Analysis: An Iranian outing

The Herzliya Conference almost always provides news headlines, but this year it was Israel’s official Iranian outing.

Barak at Herzliya Conference 390 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Barak at Herzliya Conference 390
(photo credit: Screenshot)
The Herzliya Conference almost always provides news headlines, but this year it was Israel’s official Iranian outing.
Just a month ago, it would have been impossible to get IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz or head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi to speak about Iran in closed-door meetings. This week, they spoke openly and publicly about Iran’s nuclear program, what its status is, what its intentions are and the need for a viable and credible military option.
It is true that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has spoken before about the need to present a credible military threat to Iran, but it is something else to hear this from the men – Gantz, Kochavi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – who would be in charge of carrying it out.
Barak was also more forthcoming on Iran than in previous public appearances, saying Thursday night that if sanctions didn’t work, Israel would need to take action.
When would this be? Barak did not specify, but according to a report in The Washington Post that came out Thursday afternoon, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes it could be as early as April, May or June.
How did Panetta reach this conclusion? Probably from his talks with Barak, whom he has met a number of times in Tel Aviv and Washington since he took up his post last July.
The main question, though, is what has suddenly changed, and why Israel’s entire top military and political leadership is speaking openly and publicly about Iran in the span of just 24 hours.
For whom are their threats meant? And if Israel was planning a strike in the near future, would it not make more sense to lead the Iranians to believe that it is not happening and to retain the operational element of surprise?
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threatClick here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
There are no clear answers, but a strong possibility is that Israel is trying as hard as possible to get the world to believe that it is serious about using a military option so it will instead keep on escalating sanctions. David Ignatius’s column in The Washington Post citing Panetta’s fears is an example of Israel’s possible success in doing just that.
In addition, Israel wants Iran to believe that a military strike is real in order to hopefully convince the regime that if it doesn’t stop its enrichment of uranium, it will be attacked. As Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon said on Thursday: A credible military threat could get the Iranians to alter their current course of action.
The reason Gantz, Barak, Kochavi and Ya’alon are all speaking so candidly about Iran now is mostly the timing.
Yes, Israel is satisfied with the European Union’s recent decision to ban Iranian oil, but it would like to see additional sanctions directed at the Central Bank of Iran, which could create a devastating economic blow from which Iran would have difficulty recovering.
The feeling within the government and the defense establishment is that the next few months are critical and provide the world with an opportunity that will likely not repeat itself – to stop Iran without using military force. For that to happen, though, Israel needs to talk like it is going to use military force.
The truth is that if all else fails, it likely will one day.
There is a consensus within the Israeli political and defense establishment that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and is something that in one way or another needs to be stopped.
Israel prefers not to have to attack Iran for the obvious reason – so as not to face the war that will most likely ensue. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the war will not be as devastating as some former officials like ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan make it out to be, and that the price it will pay for stopping Iran will be less than the potential price it could pay if Iran succeeds in going nuclear.