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War with Iran is closer than we think

Even if Netanyahu and Barak are only trying to encourage the international community to act against Iran, their actions are getting us very close to military confrontation

All public evidence suggests that there is no consensus in Israel regarding a military action against Iran. The three security figures that oppose the war – Mossad head Meir Dagan, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Beit head Yuval Diskin – are all retired, but there are no indications that the current heads of the security establishment believe that attacking Iran is preferable to other options. Still, I believe that latest diplomatic development has brought us dangerously  closer to war.

It’s no secret that Israel would rather have the United States attack, or at least lead the strike, against the Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli officials have confirmed this in an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic piece on the issue. In his article, Goldberg failed to mention the “Iran skeptics” camp, but he was right to note that the current Israeli leadership would like America to do the job for it. An attack on Iran would present a major challenge to the Israeli Air Force, and even if everything happens according to plan, there are serious doubts regarding Israel’s ability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear facilities.

For this reason, many observers believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak are bluffing – or at least, pretending to be closer to an attack than they really are – in order to mobilize the international community against Iran in the hopes that at some point, the United States will opt to lead the attack rather than let Israel do it, fail, and still drag the region into war. According to this logic, the more “serious” Israel appears to be (regarding a military strike), the higher the odds that the international community would take meaningful action against Iran that would convince the regime to abandon its nuclear enrichment program. The latest holocaust analogies by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the time table set by Defense Minister Barak are meant to prompt others to act; and Israel is still not about to attack Iran on its own.

There is only one flaw with this view: The conduct of the Israeli leadership will leave it in a position where it must attack Iran, even if it has to do it on its own, and even if the chances of meaningful success are limited at best.

Suppose Ehud Barak’s deadline passes, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. What then? Considering the show Netanyahu and Barak just put on, if Israel doesn’t attack, who would take any of their claims seriously from now on? If nothing happens in a year from now, and the Iranian regime continues its policy of opacity – without actually developing a bomb, but marching toward creating the capability to assemble one – would the hollow threats by the Israel leadership just make it clear to Iran that Israel and its allies don’t have the desire or the capability to stop it? Would other countries in the region get the same message? From the perspective of the Israeli leadership, this might be seen as a worse outcome even than a failed attack. At that moment, the rational choice for Israeli leadership would be to attack. Even if the threats were an act to begin with, at a certain point you must deliver in order not to experiance a total policy collapse.

This is the famous paradox of deterrence in international relations: You try to deter your adversaries in order to avoid engaging them in actual battle, but in order to keep your credibility – which is essential for successful deterrence – you must engage in military action at some point.

There are other reasons that make war more likely: The long preparations for a strike create organizational momentum towards it within the security establishment; even if initially people were inclined to oppose it they could change their mind as the planning process continues, maneuvers take place and the unthinkable becomes a viable option. Group thinking in the political leadership could also play a part, and so can the fact that there is no grassroots activism or a protest movement against the war.

To sum it up, I tended to doubt the possibility of war with Iran in the past, but politics are never static. Today I actually think that we are getting closer to war (which, I believe, is total madness, whether it is led by the United States or by Israel).

The Israeli leadership is playing a high-risk game, and the main element in it is completely unknown: The strategic calculations of the different forces in Iran. If the dominant thinking in Tehran is that the regime would survive a military confrontation and even score points from it, then the chances of war – and even a longer and bloodier one than most people imagine – are becoming extremely high.

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    1. XYZ

      Unfortunately, this is a pretty convincing view of things.
      It is interesting to note that many people on what would be called “the hard Right-wing” oppose an attack on Iran because Israel would then become totally dependent on American security guarantees which would come at a high political cost. If Netanyahu says he would prefer missiles on Tel Aviv than a nuclear Iran, others might say that a nuclear Iran is preferable to losing Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment
    2. John Yorke

      Is it a question of weeks, months or years before economic and diplomatic pressures begin to tell on Iran’s alleged resolve to join the nuclear club?
      Or will factors other than these makes their presence known well before then, ones that might give rise to much more ‘direct’ methods of dissuasion?

      The problem is that no one knows for sure where exactly matters stand at the moment. How far along are Iranian scientists in building, testing and deploying their undeclared weapons of mass destruction? Who is to be believed, what assessment looks the most plausible, will there still be time to counter such supposed developments and how might this best be done?

      There is just too much uncertainty surrounding the issue for any definitive answer to be given. And it is this very uncertainty that clouds the nature of whatever response should be forthcoming.
      Indeed, the whole picture has, right from the very start, been that of rumour, speculation and doubt. These feelings are an integral part of the normal human reaction whenever circumstances such as those long prevalent in the Middle East are encountered. The persistence of these and so many other fears are the real reason why no progress of any sort has been made in every decade past. There is no bypassing of what has happened, no reconciliation to be made because the situation renders any such closure impossible.

      It seems that, once again, we must all await the future with the same trepidation that has visited us on other such occasions. The cycle continues, the die is cast and not even the greatest of us commands the power to have it otherwise.

      Or do we?


      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      “Suppose Ehud Barak’s deadline passes, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. What then? Considering the show Netanyahu and Barak just put on, if Israel doesn’t attack, who would take any of their claims seriously from now on?”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Bill Pearlman

      Has much as it pains me to say this but my KGB friend Berman has a point.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      “Suppose Ehud Barak’s deadline passes, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. What then? Considering the show Netanyahu and Barak just put on, if Israel doesn’t attack, who would take any of their claims seriously from now on?”

      Well, there is always American Congress.

      On the other hand, would attack fail, and there are several ways in which it can fail, would it make “the claims” more serious? In a “wargame” one has to consider the Iranian methods of winning.

      A. Declare futility of the attack. The can have even a prepared video of an undisclosed super secret facility that survived. Mind you, it can be easy to hide a facility that does not exist. THEN they will disclose that it does not exist. THEN nobody will believe them, least of all, Israelis. Of course, tours of a known surviving facility can have a similar effect.

      B. Siege of Afghanistan. “U.S. seeks to reopen key Pakistan supply routes

      By Andrew Tilghman – Staff writer, Army Times
      Posted : Tuesday Mar 6, 2012 17:05:09 EST

      Getting 23,000 troops out of Afghanistan later this year will be a major challenge unless the Pakistani government reopens the ground-based supply lines that were shut down more than three months ago.”

      China and Russia will be sufficiently irate to force the closure of the supply route through Central Asia. Then the only supplies to NATO in Afghanistan will go by air. And the quietest regions of Afghanistan, Hindukush valley in the center will suddenly raise in flames. (People there are Persian speaking Shias, so Iran may influence them.) Then airbases will come under guerilla attack, guerilla somehow getting better ammunition. Etc.

      This is a bit convoluted, but still rather easy for Iran to do, and could make USA unhappy with Israel.

      C. Destroy something in Israel using better missiles than in 2006. Not too much, leaving the escalation of the situation to Israel.

      By the way, does Kadima have any war plan? Say, if Shas is against the war?

      Reply to Comment
    6. JG

      At least with the run-up to the Iraq war 10 years ago, Bush gave the pretense of waiting for UN/IAEA inspections. Netanyahu mentioned none of that.

      Reply to Comment
    7. aristeides

      And the only way out, a strong US president saying NO, is blocked by AIPAC’s control of the US Congress.

      Quick, somebody send Iran a nuke.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      Aristeides: Ehud Barak does not resemble Alexander, so I would not bet Iran out of the game yet. I also think that importance of nukes is totally misunderstood.

      Right now, Israel enjoys the position of moral superiority (IPoMS). As I read a number of times, the best proof of IPoMS is the vast ratio of casualties that Israel could inflict at a particular occasion, and the casualties that were actually inflicted.

