02.06.12

Leslie H. Gelb: Israel and Netanyahu, Pipe Down the Threats of War on Iran

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s constant threats to Iran only make a difficult settlement more unreachable. Tone down the threats and give economic sanctions time to work, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Bibi, Israel, curb your over-the-top war rhetoric toward Iran. I urge this as one who cherishes Israel and values military power. But you’ve got to understand that your constant threats to attack Iran to stop its nuclear program aren’t working. Unending military threats unite Iranians and fire up their resistance. Economic sanctions weaken and divide them—and often produce constituencies for compromise. Give sanctions time to play out.

You cannot actually believe Iran will prostrate itself in the face of your threats. As Amos Yadlin, a retired Air Force general and former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Sunday: “These statements have reached the point where they have crossed the line from bringing benefit and are beginning to cause damage.” Your warnings will ignite war and will not foster Iran’s abandoning its nuclear program. Did Saddam Hussein kneel before George W. Bush’s threats? Did the Taliban handcuff itself when faced with America’s military might? Has Kim Jong-un bowed before his Western master? None capitulated even to the American superpower. Thus, it’s hard to believe that you truly calculate that Ayatollah Khamenei will cry “uncle.” 

And if it is to be war, it won’t be only Israel’s war. Yes, Israel will bear the greatest risks in a war now or a war if Iran has nukes. But even if Israel attacks by itself, Tehran also can be expected to strike at America, Europe, and elsewhere. And Tehran likely will unleash terrorists worldwide, possibly with chemical and biological weapons, plus hits on oil pipelines. So the decision to go to war cannot be Israel’s alone. Both U.S. and Israeli officials tell me that the Obama administration is urging you to be cautious. In an interview Sunday, President Obama expressed solidarity with Israel and also said that diplomacy remains the “preferred solution.” But you know, Bibi, that most times this White House is too nice about saying hard things to you. And maybe you won’t get the message.

Let me spell out what I think President Obama is saying to you: the unprecedented economic sanctions against Iran are already hurting and will hurt a lot more over the next year. Let them bite more. Meantime, the U.S. and Israel are both underlining to Tehran that all options are on the table. (That’s not a trivial phrase from a great power.) Israeli threats won’t reinforce the pressure from the sanctions; they’ll harden Iran’s heart. And we’ll all be heading for an incredibly dangerous war.

Now look at both American and Israeli intelligence judgments:

First, we both estimate that Iran’s leaders won’t surrender to Israel’s threats.

Second, we both reckon that either you reverse your rhetoric or you go to war.

Third, your attacks probably will destroy most of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but these can readily be reconstructed in one to two years—deeper and less vulnerable to future attacks. (Startling, last week, your Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the chief of Israeli military intelligence, stated publicly that Iran already had enough fissile material to build four nuclear bombs in one year. If true, that’s already enough to destroy Israel. So what’s to be gained by your attack?)

U.S. officials are not blind to your tactics to circumvent these joint judgments of reality. One tactic is to convince us the costs of war won’t be so great. Just the other day your defense minister, Ehud Barak, tried to minimize the aftershocks: “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.” He should not be so certain or so cavalier.

Another is that you’re trying to scare us about Iran’s future capabilities against America. According to Moshe Yaalon, your deputy prime minister, Iran is “getting ready to produce a missile with a range of 10,000 kilometers.” I think that’s news to us. Indeed, maybe someday they will, but they’re not close now.

Your final gambit has been the Chico Marx line—“Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes”? You’re trying to convince us that your threats aren’t working because the White House isn’t backing you up fully. Thus, Yaalon also argued: “The Iranians understand the West has capabilities, but as long as the Iranians don’t think that the West has the political stomach and determination to use it, they will not stop. Currently they don’t think the world is determined.”

What in heaven’s name do you propose that “the West” (read: the White House) do to prove its “stomach” to use military force? Shall we shake our fists as you have? That hasn’t proved successful for you. If the United States does it and Iran still resists, the loss of American credibility truly would damage world security. The U.S. position is that “all options are on the table.” That’s the right stance for us—and for you.

Israelis are quite right to look on the dark side of things and to worry that it’s getting “too late.” Last week, International Atomic Energy inspectors visited Iran only to be denied access to key Iranian nuclear facilities. The inspectors will return shortly, but can’t be expected to fare much better.

But it is not now or soon “too late.” And we should not permit ourselves to think we’ve run out of time and choices. There can be no doubt that the sanctions are causing ever deeper pain, and no doubt that background military threats reinforce the message. But what’s really needed to round out a plausible policy is a comprehensive U.S. and Israeli proposal that gives Tehran some incentive to compromise and protects Israel’s and America’s vital interests. This is precisely the point made by Gen. Eitan Ben Eliahu, former chief of the Israeli Air Force. He recently said pressure and military threats were necessary, but that without a third critical leg, diplomacy, we’re stuck on today’s collision course with Iran.