Diplomacy: Reading Israel on Iran

Panetta said Israel would likely attack Iran by April, May or June. Here we are in July, sans attack.

July 12, 2012 22:42
Catherine Ashton, Saeed Jalili Baghdad

Catherine Ashton, Saeed Jalili Baghdad 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)

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.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.

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 term.”

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 capability.”

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 critical interests?

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 Iran.

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.”

Netanyahu made 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 June.”

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 sanctions?

That assumption was hidden in a question Time magazine asked Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a lengthy interview that was posted Saturday on its website.

“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 credibility.

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 view.

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.

There 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.”

One of 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.

Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance