Stephen M. Walt

Israel’s not going to attack Iran — yet

Having written a fair bit about the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of a war with Iran, I feel compelled to offer a brief comment on Ronan Bergman’s alarmist article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. I say this even though I think the article was essentially worthless. It’s a vivid and readable piece ...

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Having written a fair bit about the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of a war with Iran, I feel compelled to offer a brief comment on Ronan Bergman’s alarmist article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. I say this even though I think the article was essentially worthless. It’s a vivid and readable piece of reportage, but it doesn’t provide readers with new or interesting information and it tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran.

First off, the article is essentially a reprise of Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 Atlantic Monthly article on the same subject. The research method is identical: a reporter interviews a lot of big-shots in the Israeli security establishment, writes down what they say, and concludes that that Israel is very likely to attack. Bergman doesn’t present new evidence or arguments, pro or con; it’s just an updated version of the same old story.

Second, the central flaw in this approach is that there is no way of knowing if the testimony of these various officials reflects their true beliefs or not. There are lots of obvious reasons why Israeli officials might want to exaggerate their willingness to use force against Iran, and this simple fact makes it unwise to take their testimony at face value. Maybe they really mean what they say. Or maybe they just want to keep Tehran off-balance Maybe they want to distract everyone from their continued expansion of West Bank settlements and other brutalities against Palestinians. Maybe they want to encourage Europe to support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, and they know that occasional saber-rattling helps makes sanctions look like an attractive alternative. Maybe it’s several of these things at once, depending on who’s talking. Who knows?

By the way, I’m not accusing the officials that Bergman interviewed of doing anything wrong. I don’t expect top officials of any country to tell the truth all the time, and I’m neither surprised nor upset when foreign officials try to manipulate fears of war in order to advance what they see as their interests. My point is that it is impossible to tell if they mean what they are saying or not, which is why an article based on interviews of this kind just isn’t very informative. They might be telling the truth, or they might be lying, and nobody knows for sure.

Lastly, as Gary Sick notes in an excellent post of his own, the Bergman piece ignores the considerable evidence suggesting that Iran is not in fact trying to build a nuclear weapon. Equally important are Sick’s reminder that the IAEA still has lots of inspectors keeping a watchful eye on Iran’s nuclear activities, and his observation that Israel cannot attack Iran without warning, because doing so would almost certainly kill a bunch of IAEA inspectors.

His conclusion (and mine): until Iran expels the inspectors or Israel warns them that it is time to leave, there isn’t going to be a war. And if that is the case, then Bergman’s scary essay is just another example of empty alarmism.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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