Terms of Engagement

Zone of Insanity

Are Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak really crazy enough to bomb Iran -- against the wishes of the United States and their own people?

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

It must drive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crazy that scarcely anybody outside his immediate circle of advisors — oh, and Mitt Romney — understands the imperative for war against Iran. Israel’s retired security chiefs uniformly consider a war unnecessary right now. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, agrees. A poll released this week found the Israeli public opposed to war by a solid 46 percent to 32 percent. As for the United States, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insists that "the window is still open to try to work toward a diplomatic solution."

We know this drives Netanyahu crazy because the last few days have seen a frenzy of leaking and spinning by senior Israeli officials. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told an interviewer that the world must halt Iran’s nuclear program within "several weeks." An unnamed "decision maker" — transparently Defense Secretary Ehud Barak — told Ari Shavit of the Israeli daily Haaretz that Israel cannot afford to wait for the United States to take action. And Shavit came up with another big scoop: A new U.S. intelligence report, he asserts, demonstrates conclusively that "within about a year Iran will be capable of becoming a nuclear power."

It’s unclear whether Netanyahu is trying to prepare domestic public opinion for an imminent Israeli strike on Iran, or hoping to bully U.S. President Barack Obama into making some sort of ironclad promise to launch airstrikes — should Iran cross some stipulated red line or should diplomacy fail to deter the Iranians by a stipulated date. Netanyahu would plainly prefer an American attack, which would do far more damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one would, but he may have concluded (as Barak intimated) that Israel will have to act alone rather than risk American inaction. Yet Netanyahu has put Obama in the almost impossible position of having to reassure Israel that the United States will act if necessary — thus reassuring American swing voters that he has Israel’s back — without binding himself to fight Israel’s war on Israel’s terms. Obama has already allowed Israel to back him into a corner by saying that he would go to war rather than accept a nuclear Iran, but apparently Netanyahu and Barak don’t believe him.

You wouldn’t know it from the way the Israelis have turned the air blue, but absolutely nothing has happened to change the view of U.S. intelligence about Iran’s intentions or capacities. In January, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony: "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.… We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." Iran, that is, continues to enrich nuclear fuel to a purity consistent with weaponization, but has yet to resume work on the technology needed to make a bomb. That remains the U.S. view. Indeed, as Jeffrey Lewis argues elsewhere on ForeignPolicy.com, it seems that the devastating new intelligence report does not exist.

The difference between the United States and Israel is not, as Shavit charmingly put it in his account of the nonexistent report, that "the post-traumas of Afghanistan, Iraq and the economic crisis have prevented America from taking a hard straight look at" Iran’s nuclear strategy. It is, first, that the United States can wait longer to act than Israel can because it has superior military technology and, second, that so long as diplomacy has a chance of working, the Obama administration is unwilling to risk the terrorist attacks, missile strikes, oil shocks, and grave reputational damage that a war on Iran is likely to provoke. Of course, that’s also why the Israeli public opposes a war whose chief victims might well be themselves. What’s more, bombing would only delay, not eliminate, Iran’s apparent march toward a nuclear bomb — though Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, recently said that this was "not an argument against."

The problem with the Obama administration’s position is that diplomacy isn’t working. While it is probably true that the vise of sanctions that the United States and its allies have applied has forced Iran to the negotiating table, there is little evidence that economic pain has made the leadership reconsider its commitment to the nuclear program. The so-called P5+1, as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany are known, have not been able to furnish either carrots or sticks powerful enough to change Iran’s calculus. The most recent round of negotiations in Moscow this June ended in failure. Israel thus has good reason to fear that Iran will string along the P5+1 until it has placed its precious hoard of highly enriched uranium beyond the reach even of American bombs — what Barak describes as Iran’s "zone of immunity."

Israel, of course, wants sharper sticks — either a U.S. promise to attack if diplomacy fails by June 2013, according to one unlikely report, or an explicit declaration of red lines, according to another. I can’t imagine that Obama will back himself yet further into a corner by making his red lines public. The White House has tried to mollify Israel’s bellicose leader, as well as send a blunt message to Tehran, with a stream of tough assertions about rapidly closing windows, as well as by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf.

Washington does need to wave a big stick, but amid all the preparations for war, the idea of inducing Iran to change its behavior appears to have been forgotten. In Moscow, the P5+1 made Iran a very modest offer, including help with nuclear safety and a medical research reactor, in exchange for the bottom-line demand that Iran stop enriching fuel to 20 percent purity. It’s hardly surprising that the Iranians spurned the deal.

The P5+1 should have offered a much more comprehensive package. A number of U.S. diplomats with long experience in Iran, including Nicholas Burns and Dennis Ross (of the George W. Bush and Obama administration, respectively) argue that negotiators must test Iran’s bona fides by offering the country what it claims to want — the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes. Burns recently proposed that the next president, whoever he is, open direct negotiations with Iran "with all issues on the table." Burns added that the United States must not "remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action" — the kind of home truth you can offer once you’re an ex-diplomat.

I can already hear the reminders of Neville Chamberlain coming from the favored journalists and columnists of the war faction. Lest you think I’m kidding, the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King recently wrote, "The Iranian government is as anti-Semitic as the Third Reich" — an exercise in hyperbole that produced a surprise phone call from an admiring Netanyahu.

The real danger, of course, is that Netanyahu might conclude that Israel has to go it alone. The smart money still thinks he’s bluffing, but Ross told me that the "decision-maker" interview convinced him that Barak and Netanyahu really are prepared to fight their own war. The Obama administration has prepared for this eventuality with a series of statements paying elaborate deference to Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself as it sees fit. I can only say that I hope that officials are sending a different message in private — making it very clear to their Israeli counterparts that they will not be drawn into a war with Iran and that a unilateral decision by Israel will do very grave harm to relations with the United States. If Netanyahu wants to go ahead anyway and pay that price on top of everything else — if "an existential threat" means that it’s irresponsible to balance benefits with costs — then it’s up to the Israeli public to decide what to do about their fearless, feckless leader.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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