Diplomacy: Iran for dummies

Though the news is dominated by an ‘all Iran, all the time’ philosophy, clarity is at a premium.

Ahmadinejad behind massive Iranian flag 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Ahmadinejad behind massive Iranian flag 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
When it comes to Iran, the mind increasingly reels. So much noise, so many contradictions, so little clarity. On the one hand, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, thinly disguised in a Haaretz interview last month as the “decision-maker,” says the sword hanging over Israel’s neck today is sharper than the one that hung over the country prior to the Six Day War. On the other hand, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu heavily intimated this week that if the US would just draw a clear line in the sand and say to the Iranians that if they cross that line the US would attack, then Israeli action in the near future could be avoided.
On the one hand, Yediot Aharonot reported this week that the US is passing non-aggression messages to Iran, telling them that Washington does not back an Israeli attack and that Tehran should subsequently not harm US targets in the region in case of such an offensive. On the other hand, on the exact same day, The New York Times reported that US President Barack Obama is considering a range of steps “short of war” in the hope of forestalling an Israeli attack and getting the Iranians to take the stalemated negotiations more seriously.
On the one hand, both US and Israeli senior officials talk about unprecedentedly close intelligence and security cooperation. Yet on the other hand, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is quoted as saying that the US will not be dragged into an Israeli-initiated war and that he did not want to be “complicit” in an Israeli attack.
So which hand is it? With so much contradictory talk and so little clarity, there is a need to try and answer some of the most basic questions.
Will Israel attack Iran, and if so when?
That, of course is the granddaddy of all Iran-related questions, and one that only Netanyahu and Barak know the answer to. Everyone else is just guessing. And Barak and Netanyahu? Well, they are not saying, at least not directly.
Barak, in his cameo role as the “decision-maker” in the Haaretz piece, made some pretty clear statements arguing for an attack, but stopped short of saying it was inevitable. And Netanyahu, beyond saying Iran must be prevented from getting the bomb, and beyond making historical comparisons between now and the pre- Holocaust 1930s, never said Jerusalem will attack. In fact, this week he stepped back a bit and said that clear red lines from the US on the matter could forestall such a move.
So all that we have to fall back on is historical precedent. And what the historical precedent has shown is that when Israel feels its back is against the wall, when it genuinely feels that the sword is at its throat, it takes action – even if the US is opposed.
This was true in 1948 when David Ben-Gurion declared statehood despite fierce opposition from the US State Department. This was true in 1967 when Levi Eshkol made the decision to preempt against Egypt even though president Lyndon Johnson made clear that if Israel went alone, it would be alone. And this was true in 2007 when Israel, according to foreign accounts, hit a nuclear installation in Syria despite US president George Bush telling prime minister Ehud Olmert that Washington preferred to deal with the issue peacefully through the IAEA and the UN.
In other words, as the “decision-maker” elegantly put it in his interview, “There are moments in the life of a nation in which the imperative to live is the imperative to act. So it was on the eve of the Six Day War. So it was in 1948. And it may be so now, too.”
The key word here is “may.” History has shown that Israel acts when its back is against the wall. That it has not acted until now shows it is still not feeling that wall. That point may arrive, but we are not there yet. If we were, it is safe to assume Netanyahu would not be talking about the need for the US to set red lines because those red lines would already have been crossed.
And then there is the question of when. In recent weeks, the November 6 US election has been tossed out as some sort of magic date. Some argue that if Netanyahu wants to attack he will have to do so before then, because Obama – out of concern about the pro- Israel vote in the US – would be forced to back an Israeli action. If Obama were reelected and Israel were to go it alone after November 6, according to this reasoning, it would risk the full fury of the US president’s wrath.
But just as strong a counter- argument could be made against an attack before the election, for fear that this would complicate matters for Obama and that he would later extract payment if he nonetheless went on to win the election.
November 6 is an artificial deadline – a meaningless one. Again, if Israel feels its back is against the wall it will take action before or after the elections. The whole discussion generates a feeling of déjà vu. Back in the summer of 2008 there were all kinds of learned arguments as to why Bush would attack during the summer before the Republican convention, or just after the elections before the inauguration of the new president as a way of doing the job for his successor and taking the Iranian issue off the table. None of it happened.
Who in Israel would make the decision to attack?
Netanyahu’s dramatic adjournment of an Iran-centered security cabinet meeting this week brought into sharp focus the whole decision-making process on Iran and the question of who – ultimately – would make the decision.
In recent months, some have painted a picture of the fateful decision to attack Iran being made by Netanyahu and Barak alone with little consultation, and over the objections of the military and intelligence elites. There were even those who argued this week that the cancellation of the security cabinet discussion was just a ploy to denigrate that forum and move the entire decision-making process into Netanyahu’s living room.
The truth is that the 14-member security cabinet is the body empowered by law with making such a decision. Not Netanyahu and Barak alone. Not his informal advisory group of ministers that in recent months has gone from a septet to an octet and now a nonet. Only the security cabinet. And if the security cabinet wants, it can – as has been the case in the past – take the matter to a formal vote in the cabinet.
Therefore, all the recent calculations about how Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter was coopted into the government and then into the octet in order to break a tie in that body regarding Iran are nonsense, since this is not the body that will decide. At least not now.
