The cover of the June 4 edition of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine featured stern
photos of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
over a submarine. It was a promo for a story headlined “Israel’s deployment of
nuclear missiles on subs from Germany.”
“Deep in their interiors, on
decks 2 and 3, the [Israeli] submarines contain a secret that even in Israel is
only known to a few insiders: nuclear warheads, small enough to be mounted on a
cruise missile, but explosive enough to execute a nuclear strike that would
cause devastating results,” read the story.
Then, adding a dose of
overwrought dramatic flair, the magazine continued, “This secret is considered
one of the best kept in modern military history. Anyone who speaks openly about
it in Israel runs the risk of being sentenced to a lengthy prison
There is no longer any room for doubt, Der Spiegel trumpeted:
“With the help of German maritime technology, Israel has managed to create for
itself a floating nuclear weapon arsenal: submarines equipped with nuclear
Was this “revelation” a gigantic scoop? Was it meant to
embarrass Merkel or Netanyahu? Did it present Israel’s enemies with classified
information? Would it lead to prolonged debate in Germany and demands that
Berlin cancel further submarine deals with Israel? Did it damage Israel’s
Not at all. In fact, some in Europe argue that Jerusalem
could not have commissioned a better piece. The story, according to this school
of thought, created doubt in the minds of the Iranians as to whether Israel has
second strike nuclear potential, or not. And sowing doubt in the minds of the
enemy is always a good thing.
Indeed, Der Spiegel’s story could very well
be just one piece in a jigsaw puzzle that Israel has been putting together over
the last few months, since November, creating a picture of a country that – if
Iran’s nuclear steps are not stopped – will take military action against
This impression has been created by a continuous drum beat of
statements that began in earnest last winter and that came from everyone from
President Shimon Peres to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, various other
cabinet ministers and leaks from “senior officials.”
comparisons between the Iranian nuclear threat and the Holocaust, saying that
what is different now is that Israel can defend itself.
Barak spoke of a
“zone of immunity,” that period before which Israel would have to strike so as
to prevent the Iranians from having their capabilities duly fortified, rendering
an Israeli attack ineffective. And Peres said in November that “the
possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied
than the application of a diplomatic option.”
All this happened before
the International Atomic Energy Agency was to submit a report in December,
documenting that Iran was accelerating its nuclear program. The bellicose
statements created an atmosphere in the spring, when Netanyahu visited
Washington, that made it seem as though Israel was on a war footing and an
attack was imminent.
Serious people, like US Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta, spoke of a strong likelihood of an Israeli attack in “April, May or
Yet April came and went, as did May and June, and now we are in
mid-July without any attack.
This doesn’t mean that it still might not
happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Which raises the question: was an
attack ever really in the works, or was it all a gambit aimed at getting the
international community off the stick and convinced of the need to impose biting
That assumption was hidden in a question Time magazine asked Defense
Minister Ehud Barak during a lengthy interview that was posted Saturday on its
“Israel has done a masterful job of teeing up this question [of
Iran] for the international community, especially the run-up to the December
IAEA report, thinking that you guys were lunging for the trigger,” Time said to
Barak. “But you can only be credible for so long with the threat, right? Does
that become one more pressure to act itself?”
In other words, you can only cry
wolf for so long, and then you have to act to kill the wolf or else lose
Time was on to something. In some key capitals in Europe
there are voices being raised saying that Israel is bluffing, that it won’t hit
Iran. At the same time, those voices are saying that this bluff is constructive
because the Iranians are uncertain and Israel’s bellicose statements has had a
major part in pushing them back to the negotiating table with the P5+1 – the US,
Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Those arguing that Israel is
bluffing – and see the effectiveness in the bluff – believe that the US does not
want to see a strike before the upcoming elections and are betting that Israel
is loathe to take action without US support.
According to this line of
reasoning, polls in Israel show that the Israeli public is not overwhelmingly
supportive of an attack if the US is not behind it. A University of
Maryland-commissioned poll put the figure of Israelis supporting such an attack
without US backing at only 19 percent in February, while a Jerusalem Post poll
in April put the number of those supporting such an action at 45%, as opposed to
40% who would oppose under those circumstances.
This has led some to the
following reasoning: Polls show that military action without US backing is not popular in Israel; Netanyahu is one of the most skilled politicians in
Israel and won’t take a risk that is not politically popular; therefore,
Netanyahu won’t strike without US support.
According to some in Europe,
this is also a conclusion the Iranians have drawn – a conclusion strengthened by
Netanyahu’s trip to Washington in March, when the differences between Washington
and Jerusalem regarding the use of force against Iran were on full
There are those involved in the talks with the Iranians who believe
those differences were widely seen as giving Iran the impression that they had
some breathing room.
But the Iranian reading of the situation up until
now has been anything but flawless.
British ambassador to Israel Matthew
Gould said at a briefing recently that the talks between he P5+1 and Iran in
Moscow last month showed an impressive degree of unity between the members of
the P5+1, including Russia and China.
If the Iranians thought they would
be able to split China and Russia from the others, they were mistaken, he said.
Instead, “they found strong unity from the P5+1.”
Sources familiar with
the current talks – which over the last three months have included three
political rounds and one “technical meeting” – said that Russia has not
“wobbled” on Iran and is indeed frustrated by Tehran’s positions. Russia has
made clear that it has doubts about sanctions, but is not letting that get into
the way of the conduct of the negotiations.
In the US/Russian, rivalry,
Iran is in a different league than Syria, where Moscow’s backing of Damascus is
widely viewed through the prism of Russia’s competition with the US. If Moscow
is standing with Syria against the West partly because it won’t link itself to
the strategic objectives set by others, and wants to co-own any process that
will lead to change in Syria, with Iran the situation is different.
has been far more cooperation on Iran from Russia than expected, and that, in
turn, has impacted on the Chinese, since the Russian and the Chinese are widely
believed to have an informal “power-sharing agreement.” Under this agreement,
Russia follows China’s policy when it comes to North Korea-related issues, and
the Chinese follow Moscow’s lead in the Middle East.
In addition to
believing they could play Russia and China against the other members of the
P5+1, The Iranians also seemed to believe that with the debt crisis rocking
Europe, the Europeans would back off a decision made earlier this year to clamp
an embargo on Iranian oil.
But here, too, Tehran was surprised, as the
oil embargo went into effect on July 1.
According to Gould’s figures,
these sanctions – resulting in a loss of 20% of Iran’s total oil revenue – will
cost the regime $8 billion every quarter.
And this brings us back to Time
magazine‘ s comment/question to Barak about Israel’s “masterful job of teeing up
this question for the international community.”
“I do not underestimate
our contribution,” Barak responded. “Probably indirectly, probably we had
certain influence, probably, on the clarity of the position of the world right
now, the readiness to take action. And I believe the Iranians will be moved only
by the combination of carrots and a big stick in the background.”
Israel’s problems with the current round of negotiations, however, is that so
far the only one waving the “big stick” is Israel.
Or, as one senior
Israeli official put it recently, the Iranians will only stop if they genuinely
feel that if they don’t, they will face military action. That they haven’t
stopped, or shown any flexibility up until now in the negotiations, shows that
they are still not convinced. However, this does not mean that Israel is on the
verge of military action, because as much as Netanyahu and other officials in
Jerusalem may criticize the talks between the P5+1 and Iran, they have –
tellingly – not yet called for them to be scuttled.