If we are to believe what we are hearing and reading from a variety of confirmed and unconfirmed sources, in Israel and the U.S., some day in the next few months we may wake up to the news that Israel has bombed Iran's nuclear facilities. Or maybe not.
The Israelis appear to be deeply divided on the issue, sending mixed signals, almost daily, about their intentions, their capacity to execute such a mission, and even whether or not Iran's reputed program poses an imminent danger.
The U.S. is tied up in knots of its own making. Being in the throes of an election, no one wants to appear critical of Israel. And so while concerned with the consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike, statements from official Washington or from presidential aspirants range from hand-wringing and feigned powerlessness to full-throated support for any action Israel may take.
Last week's New York Times Magazine had a feature piece arguing that Israel's calculations as to whether or not they should go forward with a strike against Iran would be based on answers to a series of questions—whether they thought they could; whether they could withstand the "blow-back"; whether they could count on at least tacit American support; etc. With the answers to all of the above in the affirmative, Israelis might go forward with an attack.
For their part, the Iranians, apparently loving the attention they are receiving, have engaged in provocative actions of their own and their fair share of rhetorical excess. Lost in this deadly game are a number of serious issues that should be considered—but, in all probability will not be.
In the first place, the matter of whether or not Iran is on a trajectory to build a bomb is not an incidental one. The last IAEA report, despite efforts to mischaracterize its findings, was not conclusive. At best, it hedged.
Next to consider is the exact nature of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. While Israel projects itself as facing an "existential" challenge from Iran, this is hyperbolic nonsense. An Iranian attack on Israel would amount to Iran signing its own death warrant. It is a horror even to image, but the reality is that a nuclear attack anywhere in Israel, would murder tens of thousands of innocents, Jews and Arabs, with radiation fallout spreading death and deformity over a wide radius that would infect hundreds of thousands more in the neighborhood (depending on the wind, to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or the occupied Palestinian lands). In other words, in the aftermath of any attack, not only would Iran be destroyed, but its fate would be sealed forever in the Arab and Muslim world—a consideration that could not be lost on the regime’s leadership. The bottom line: there is no "first use".
Iran's real intention is the dangerous game of bragging rights. And their target audience is across the Gulf. Their recent effort to recast the “Arab Spring" as an "Islamic Awakening" being led by the Islamic Republic provided a case in point. Hoping that no one would notice their own brutal repression of their home-grown democracy movement and their support for the bloody crackdown against the uprising in Syria, the Iranians still seek to prey on Arab anger at the West projecting themselves as being in the vanguard of Arab revulsion at the excesses of imperialism and Zionism.
If this is the game, then Israeli saber-rattling and American outrage play right into Iran's hand. By exaggerating the threat posed by this regime, by pretending that it is a menace equal to Nazi Germany of the Soviet Union, the West succeeds only in giving the Iranians what they want most—an inflated sense that they are a real power to be feared.
Make no mistake, the regime in Tehran is a meddlesome menace and their aspirations for regional hegemony do pose a threat, not to Israel (which serves more Iran's foil, then its target, and vice versa), but to the Arab Gulf States—whose concerns are rarely, if ever, considered in U.S. political discourse.
My concern is that the escalating rhetoric by all sides poses a danger, in itself. The region is a tinderbox, and it is as if everyone is too busy playing with matches to think of the consequences of their behavior.
Better than threats, which only serve to embolden Iran, I would suggest a combination of direct engagement (which has been tried too little), continued targeted sanctions (which are having a real impact) and a bit of ridicule. What, one might ask the leaders of Iran, will they do with their nuclear program and their provocation? Can it feed their people, rebuild their neglected and decayed infrastructure, give hope to their unemployed young, or secure their role in the community of nations? Rather than play their game, reduce them down to size. Look at the region, as it is. As democracy movements advance in North Africa, and as the Gulf States make significant progress, providing a model for development and growth, Iran remains trapped in an archaic system which feeds off of fear and anger, and goes nowhere.
There are lessons to be learned in order to avoid a confrontation from which no one will emerge a winner. Those in the U.S. who point to Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq, conveniently ignore the fact that Saddam emerged undeterred. The next two decades witnessed Iraq and Iran engaging in an orgy of blood-letting, in part leading to Iraq’s fatal occupation of Kuwait and all that followed. Then there were Israel’s repeated invasions, occupations and bombardments of Lebanon which only devastated that country, leading to the emergence and empowering of Hizbollah. Or Israel’s war and strangulation policy against Gaza which only resulted in death and destruction, increasing bitterness and a deepening Palestinian divide, making the search for peace more difficult.
The point is that it would be wise to call a halt to the escalating rhetoric for an attack on Iran; recognize the real danger posed by Iran to its own people and to its neighbors; stop enabling the Israeli and Iranian game of “chicken” with each other, when the unintended consequences of their continued dance with death will be felt not only by themselves, but by so many others; and develop a sane approach to dealing with a problem that must be faced and can’t simply be bombed or threatened away.