Over the past few years it was frequently alleged, not least by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the Palestinian leadership had climbed out onto various political “tree limbs.” The implication was that on issues such as the settlement freeze, Palestinian leaders adopted rhetorical positions that were not in keeping with their real strategic options and hadn’t allowed themselves sufficient room to climb down. As a consequence, it was suggested, they were stuck with unworkable policies.
But now Netanyahu appears to have climbed out onto a tree limb of his own regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu, his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, and their subordinates have raised the level of rhetoric regarding Iran to the point where they appear to have left themselves with few palatable alternatives.
Israel’s military option seems to carry considerably more costs than benefits. The idea that Israel could achieve much on its own, given its limited conventional long-distance firepower, is extremely doubtful. It could certainly do significant damage to the program and set it back by a number of years, but it might also have the counterintuitive effect of redoubling Iranian determination to actually seek a nuclear deterrent. And it might rally Iranians around the otherwise highly unpopular ruling faction.
Under the present circumstances, international support for such a unilateral action, including from the United States, seems virtually nonexistent. An upcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is expected to find that Iran has secretly installed hundreds of new centrifuges at an underground enrichment facility near Qom, has only underscored the divisions between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Israel claims the report vindicates its dire warnings. By contrast, an unnamed “senior administration official” told the New York Times the United States considers this information to be “not a game changer.” Some of this disagreement can be attributed to the obvious gulf between the American position that Iran must not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon and the Israeli view that Iran must not allowed to become capable of producing one.
If it were to strike Iran alone—and without prior permission from, and coordination with, the United States—Israel would probably be testing its “special relationship” with the Americans more strongly than at any time in recent decades. The strains would be even greater if the United States found itself drawn into a difficult or protracted conflict with Iran and its proxies, especially if this was widely regarded by American citizens and policymakers as involuntary and premature.
There’s always the chance that a limited Israeli strike might draw a limited Iranian response, with both sides seeking to attenuate their behavior in order to keep the Americans out. But even if both sides were to begin with that caution in mind, events could quickly spiral out of control. And there’s no guarantee that Iran’s reaction would be cautious, given the enormity of the provocation.
For these reasons, a critical mass seems to have formed in Israel against such an attack, including President Shimon Peres, most of the defense and military establishments, and a solid majority of the public.
However, if they decide not to take military action after all their bluster, Netanyahu and Barak could find themselves in the unenviable situation of creating a “paper tiger” impression of Israel, appearing to be a power that speaks loudly but carries a small stick.
Moreover, their alarmist rhetoric has made the development of a workable containment strategy regarding a nuclear Iran very difficult to justify. But this is almost certainly the most intelligent response to a difficult situation. If containment can work with a nuclear North Korea, it can certainly work with Iran. And the dangers of that approach must be weighed against the risks of any unilateral military action.
The Obama administration, too, has created a rhetorical framework that logically culminates in military action if an agreement with Iran cannot be achieved. But the American red line might be one the Iranians can learn to live with—at least for a time—if it takes them to the brink, but not over the line, of nuclear weapons power status. And if they can’t—and the United States sticks with its position that it will not tolerate the emergence of a nuclear Iran—unlike Israel, the Americans certainly possess the conventional firepower to severely damage, and not just dent, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In that case, the United States would be acting in its own interests and according to its own timetable, not Israel’s.
Netanyahu and Barak could throw the dice by attacking Iran in what would be one of the riskiest gambles in recent history. Or they could accede to everyone else’s better judgment. Either way, Israel’s leaders have left themselves only a set of options, all of which carry a considerable cost.