When Netanyahu talks about Iran, chances slim of anyone shooting - analysis

If Netanyahu is speaking on it, it's probably not important. If Jerusalem is silent, it's serious.

July 8, 2019 03:29
4 minute read.
When Netanyahu talks about Iran, chances slim of anyone shooting - analysis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pouring water during a video aimed at the people of Iran. . (photo credit: screenshot)

Here’s a quick rule of thumb in gauging the seriousness of Iran-related developments: when Jerusalem is silent, things are serious; when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comments, there is unlikely to be any imminent military action.

For example, last month when there were real concerns that Iran and the United States were on the verge of war – first as a result of an attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and then with the downing of a US drone by Iran – Jerusalem was silent. Completely silent.

Neither Netanyahu nor his ministers commented on the situation. Why? Precisely because it was serious and because if US President Donald Trump had decided to take military action against Iran, Netanyahu did not want to be viewed as the reason why.

What happened Sunday, however, with Iran saying that it would no longer be bound by the limitations on uranium enrichment spelled out in the 2015 nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in a different league altogether. While some questioned how Israel might react to such a move, the fact that Netanyahu spoke about it openly at the weekly cabinet meeting was a clear indication that neither Israel nor any other actor was considering any imminent military action in response.

Netanyahu has said countless times that Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. He has not said how Israel will stop Tehran, nor when, but just that it will. Israel has set down its redlines. Netanyahu has also stressed that when it comes to Iran and redlines, Israel has a pretty good enforcement record.

For instance, Israel has said that it will not allow for Iran to entrench itself along its Syrian border, and has taken military action to prevent that. It has said that it will not allow Iran to transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has taken action to stop that as well. Beyond the operational utility of these moves, from an Israeli point of view, there is also something else at stake. Israel has consistently sent the message that when it comes to Iran, its threats are backed by action.

So the question to be asked following Iran’s declaration on Sunday that it will enrich uranium at a higher grade than permitted under the nuclear deal, is not how Israel will act – Israel has said that it will prevent Iran from getting nuclear capabilities – but rather how the US and especially the Europeans will act.

Israel was not a signatory to the JCPOA and therefore is not the party that Iran is thumbing its nose at with this flagrant violation of the accord. The US walked away from this deal in 2018, so it too is not the prime target of this move. The European members of the P5+1 that reached the accord – Germany, France and Britain – are the targets of the move as they still view themselves as committed to the deal. As a result, they view the Iranians as obligated by it as well. Russia and China are the other two members of the P5+1, but side with Iran on the matter.

The fact that Netanyahu is talking openly about Iran now, compared to his silence just three weeks ago when there was danger of a military confrontation between Iran and the US, is a sign that he wants to prod the Europeans into action. Not military action, but diplomatic action in delivering their promises to snapback sanctions the minute Iran violates the agreement.

Last Tuesday, at the US embassy’s July 4th celebration in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that the Iranians were violating the agreement in an attempt to blackmail the world for relief from the crippling sanctions the US had once again applied. The Iranians, he said, were trying to relieve the pressure by showing the Europeans that if they do not act to soften the US blow, they will break out of the agreement. But rather than relieving the pressure to keep Iran inside the deal, Netanyahu said that now is the time for the Europeans to double-down on the pressure, and apply sanctions of their own as they promised.

To press his point, Netanyahu on Sunday used Nazi era imagery. While Europe absorbed small steps by the Nazis in the 1930s that emboldened Hitler and led to the horrors of World War II, Europe must now learn that lesson and not absorb the small steps the Iranians are taking, such as increasing their uranium enrichment to a higher level. One step will lead to another and then another, he said, just as the Nazi remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 was followed by the annexation of Austria in 1938, entering the Sudetenland that same year and invading Poland in 1939.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has likened Iran’s actions today to those of the Nazis in the 1930s in an effort to stir the Europeans to take action against Tehran. He did it repeatedly in the run-up to their support for the 2015 nuclear accord. There will be those who will howl in protest against the comparisons, just as they did a few years back. But Netanyahu will continue to compare the two regimes, because in his eyes, a nuclear Iran is as much a threat to the world and the Jewish people today as the Nazis were in the 1930s.

What is telling is that when there was a real likelihood of a military confrontation between Iran and the US three weeks ago, Netanyahu was not publicly expressing these comparisons. Why not? Because when the likelihood of military action is imminent and genuine, Netanyahu keeps quiet and directs his ministers to do the same. Israel’s silence, or lack thereof, is a reliable gage for how close military action really is.

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