I think there is some misunderstanding about Israel’s concern over Iran’s nuclear program. To use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the Iranian bomb is simply “the MacGuffin,” the psychologically potent but practically insignificant pretext for action, reaction, and drama. To my mind, the main object of Israel’s foreign policy as practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu, is to preclude US and European rapprochement with Iran. If peace breaks out in the Middle East, in other words, Iran, its markets, and its oil would quickly become remarkably popular with Western governments and investors.
In that case, the focus of unwelcome attention would shift away from the mad mullahs of Tehran to the bigots in Tel Aviv, with their creepy crypto-apartheid state, their undeclared nuclear arsenal, and their violent and unilateral overt and covert security policies that destabilize the entire Middle East. Exacerbating the polarization between Iran and the US and Europe is, therefore, an important element in the Israeli foreign policy game plan. Iran’s currently non-existent nuclear weapons program offers a suitable opportunity for Israel to declare an existential threat. The objective is not simply to repel and terrify the West with the image of the Iranian nuclear bugbear.
It is to declare that Israel will be compelled to take unilateral action to remove this threat…unless the United States and Europe redouble their efforts to isolate and destabilize the Iranian regime through sanctions and various covert hostilities—the more the better. As long as Iran is successfully defined as the feared and detested “other,” Israel can breathe easier. One might think that the Iranian regime might decide to renounce any nuclear ambitions in order to get this issue off the table.
But, as the experience of Saddam Hussein with his vaporous WMD program demonstrates, sometimes the West isn’t interested in taking “Yes” for an answer. So, even if Tehran announced it had given up on peaceful nukes, enrichment, and whatever, there would still be plenty of opportunity to demand unacceptably intrusive inspections that would still be unable to “prove the negative” to the satisfaction of Iran’s enemies. Also, Qaddafi thought he could achieve a modus vivendi with the West by renouncing WMDs and disarming. Guess he was wrong about that. So I wouldn’t expect any big breakthroughs in nuclear negotiations.
I think that the upper echelons in both Washington and Tehran know well what game is being played here. The Obama administration entered office with hopes of US-Iranian rapprochement, after all. But the glories of US politics apparently ensure that the immediate political advantages of a determinedly pro-Israel foreign policy far outweigh the remote and uncertain benefits of improving relations with an independent-minded Middle East theocracy of the highly unpopular Muslim persuasion. But I wonder if the Obama administration has the intellectual and moral resilience to drive the confront-Iran process, instead of being driven by it.
After all, the Obama administration had already chosen to exploit the privileged U.S. position in the nuclear non-proliferation regime as a pretext for projecting US influence in foreign affairs (as well as winning President Obama a rather undeserved Nobel Peace Prize), so Mr. Netanyahu is merely fluffing the pillows on a bed the United States has already made for itself. Letting the stop-the-Iranian bomb discourse run its dangerous course is, by far, the easiest thing for President Obama to do.
One of the more disturbing things is how easily—albeit with the heroic assistance of our media—a visceral hostility toward Iran has become the lingua franca of popular US politics as well as cynical foreign policy discourse. From a public relations point of view, a war against Iran becomes easier every day. What concerns me more than cynical Iran bashing by elites for political purposes is that the policies go beyond mere public excoriation to active destabilization—and they are working.
Feeding off success, the funding and measures continue to escalate, and it becomes easier to mess with Iran and harder to fix relations. The elite constituency for messing with Iran grows and the interest groups looking for dialogue with the current regime dwindle into insignificance. As the incremental economic, political, and diplomatic costs of escalating hostilities with Iran diminish, the decision to make Iranian regime change a dominant US priority becomes easier. As US confrontation with Iran develops its own favorable internal political and institutional dynamic, perhaps the Israeli government can relax.
Judging from the absurdly escalating US sanctions against Iran (dropping the hammer on the tiny island nation of Tuvalu for reflagging Iranian tankers is the latest iteration in the works) and Europe’s dutiful loyalty in hitching itself to the US foreign policy wagon with corresponding sanctions, I suppose this is a “Mission Accomplished” moment for Mr. Netanyahu. If the United States starts to show some anxiety over the escalating Iran crisis, the Israeli government can always goose the process in the right direction by leaking another attack threat through the media—and expressing dissatisfaction with the current slate of “crippling” sanctions against Iran.
Although threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities are part of a program of Israeli political kabuki, I am not particularly sanguine that the manifest military and logical obstacles to an Israeli attack will act as a deterrent.
A failed attack is a feature, not a bug. It’s just another act of polarization. And it would probably work. If the IDF bombs some targets in Iran, is the United States going to abandon Israel? Don’t think so. To put it another way, we’re already at undeclared war with Iran; an Israeli attack would simply make it impossible to pursue any policy except remorselessly escalating confrontation, through sanctions, subversion, and proxies. As the experience of Syria shows, short of overt commitment of US air and ground forces, there is little that the United States will shrink from in terms of inflicting destabilization and human suffering on a target country.