There are, as a result of the leaks, some who are calling for a smaller, more intimate forum than the large security cabinet to deal with this issue. But that would entail new legislation, which would take time. It’s not going to happen from today to tomorrow.
Why is Iran stepping up its anti-Semitic and virulently anti-Israel rhetoric?
In the run-up to last week’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit, and during the summit, Iran’s leaders let forth with virulent anti- Semitic and anti-Israel tirades. Because appearing as drool-dripping, wild-eyed anti-Semites seems counter-intuitive at a time when Iran wants to get the world to ease up on its sanctions, one must ask why they are doing this.
What is behind it?
First, they are simply doing it because they believe it. When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that the Zionists are “blood-thirsty wolves” who represent a “danger for entire humanity,” he believes it.
When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Israel a “black stain” that needs to be removed from human society, he means it.
What is astonishing is the degree to which so much attention is paid to every comment by anonymous Israeli officials about a possible attack on Iran, without equivalent attention being paid to these genocidal comments which explain why Israel is even contemplating such a move.
Secondly, these comments are an effort by the Iranians to do what they have been doing for years: to frame their nuclear program as an Israeli-Iranian issue.
While Israel’s tactic since the early 2000s has been to get the world to see a nuclear Iran as a real threat and menace not only to Israel but to the whole world, the Iranians have pushed back with an effort to frame this in terms of a Muslim vs. Israel conflict. By consistently vilifying the Zionists, the Iranians are sidelining Muslim governments which – although they may be petrified by the prospects of an Iranian bomb – will take a lower profile on the issue if for no other reason than because Iran’s virulent anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism resonates loudly on their own streets.
Why are Russia and China not being more cooperative on the issue?
If Iran’s anti-Semitic rants seem counterintuitive, so do Russia and China’s less than cooperative attitudes. Neither country has an interest in seeing Iran go nuclear, especially Russia, which shares the Caspian Sea with Iran. If this is the case, then why the obstructionist behavior? Indeed, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted Thursday warning against an attack as being disastrous for the region and having far-reaching consequences beyond.
Russia and China’s contrarian position on Iran is similar to why they continue to bolster Syria’s Bashar Assad: fear of American dominance in the region.
The Chinese and the Russians – especially the Russians – fear that the collapse of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would lead to complete American domination of the Mideast and its oil flow. America, in this view, already has close allies in the Persian Gulf, in Turkey, in Israel. The collapse of Iran and Syria could possibly send those states as well into the US camp, leaving Moscow and Beijing without any foothold in the strategically critical region.
Moscow is not enamored of Tehran, but this is the Middle East and, in this region’s the-enemy-of my-enemy-is-my-friend logic, Iran and Syria keep the US at bay.
Is there a crisis in US-Israel relations over the issue?
Were one to rely solely on the reporting of Yediot Aharonot, the answer to this question would be a resounding yes. The paper reported last Friday on a veritable yelling match between Netanyahu and the nearly unflappable US Ambassador Dan Shapiro over Iran, and on Sunday quoted Israeli officials as saying the ties between the countries were at their lowest point in years.
But reality is a bit more nuanced than screaming Yediot headlines.
First of all, Yediot clearly has a dog in this fight. The paper has an unabashedly anti-Netanyahu position, and reports that place Netanyahu in a bad light are trumpeted prominently in its pages. In fact, an argument could be made that Yediot is nearly as anti-Netanyahu as the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel HaYom is pro-Netanyahu. And portraying an Israel-US relationship that is at rock bottom is a club to pound Netanyahu, because most Israelis realize how important that relationship is.
Secondly, and paradoxically, there are government officials who – while opposed to Yediot’s anti-Netanyahu line – also have an interest in portraying the relationship as one in distress because they want to thump Obama.
For these people who do not want to see Obama reelected, placing the relationship in the worst possible light reflects poorly on Obama and could impact on Jewish and pro-Israel supporters in the US when they go to the polls in the key battleground states. In other words, there are those with an interest in depicting the relationship as one in crisis because they want Obama to lose the elections.
On the other side, of course, are those – like Administration officials who leak reports such as an Obama interest now is setting new red lines on Iran to the New York Times – who speak of an unprecedentedly good and close relationship in order to keep Jewish and pro-Israel supporters in key states from jumping Obama’s ship. They want Obama to win the elections.
And the reality?
The reality is that there are disagreements – serious ones – but no crisis. A crisis is when the intimacy and backing and cooperation ends. And that has not happened. Is there any guarantee that it won’t? Of course not. But it has not happened yet. The use of the word “complicity” by one general – as senior as he may be – does not a crisis make. It shows, perhaps, the level of disagreement, but not a crisis.
And what is the disagreement about? Essentially, it is over the concept embodied by the word “capability.” Do you stop Iran before it has nuclear capability, or do you stop it only when it assembles a nuclear weapon? Or, in simpler terms, do you keep Iran from getting all the ingredients to be able to bake a nuclear pie whenever it gets hungry – Israel’s position – or do you only stop them when they are actually taking that pie out of the oven? This is a serious – not a trivial – disagreement, but it is not unbridgeable. This week Netanyahu said that he would be satisfied as long as the US tells the Iranian chefs at what point in the pie-making process they will move in to ransack the kitchen.
Jerusalem awaits an answer.