Iran is the world’s and not just Israel’s problem, it also fears that the absence of Israeli pressure would cause the West to go soft on Iran.  Hence, Israel keeps the pressure on the West — by threatening military action — in order for the West to keep pressuring Iran.  However, under the current circumstances, Israeli pressure may compel the Obama administration to adopt a confrontational approach that is incompatible with the diplomatic strategy President Obama seems to prefer.

Finally, Netanyahu — as well as hawks in Washington — are using the threat of Israeli military action to create arbitrary deadlines for negotiations with Tehran combined with exaggerated expectations of what diplomacy must achieve.  The message of Israeli hawks has been that it can only afford to give diplomacy “a few months,” meaning that whatever sanctions and confrontation has failed to achieve with Iran in the past 30 years must miraculously be obtained after only a few months of negotiations — otherwise Israel will take military action.

This logic does two things.  First, it brings us back to the foreign policy approach of the Bush administration in which diplomacy was treated with suspicion and skepticism, and military confrontation was viewed as a policy option with guaranteed success.  Second, it ensures that diplomacy fails by denying it the time and space it needs to succeed and by setting the bar too high.

This does not mean that Israel does not have legitimate reasons to fear Iran’s nuclear advances — on the contrary.  But what lies at the heart of Israel’s maneuvers is not necessarily the fear of a nuclear clash, but the regional and strategic consequences nuclear technology in Iranian hands will have for Israel.

In spite of its rhetoric, Israel views the regime in Tehran as rational, calculating and risk-averse.  Even those Israeli officials who believe that Iran is hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state recognize that Tehran is unlikely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons due to the destruction Israel would inflict on Iran through its second-strike capability.

The real danger a nuclear-capable Iran brings with it for Israel is twofold.  First, an Iran with nuclear capability will significantly damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations.  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.

Second, the deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel.  This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel’s strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat.  Under these circumstances, US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel’s strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel’s concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival.  The Great Satan will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state, Israeli officials fear.

Netanyahu’s threat of stopping Iran if Obama doesn’t should be seen in light of the Israeli rights’s fear of a US-Iran deal.  Talk of Israeli military action has not coincided with major advances in Iran’s nuclear program, but rather with hints of an American preparedness to strike a compromise with Tehran that would grant it the dreaded know-how and limit Israel’s strategic maneuverability.

The flaw in the Netanyahu’s approach, however, is its underestimation of how US-Iran diplomacy can significantly alter Iran’s posture towards the Jewish state and reduce the threat it faces from Tehran.  Therein lies the opening for Israel’s new prime minister that carries far greater promise for Israel’s security than efforts to complicate Washington’s path towards diplomacy.

Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).  This article was published by The Huffington Post on 8 April 2009 and AlterNet on 13 April 2009.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes.