Yesterday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) concluded its annual policy conference in Washington, DC. This year saw the largest-ever turnout for AIPAC’s annual conference, with 7,800 people in attendance, an important percentage of whom were not Jewish but evangelical Protestant Christians. At the climax of the conference, participants deployed to Capitol Hill to lobby for AIPAC’s top policy priorities. As AIPAC’s lobbying packet underscores, the conference was heavily focused on “the Iranian threat,” which topped Israeli-Palestinian peace and even the state of U.S.-Israeli relations in the wake of Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent trip to Israel for pride of place on AIPAC’s agenda.
This year’s lobbying effort was concentrated on the imperative to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.” To this end, AIPAC wants the United States “to lead the international community in imposing crippling sanctions on Iran without delay.” According to AIPAC, “American and international sanctions on Iran must be immediate, broad and overwhelming in order to force the regime to confront the choice between abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons or facing crippling sanctions.” AIPAC’s material does not explicitly call for military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, but, subtly and ominously, the group notes that “tough sanctions that are strictly enforced still remain the best option at this time to persuade Iran’s leaders to alter their course” (emphasis added).
Some of AIPAC’s congressional guests leaned further forward than the group’s own materials did about the possibility of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In his address, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) departed from the Obama Administration’s approved talking points by asserting that,
Diplomatic efforts have failed. We are too close (to a nuclear Iran) to simply continue those efforts. The U.S. must hit Iran first, on our own, with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other nations of the world do. And, we cannot wait, we must push those sanctions now . . . we cannot afford to wait for Russia or China.
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) went even further, portentously claiming that “time is not on our side” with regard to Iran’s nuclear program and that this year’s AIPAC conference could be the last before Iran actually acquired nuclear weapons. To deal with this threat, Graham underscored that “all options must be on the table” and “you know exactly what I’m talking about.” But Graham argued that, if military strikes against Iran are initiated, they should not be limited to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure:
If military force is ever employed, it should be done in a decisive fashion. The Iran government’s ability to wage conventional war against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not exist. They should not have one plane that can fly or one ship that can float.
Why are AIPAC and its supporters putting all of this effort into pushing the Obama Administration into a more assertive “war footing” toward Iran? What does this focus tell us about Israel’s perception of its strategic interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic? As we have written previously, the idea that an Iran which is capable of enriching uranium — or even an Iran which has actually fabricated a nuclear weapons — is an “existential threat” to Israel does not hold up to serious scrutiny. So what really is at stake here for Israel and its friends in the United States?
From an Israeli perspective, three points are important. First, Israel’s political and policy elites want to eliminate Iran’s fuel-cycle capabilities in order to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel’s favor. Regional perceptions that the Islamic Republic had achieved a nuclear “breakout” capacity would begin to erode Israel’s long-standing nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East, thereby chipping away at the image and reality of Israel’s strategic hegemony over its neighborhood.
Second, the emergence of an increasingly nuclear-capable Iran might begin to constrain Israel’s own strategic and tactical choices in the region, at least on the margins. For many years now there has been a broad-based consensus within Israeli political and policymaking circles that Israel’s security requires that an Israeli government be able to use military force unilaterally in the Middle East at any time and for any purpose that it chooses. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself alluded to this view in his address to AIPAC yesterday. Netanyahu noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, “two of history’s greatest leaders,” had “helped save the world. But they were too late to save six million of my own people.” He then declared that “the future of the Jewish state can never depend on the goodwill of even the greatest of men. Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself.” The Prime Minister went on to apply this idea directly to Iran and its nuclear program, noting that “Israel expects the international community to act swiftly and decisively to thwart this danger. But we will always reserve the right to defend ourselves.”
In this context, it is clear that Netanyahu is not referring to self-defense against an active threat, for which Article 51 of the United Nations Charter might be invoked as a legal justification. Rather, Netanyahu is reiterating longstanding Israeli policy that Israel claims the right to initiate, at its own discretion, not just preemptive wars, but also preventive wars. From this perspective, anything which might begin to constrain Israel’s currently unconstrained freedom of military action is problematic. Thus, a nuclear-capable Iran is bad because in some circumstances it might make Israeli strategic planners and decision-makers think twice about the unilateral initiation of military conflict. (Similarly, the accumulation of more capable rockets and conventional military hardware by Hizballah in Lebanon since 2006 is a problem for Israel not because Hizballah will, some day, decide to launch massive rocket barrages against northern Israel for no reason. Rather, Hizballah’s military capabilities are a problem primarily because they constrain, at least to some degree, Israeli decision-making about initiating military confrontation in the region. This is true with regard to prospective strikes against Iranian targets — because Israeli planners must worry about Hizballah’s response. It is also true with regard to sending Israeli ground forces into Lebanon — because Hizballah, having become capable of what Tom Ricks usefully describes as a “high-intensity insurgency” campaign, can now fight the IDF to an effective standstill on the ground.)
The third point relates to the Palestinian issue. From an Israeli perspective, keeping America focused on Iran as an urgent threat is useful in distracting Washington from working too seriously on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This is particularly attractive to a Prime Minister like Netanyahu, who is disinclined to take the concrete steps necessary to reach a two-state solution — whether in the near term on settlements or in the longer term on final-status issues. Netanyahu — or any other Israeli Prime Minister with a similar view of the Palestinian issue — will always argue for prioritizing Iran over the Palestinians. An Israeli Prime Minister can always claim that his government’s bureaucratic and national security capacities — as well as his own political capital — are finite. There is simply not enough of those resources for an Israeli government to deal effectively with an “existential threat” from Iran and, at the same time, make and implement the “painful concessions” entailed in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
Those who claim that the Obama Administration could use the argument that resolving the Palestinian issue would marginalize Iran to leverage greater cooperation from Israel on Arab-Israeli peacemaking miss this important reality: the Israeli government is exaggerating the Iranian “threat” as a way of fending off pressure to do more on the Palestinian issue, not as a way of facilitating greater American intervention on the Palestinian issue. Moreover, this position ignores what we have frequently identified as a major weakness in the current U.S. position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic and the Middle East more generally — at this point, the United States cannot broker negotiated settlements on the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli peace process without a more positive and productive relationship with Tehran.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 24 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.