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Deciphering the Iran Chatter

How much of the bluster is just rhetoric?

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Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak.(Israeli Defence Ministry via Getty Images)

Ever since Ronen Bergman’s New York Times Magazine cover story on Israel vs. Iran, published online last week, chatter has been afoot. Will it or won’t it? And when? The consensus seems to be that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, the two crucial Israeli actors, genuinely believe that in being able to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent in an underground, heavily fortified bunker, Iran has already crossed a red line, but all the same would probably prefer that military action be undertaken with U.S. backing or even by the United States itself. It’s the “hold me back” strategy: “Israel is trying to send a message like this to the United States and Europe,” Bergman said in a subsequent interview: “do something to Iran otherwise we will do it.” To that end—and although Bergman denies it, asserting that he initiated the reporting on his story and that Barak was initially reluctant to cooperate—his piece can probably be read in part as Israel sending the “hold me back” message to the United States. (Which means, if past is prologue, we should expect a response from the Obama administration any day now.) This is also the message of another Times piece, which reported that Israel believes threats of Iranian retaliation for a military strike are overstated. Whether or not Israel truly plans to attack Iran, it is in its interests for the rest of the world to think it’s going to.

The administration has already begun to respond via Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has offered Israel a balm with the words, “If they proceed and we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it,” along with the pushback that the U.S. believes Iran is at least a year away from developing a nuclear weapon (and would then require an additional year or two to make it deliverable); that it hasn’t necessarily decided whether to build one; and the caution
that the U.S. doesn’t have bombs strong enough to fully stop the program. It’s disputed whether or not this is actually true; what isn’t disputed is that the administration wants Israel and the world to think of an attack as an extremely undesirable (albeit not off-the-table) option, and this helps that.

For now, it’s sabotage and sanctions, including an oil embargo that the European Union and even Turkey have agreed to begin implementing. The big prize is China: after much U.S. and Saudi diplomacy earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Beijing this week to urge them to import less Iranian crude. China seems somewhat game, although last week it criticized the embargo.

It’s been said before (including by contributing editor Jeff Goldberg earlier this month), but now, after Iran has been squeezed but before the covert warfare has gotten completely out of hand, is the time to try to strike a deal. “[President Obama] doesn’t have to withdraw any sanctions or any ‘red lines,’” argues Leslie Gelb. “Just cut the usual diplomatic and political baloney, and try. With so much pressure now being applied on Iran, it might work. In the midst of a barrage of economic and military pressures, it is not a sign of weakness or lack of resolve to offer peace. It is classic negotiating from strength.” The threats, the sanctions, the embargos, the assassinations, the sabotage: here, these become leverage, things you can pull back in exchange for concessions. Israel’s and the West’s seriousness of purpose make substantive negotiations more, not less, likely.

Will Israel Attack Iran? [Yahoo! The Envoy]
Israel Senses Bluffing in Iran’s Threats of Retaliation [NYT]
‘Germany To Pressure China Over Iran Oil Imports’ [Reuters/JPost]
How President Obama Should Handle Iran [The Daily Beast]
Earlier: Iran Foes Try to Coax China

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Kafantaris says:

Though Europe and the United States are accelerating economic sanctions in an effort to appease Israel, it plans to attack Iran anyway.  One might start to wonder which of these two is now the more rogue state in the Middle East.
Should Israel surgically attack Iran, as it had done Iraq twenty years ago, we can expect Iran to return fire.   And Iran might have unknown weapons in its arsenal and unknown ways to use them. 
The question then becomes to what extent do we help Israel when it picks a fight with Iran?
If the U.S. helps it unconditionally, as it had done before, then we risk retaliation from Iran on our nearby facilities. The same is true for european countries which are all within a striking distance of Iran.  
So what do we do, sit back and not help a friend trying to make the world a safer place for the rest of us?
In this case, perhaps. 
If Israel wants to bomb Iran on its own terms, when it wants to and how it wants to, then it can also stand ready to fend for itself when Iran returns fire.  To let it assume otherwise is irresponsible since it encourages rogue action on the expectation of help.  With the world on the mend from a profound economic downturn, such foreseeable misstep should be avoided. 
Does this mean then that we  should resign ourselves to a nuclear Iran? George W. Bush may have thought so, as he may have thought the same about a nuclear North Korea.   And despite his and Dick Cheney’s professed love for Israel, they might have been looking for new friend in the Middle East when they toppled Saddam.  Iraq did not prove a friend, but it has proved that U.N. inspections can work because the UN teams had destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction. 
Who knows, in time our economic sanctions might also slow down Iran.  If not, having nuclear Iran —  or nuclear anyone else — is something the rest of us can learn to live with. 
Maybe Israel should too.  And conduct itself accordingly.  


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Deciphering the Iran Chatter

How much of the bluster is just rhetoric?

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