Iran: A game gone too far
The story of how Israel reached the – real or perceived – brink of war with Iran is not exactly what it appears to be.
At some point in recent years, Israeli decision-makers decided to play a game. Through a fairly innocuous and innocent lens, the game can be described as “good cop, bad cop.” At worst, it is a dangerous exercise in diplomatic and military brinksmanship that risks catapulting one of the world’s most well-armed regions into an unpredictable and open-ended war.
Either way, the game has gone too far.
Israel is terrified of a nuclear-armed Iran. Although less daunting than the prospect of a second holocaust, the danger Iranian nukes pose is real: they threaten the thus-far unchallenged regional hegemony the IDF has enjoyed for decades.
Earlier this year, the IDF’s top planning officer, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, explained how an Iran with nuclear weapons would change Israel’s strategic posture:
Israel, he said, would be deterred from entering into conventional wars with its traditional adversaries, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, if their Iranian sponsor became a nuclear power.
Nuclear deterrence, Eshel explained, would dramatically alter Israel’s strategic military posture in the region. “If we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, it might be different.”
But the threat of Israel losing its military hegemony is not sufficient to force the international community into action. Although the West has long been opposed to an Iranian nuclear program, which is slightly augmented by the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from Tehran, all official accounts still report that Iran’s nuclear program is civilian in nature. Even Israel admits that Iran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons.
What would be enough to spur the West into action? The prospect of war.
So top officials in Jerusalem decided they should act irrationally. The world must believe that Israel is two hairs-breadths away from launching a desperate and implausible war.
As Haaretz’s Ari Shavit explains it: “Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran.”
While pushing Washington to engage Tehran more aggressively, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeated time and again that diplomatic engagement with Iran (a 2008 campaign pledge by Barack Obama) can only succeed if it’s complemented by a “credible military threat.”
Last month, Netanyahu made his strategy clear. “The paradox is that if [the Iranians] actually believe that they are going to face the military option, then you probably will not need the military option,” he said in an interview with Fox News.
This is nothing new. For at least 20 years, Netanyahu has been making dire predictions about the urgent nature of the Iranian threat. In 1992 he was quoted saying that “Iran is three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be ‘uprooted by an international front headed by the US’.”
The problem with Netanyahu’s strategy of paradoxical brinksmanship is how it can end.
By constructing a paradigm in which one of the only possible outcomes is war, Israel’s prime minister has finally created a “credible military threat,” though it is the threat of an Israeli attack instead of US military action.
As Netanyahu explained to a joint session of Congress last year, the only time Iran halted its nuclear program was when the US, whom it regards as “the Great Satan,” invaded Iraq in 2003. Following the invasion of Afghanistan a year-and-a-half earlier, the Islamic Republic was effectively surrounded. Iran, at least in Netanyahu’s mind, was scared it was next. However, Obama pledged to end both wars and redeploy hundreds of thousands of US troops.
So without a credible, or at least perceived, military threat from the US, Netanyahu built his own. Up, down and across Israel’s political and military echelons, officials and officers helped the process along. Unnamed officials leaked an unprecedented amount of intelligence estimates and alleged military capabilities and planning to carefully selected journalists. Meanwhile, on-the-record statements escalated into a crescendo of aggressive, untrusting and apocalyptic language, leaving one logical conclusion: that Israel was planning to hit Iran, and soon.
But after two years, some of those officials who had played along with Netanyahu’s game, either actively or by remaining silent, began to question it. Former Mossad heads, IDF chiefs of staff and a large number of officials from across the security and political establishments started speaking out. One of the first was recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who called strike on Iran “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
Around the same time, the consensus of opinion has been that if Israel strikes Iran, it would only set its nuclear program back by a few years and likely increase its motivation to weaponize it. But none of that put even the slightest damper in Netanyahu’s game; because he knew from the beginning that war was a threat he never intended to follow through on.
The game did, however, begin to pay off as the West and even Russia and China initiated the most serious diplomatic efforts on the issue to date. Earlier this year, the European Union levied unprecedented economic and oil sanctions on Iran.
But where does the game end?
Israeli media headlines in recent days have been full of speculation that Netanyahu is seeking a way to jump off the war path he spent so much time and effort paving.
But Netanyahu has set the bar for his own satisfaction far too high. His recent demands that the US and international community set “clear red lines,” which if crossed would trigger military action, are much more stringent than any other country would ever be willing to commit to. In other words, he has no way to back down.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s inability to end his own game doesn’t make it real; it’s unlikely he ever planned on following through on his threats.
So how does this game end?