Israel’s ‘Threat’ to Bomb Nuclear Facilities is Central to its Iran Strategy

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends the weekly cabinet meeting on July17, 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo: Uriel Sinai - Getty images)

The reason TIME.com’s intelligence columnist Bob Baer this week found himself cast as the unintended source for “authoritative” claims that Israel is about to bomb Iran, is precisely because what he said had been speculative comments  inadvertently played into the game of bluff at the heart of the matter. Bob saw an implicit warning in the unprecedented public comments last month by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Chief of Staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi warning that Israel attacking Iran would be an act of spectacular self-destructive folly — and lamenting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were both prone to such reckless whims. The likes of Dagan and Ashkenazi don’t bluff, Bob reasoned, and Israeli reports even suggested they may have directly blocked military action by their political masters. By speaking out, they seemed to be explicitly warning the Israeli public that Israel’s elected decision-makers were strategically incompetent, and needed to be reined in by more sober heads.

If these respected securocrats were willing to tempt the wrath of Israel’s government to sound the alarm, they must surely be trying to stop something that was in the works. And Bob’s history as a former CIA operative allowed some media outlets to cast what he insists was simply his analysis of what was being said in public as an authoritative claim that Israel was about to attack Iran.

Such an attack remains highly unlikely in the near term, of course, and Dagan even said as much, indicating that there were no imminent plans for a strike. But the centerpiece of Israel’s Iran strategy has been to cultivate the belief that if sanctions and other pressures fail to force Tehran to yield, Israel will feel compelled to go to take military action, even without U.S. backing. Israel said nothing at all before its 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, but scarcely a month has passed over the past three or four years without some new report calculated to create the impression that it was planning air strikes in Iran. The main line of criticism of Dagan in the Israeli camp did not challenge the content of what he said — that bombing Iran would be a catastrophic mistake, plunging Israel into a war it couldn’t win but from there would be no exit; instead he was pilloried for giving the game away. 

Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel’s ability to deter Iran was weakened by “any ability to disperse the ambiguity surrounding the issue” — Dagan’s arguments had a valid place in a strategic debate, he said, but not in public. Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit also ripped into Dagan for undermining the impression that Israel was gearing up for war with Iran. “This threat is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans [into putting more pressure on Tehran],” Shavit wrote. “It is also crucial for spurring on the Chinese and the Russians. Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran.

Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, a leading exponent of the “minutes to midnight” idea, tore into Dagan as “a bungling strategist”. Goldberg echoed Shavit’s logic in charging that “if Israel does attack the Iranian nuclear program, it will in part be because Dagan undermined his country’s deterrent credibility.”

Translation: Israel is bluffing, hoping that Iran will back off its nuclear program for fear of Israel doing something catastrophically stupid; should the bluff be exposed, however, Israel will have no choice but to actually go ahead and do something catastrophically stupid.

Goldberg, of course, last August had set off a media flurry far more intense than the on that followed Bob Baer’s comments with his piece in the Atlantic Monthly predicting that

“…one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It’s so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. According to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down.)

In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.”

Spring has come and gone, of course, and Goldberg’s dramatically detailed scenario did not unfold. Undeterred, Goldberg insists that this was because the Stuxnet computer worm set back Iran’s program, but he nonetheless believes his original thesis holds true. After all, Dagan wouldn’t have spoken out if he didn’t believe that Netanyahu and Barak were about to plunge Israel into a vortex.

The obvious problem with his bluff-as-deterrence strategy, of course, is that it has had no effect on Iran’s behavior. Even before Dagan burst the bubble, the Israelis were the ones most loudly sounding the alarm over Iran’s nuclear progress despite Israel (and the U.S.) keeping “all options on the table”. Tehran has heeded none of the red lines previously laid down by the Israelis and the Americans (remember, uranium enrichment itself was once such a red line). No amount of ambiguity appears to have persuaded they Iranians that they face Israeli attack — or else, if they believe such an attack is possible, they must assume they can withstand whatever the Israelis throw at them and exact the heavy price that Dagan himself warned of.

Not so, says Netanyahu. In his speech to Congress earlier this year, the Israeli leader argued that Iran had  “briefly suspended its nuclear weapons program only once, in 2003, when it feared the possibility of military action. In that same year, Moammar Gadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons program and for the same reason. The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation.”

Some senior U.S. intelligence officials, quoted in a recent New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh, suggested, in fact, that Iran had suspended work on a bomb program in 2003 because the threat it was meant to counter — Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which Iran believed had been developing a bomb program, and which had killed many thousands of Iranians using chemical munitions in the ’80s — had been eliminated by the U.S. invasion. (They also told Hersh that the U.S. intelligence assessment remains that Iran is not currently developing nuclear weapons and has made no decision to do so, even though its nuclear program is designed to put the means to build weapons in Tehran’s hands.)

But there may be an alternative explanation for Dagan’s remarks on the idiocy of Israel attacking Iran. While the Iranians don’t seem to believe the threat or take it overly seriously, a different problem arises if the Israeli public is seduced by Netanyahu’s apocalyptic rhetoric, which paints Iran as the same threat to their physical survival as Nazi Germany was to Europe’s Jews in 1938. To the extent that they Israeli public buys into that hysteria, they will expect their leaders to attack this implacable annihilationist threat no matter what the odds and consequences. In other words, they will expect their leaders to do something that sober heads in the Israeli strategic establishment believe is stupid, self-destructive and unnecessary given a realistic assessment of Iran’s capabilities and the danger they represents.

Even Defense Minister Barak  appears to have recognized the danger created by alarmist rhetoric, repeatedly reiterating his belief that even a nuclear-armed Iran would not, repeat not, threaten  Israel’s existence.

The real target audience for Israel’s threatening to do something crazy may not be the leaders of Iran as much as it is the leaders of the Western powers and other international players, as Shavit noted, that the Israelis hope to scare into raising pressure on Iran. Dennis Ross, President Obama’s point man on Iran and the wider Middle East had even suggested this strategy in the last book he published before joining the Administration, arguing that a diplomatic solution required that Iran and others believe that an Israeli attack is a real and imminent threat. Ross even advocated sending the Israelis around European capitals threatening to do something crazy, knowing that Europeans’ fears of such a catastrophic course of action would stampede them  into backing tougher sanctions. Presumably, the technique would be equally effective in Washington.

Suggesting, as Dagan had done, that bombing Iran is not a plausible  course of action for a serious Israeli leadership does not help that campaign. But any evidence, no matter how flimsy, that such a strike may be a looming possibility, reinforces it — even if the Iranians don’t seem to take it seriously.

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