Iran Watch: War games or mind games?

Iran Watch: War games or mind games?

Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, may have told reporters on Friday that international sanctions have been “more effective than people think.” But his prime minister — a longtime sanctions skeptic — struck a different tone today. The “sanctions are painful,” Benjamin Netanyahu conceded, but they haven’t yet produced a “halt or retreat in the Iranian nuclear program” or loosened the regime’s “political grip.”

The comments came shortly after a report by Israel’s Channel 10 on an Israeli military assessment that a three-week-long Iranian-led missile attack on Israel would produce fewer than 300 civilian casualities — a lower estimate than Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s suggestion in November that fewer than 500 people would be killed in such an assault. Here’s more from the Jerusalem Post:

According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel’s defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.

Missiles would also be launched at Israel from Iran, according to defense experts briefing the ministers, however, they added, Tehran’s conventional missile capabilities are limited.

To coincide with Netanyahu’s press conference on Tuesday, the prime minister’s office released an animated Passover-themed video touting his achievements, including the development of the Iron Dome (see 0:40, where a smiling Israel fends off scowling rockets with an umbrella):  

Iran meter: In criticizing sanctions, Netanyahu may be emphasizing that Israel has not abandoned the military option — particularly ahead of nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s top powers this month. And Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz thinks the military’s casualty estimate may have become public for similar reasons.    

“It would seem that the leaked briefing was put out by someone in the cabinet who is interested in allaying the Israeli public’s fears of the repercussions of a military strike on Iran,” he writes.

If so, it’s by no means certain that Israelis will take the bait. In the most recent monthly Peace Index poll by The Israel Democracy Instititute and Tel Aviv University, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they thought a retaliatory assault by Iran would cause more casualities than Barak’s estimate of 500 civilians. (Israel’s shortage of gas masks and bomb shelters surely hasn’t bolstered confidence.)

As tensions mount, so too have suspicions that Iran-related leaks by government officials — whether via Bloomberg‘s report on Iran’s elusive centrifuge “workshops” or the New York Times‘ report on a U.S. simulation of an Israeli strike — are politically motivated. In leaking information to the media, Ron Ben-Yishai at Yedioth Ahronoth charged last week, the Obama administration has “shifted from persuasion efforts vis-à-vis decision-makers and Israel’s public opinion to a practical, targeted assassination of potential Israeli operations in Iran.”

Whether or not these allegations have merit, one hopes that all the speculation about political posturing doesn’t blunt the impact of legitimate risk assessments about the fallout from a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.