In 2012 the world stands on the brink of another war. As with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a potential attack on Iran is rationalized as preserving peace: a dangerous rogue regime reaching for weapons of mass destruction must be stopped. But Iran is no replay of Iraq. Despite Republican hawks, there will be no “coalition of the willing” invading Iran to effect regime change. None of the principals in the Iraq fiasco seems interested in repeating that script.
Notoriously, the casus belli in Iraq – Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – proved to be mythical. This time the casus belli is an alleged Iranian nuclear weapon that no one claims actually exists but that must be stopped before it exists. Stranger yet, the country that is threatening to precipitate war with Iran is the only country in the region that already possesses nuclear weapons, Israel.
Israel is not seeking regime change, but seeks instead to prevent the existing Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear option. Military experts question the capacity of Israeli air strikes on alleged weapons facilities to do any more than delay progress toward production of weapons-grade enriched uranium. Worse, if Iran actually has no such goal, an attack would almost certainly precipitate an emergency Iranian program to achieve a nuclear capacity as the only way to deter further attacks from a nuclear-armed Israel. The case of North Korea, the third member of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” is no doubt an instructive model for the Iranians. North Korea has not been invaded precisely because it does have nukes, unlike Iraq which could be invaded because it lacked WMDs.
Moreover, far from producing regime change, an Israeli strike would quite certainly strengthen the Islamic regime among ordinary Iranians who would rally immediately behind their government when faced with an Israeli (and, at least by implication, American) assault on their sovereignty and security.
If Israel should strike Iran, the United States and much of the Western world would almost certainly be drawn into the conflict on the Israeli side, with unpredictable but likely devastating economic, security and diplomatic consequences. Oil prices could skyrocket. The stuttering global economic recovery could be driven into a tailspin.
A wider regional conflict might well spiral out of control: to reach Iran, the Israelis must violate the air space of countries unfriendly to them: Iraq (now under a Shiite-dominated regime friendly to Iran), Syria or Turkey. Iran has potentially violent non-state allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, with capacity to cause considerable trouble for Israel and for Western interests. The Arab Spring, moving along a more democratic path in Egypt and Tunisia, might be pushed into more aggressively Islamist and anti-Western directions. All these scenarios are lose-lose.
Even Israeli opinion is hardly united on the course being threatened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says the idea of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is “the stupidest thing [he has] ever heard.” The present Mossad chief has publicly questioned Netanyahu’s insistent assertion that an Iranian bomb tomorrow poses a threat to Israel so great as to justify the high risks of an attack today. The high command of the Israeli Defence Forces has shown little enthusiasm for preemptive military action.
Despite Western demonization of the Iranian leadership – assisted by President Ahmadinejad’s recklessly malevolent rhetoric – the actual record of Iranian behaviour as a regional power has been cautious, always fixed firmly on Iranian national interests and never on ideological adventures. Ironically, it was the American invasion of Iraq that eliminated Iran’s greatest regional rival, Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran had had to fight a horrifically bloody defensive war. Why should nuclear weapons suddenly change Iranian behaviour from moderate to reckless when Israel already has a nuclear deterrent in place?
In light of all this, how can we explain the brinksmanship with which Israel has brought the world to the edge of the precipice?
To a degree, one can be cynical about Israeli rhetoric. A relentless theme of Israeli spokespersons, echoed by the U.S.-Israeli lobby in the American media, has been that Israeli-Palestinian issues must be put on the back burner in favour of the putative Iranian threat. Through relentless dramatization of the Iranian menace, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been swept off the negotiating table while the Israeli cabinet proceeds with expanding Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Another cynical political calculation can be discerned in Netanyahu’s recent visit to the United States in which his public coolness toward President Barack Obama was matched by his impassioned address to the Zionist lobby group AIPAC. Netanyahu, along with the wider Israeli right, has clearly written off the President as a lost cause. Crudely, a unilateral Israeli strike in the middle of the U.S. presidential election could put Obama between a rock and a hard place. While refusing to back up the Israelis could lead to an electoral backlash, supporting Israel would clearly signal that Netanyahu holds the upper hand, a humiliating indication that the tail is wagging the dog.
Cynicism, however, will take us only so far. There is more here than meets the eye.
When Israelis insistently point to Iran as representing an “existential” threat to Israel and invoke the Holocaust, they escalate the rhetorical level exponentially. In addressing AIPAC, Netanyahu compared the present policy options on Iran to the wartime Allied decision whether or not to bomb Auschwitz. We are told repeatedly that Israel, as the homeland created for the victims of the Holocaust, has the “right to defend itself” – even though this right is invoked to justify an attack on another country that has never attacked Israel.
There is something very weird going on here. Who is victim and who is aggressor? Is the victim of a past crime rewarded with a get-out-of-jail-free card for any aggressive acts they later undertake against others? The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is said to have remarked after the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, “Now, when everyone knows what they did to us, we can do anything we want, and no one has the right to criticize us and tell us what to do.” In one sense this is an ethically perverse statement, inasmuch as those the Israelis were acting against were not in fact those who acted against the Jews.
There is also a fatal ambiguity in Meir’s us: Israel may be the Jewish state, but it is still a state, and like all other states must be judged by common ethical standards, without any claim to special moral privilege. The victimhood of European Jewry in the Holocaust, as profoundly terrible as that is, does not transfer perpetual victimhood to the Israeli state. This is especially true when that state is the most powerful in the region, economically and militarily, when it enjoys a nuclear monopoly, when it is backed by the U.S. superpower, and when it is an occupying force over captive Palestinians denied the national status enjoyed by Israelis, and given to repeated attacks on its neighbours.
Israelis of the Netanyahu persuasion cannot grasp the way in which much of the rest of the world sees them: bullies posturing as victims. Nor can they understand how Israeli threats to strike Iran and Israeli demands for Western backing can be seen as dangerous moral blackmail based on faulty premises. One wonders whether Netanyahu understands that equating an Iranian bomb with the Holocaust leaves him with no exit strategy – always a hazardous strategic position.
Yet those critics of Israeli policy who allow their despair over Israeli behaviour to fuel overtly “anti-Israeli” positions demonstrate opposite forms of insensitivity. The Holocaust is a huge shadow that haunts the Jewish people. Israel was created as the homeland for the survivors of the worst genocidal campaign of extermination in history. It is hardly surprising that present-day Jews continue to feel insecure in the face of threats to “drive the Jews into the sea” or to eliminate the Jewish state. Of course this is the exaggerated rhetoric of those powerless to carry out their boastful threats. Of course Ahmadinejad is a pompous demagogue with a Mephistophelian urge to foment trouble while accepting no responsibility for his hateful words. But even if these do not add up to a true “existential” threat to Israel, outsiders must realize how such threats are felt by a people with such a dark history within living memory. Rockets still fall on Israeli soil, and the prospect of a man like Ahmadinejad with his finger on a nuclear trigger can only stir deep anxiety.
If Israel is to stand down from the brink, and the rest of the world with it, it must be with genuine security guarantees on the Israeli as well as Iranian side. This applies as well to any Israeli-Palestinian détente. At some point, Israel must shed its victim chrysalis and come to terms with its true power and security. Everyone will be better off when that moment arrives.