Much written and said about the Middle East is always fantasy but nowadays the
proportion of fantasy to reality is higher than ever. Number one on that list is
the war hysteria with Iran. Iran doesn’t have deliverable nuclear weapons. It is
not about to have deliverable nuclear weapons. Israel is not about to attack
Iran. The United States is certainly not about to attack Iran. The whole idea
that the leaders of Iran are crazed, suicidally minded people who expect the
twelfth imam to arrive next Thursday is simply not true.
Yes, the Iranian
regime is radical and yes, it throws threats in all directions and yes, it is
the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism. Yet after 32 years in power the
Islamist regime in Tehran has yet to do something really adventurous abroad.
This regime wants to stay in power and it has shown restraint. When it committed
terrorist attacks against Americans in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia it did so
with the correct calculation that it could get away without paying any
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn’t run Iran, and many of his
statements are intended for domestic consumption to boost his claim to
leadership. I don’t mean to say that Iran’s leaders are calm pragmatists, but
they are power-hungry people intent on the survival of themselves and their
regime. Iran’s government is bad enough, but the caricatures we are seeing go
far beyond the reality. The country’s main goal, like that of Pakistan, is to
make itself immune to any reprisals for terrorism and subversion by having
nuclear weapons. In part, the rationale for the nuclear program is outdated,
though that certainly won’t stop Tehran from pursuing it. The project was
launched to make Iran into the leader of the Middle East, and even of the whole
Yet the rise of Sunni Arab Islamists, notably the Muslim
Brotherhood, has sharply reduced Iran’s potential sphere of influence. Tehran’s
broader ambitions have been shrunk to include only Lebanon, Syria (where its
ally is facing major problems), southwest Afghanistan, and Iraq (where its
clients are proportionately small in size). Throw in some ambitions toward
Bahrain and the ability to scare the Persian Gulf Arabs and that’s about it.
Turkey has its own ambitions; the newly empowered Sunni Arab Islamists hate Iran
and don’t think they need Tehran at all.
That doesn’t mean Iran might not
some day attack Israel if and when it has nuclear weapons. Obviously a mixture
of containment, defensive measures and the ability plus willingness to stage a
preemptive attack if necessary are vital for Israel, which isn’t going to depend
on Iran’s good will or assume that Tehran will never attack.
At the same
time, though, the chances of avoiding a nuclear war are overwhelmingly positive.
What is Iran going to do, put two to six missiles on launching pads to shoot at
Israel without being detected beforehand and having no second wave that can be
used? Is Iran going to attack Israel out of spite, from blind fanaticism,
knowing not only that Iran will be devastated but that Israel has a high
likelihood of preempting and destroying them on the launching pad or shooting
To start a war with Iran now doesn’t make any sense. It will
not stop that country from getting nuclear weapons and it would make a nuclear
war in the coming years more rather than less likely. Israel has no
international support. Russia is practically threatening a war against Israel if
it does launch such an operation.
The logistics of an attack are
difficult, though not impossible. A lot can go wrong. You don’t want to try such
an operation unless you really have to do so. The bottom line is that an Israeli
attack on Iran at present is simply not necessary. A lot of the Israeli rhetoric
is clearly intended to press the West toward greater activism and tougher
Indeed, all of the reasons why Israel is not about to attack
Iran are just plain ignored in the media. Defense Minister Ehud Barak explains
that no decision is made and that Israeli policy is only to attack if Iran is
about to get deliverable nuclear weapons. He suggests that this won’t happen in
the next year. The biggest Israeli critic of launching an attack states that
Israel decided not to do so and his worst complaint against Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu is that he wants to keep discussing the possibility, not that
he has decided on an attack.
President Barack Obama – a man who would
never attack Iran or support an Israeli action – has publicly stated that Israel
isn’t about to do so. The president of the United States, whatever his other
faults, would not say such a thing unless he has been clearly promised by
Netanyahu that it isn’t going to happen. If Israel were to break that promise
the entire bilateral relationship would blow up in a way that would make recent
tiffs seem like a picnic.
In short, the whole idea is nonsense. Numerous
reasons can be given to explain why it is not on the agenda for this year. But
the media and various analysts – many of them self-proclaimed experts – simply
ignore all the evidence. Some want to get Israel into a war with Iran to please
their own ideological agenda; others want to claim Israel is going to attack in
order to prove their thesis that Israel is the evil cause of all regional – or
even world – problems.
This hysteria really should stop. Israel isn’t
going to get into a long, bloody and avoidable war because bloggers and op-ed
writers are screaming for it.
Briefly, here are some other myths that
deserve to be abandoned as soon as possible:
• There is an Israel-Palestinian
peace process. That’s probably dead for decades because the Palestinian side
doesn’t want a compromise deal. Obama’s mistakes, the Palestinian
Authority-Hamas coalition, the Islamist “spring” and the UN unilateral
independence bid all makes it even more obviously deceased.
• The Muslim
Brotherhood is moderate. Wake up and smell the jihad.
• The Syrian regime
is about to fall. The opposition knows that without international intervention –
which isn’t going to happen – they can’t win.
• Turkey is the very model
of a moderate Islamic democracy. Actually, it’s a repressive Islamist
dictatorship in training. Look at the massive arrests, the trumped-up treason
charges, the trampling of free speech and the assault on the country’ armed
Unless there is some real understanding of what’s going on in the
Middle East, any hope for useful analysis, much less predicting the most likely
future scenarios or charting a successful Western policy, is out of
The writer’s new book, Israel: An Introduction has just been
published by Yale University Press. He is director of global research in the
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at PJM and editor
of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.