      Iran by not building weapons that it COULD build and not using them, and by killing a token Israeli (dividing by zero is not allowed) would achieve even more lopsided ratio, not in thousands but in millions, thus wrestling IPoMS from Israeli hands — the acronym would stand for Iranian Position of Moral Superiority.

      The life in Israel would become unbearable. Any time Israeli leader would mention “Holocaust” someone would loudly jeer. Various countries would start to question the benevolence of Israel. Tours “See garbage dumps in Holy Land” would be organized.

      Reply to Comment
    9. AIG


      I think you raise a good point. However, there are ways to build credibility without a full fledged attack. I think the world views Israel as credible because of Stuxnet, the missile base which was blown up and the attempts on the lives of nuclear scientists in Iran. Israel is already seen as “doing” rather than just “talking”. The point is that credibility can be maintained in other ways rather than a full scale attack.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Louis

      Bibi’s policy on Iran: Welcome to the no-state solution…
      One may say that the worst form of unfriending Israel and Jews is using Jews and Israel as a political tool and objectifying them. The Republicans and their right wing Christian Zionists, among whom their is a mutual parasitic pandering political relationship that sucks the blood out of Israel, peace, justice and human rights, is the story of the Republican primaries. The only ones benefiting from it are Bibi, his settler government and their settler Knesset and constituents. War with Iran is anti Israel!

      Reply to Comment
    11. Zvi

      I think that your last point is the crucial one: “If the dominant thinking in Tehran is that the regime would survive a military confrontation and even score points from it, then the chances of war – and even a longer and bloodier one than most people imagine – are becoming extremely high.”

      In my opinion, an Israeli attack on Iran would do far more to unify political forces in Iran than anything else! It would also see their regional clout go up immensely, especially if they are able to respond effectively at all.

      Reply to Comment
    12. aristeides

      I see very few people talking about the precarious position of the Iranian Jews, who would certainly be more endangered by any Israeli aggression against their homeland.

      Reply to Comment
    13. AIG


      Why should we worry about the Iranian Jews? We know good people like you will be there for them to denounce and alleviate any action against them.

      Seriously, you cannot have it both ways. If the Iranians are rational as you believe, then why would they harm Iranian Jews that have nothing to do with Israel’s actions? The fact that you think they may be harmed, shows that you do not believe the Iranian government to be rational after all. In that case, why would you trust them with a nuclear weapon?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      So Barak wouldn’t set meaningless deadlines because it would wreck Israel’s credibility? Maybe you’re too young to remember Barak’s disastrous term as prime minister. During the Aksa intifada, he delivered ultimatums right and left to the Palestinians. They ignored each one, and each time, Barak just proceeded to issue another ultimatum with another deadline as if nothing had happened, which was then ignored, and so on. I mean, Barak had more red lines than the Kineret.
      Maybe he and Netanyahu aren’t bluffing now, and if they are, maybe they’ll for forced to act, as you say. I have no idea. But no matter how logical your a priori argument is, we know a posteriori that Barak doesn’t always act that way.

      Reply to Comment
    15. aristeides

      AIG – may I introduce you to the term “rational SELF interest”?

      Iran, indeed, might find it in its own interest to safeguard its Jewish citizens. But this, I think, is not Netanyahu’s reasoning. Of course, according to Netanyahu’s reasoning, genocidal Iran should have already exterminated its Jewish population and turned their skins into lampshades. If you’re looking for irrational, I point you in his direction.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dhalgren

      AIG’s response to Aristeides is flawed and indicative of the larger misperceptions at play in this magnification of the Iranian threat. The threat of reprisals for Iranian Jews in the event of an Israeli attack would come from certain members of the Iranian civilian population and not from the Iranian government. The current Iranian government from the start has protected the rights of Iranian Jews (Khomeini issued a fatwa protecting Jews in Iran following the revolution). This can contribute to an argument against a view of the Iranian government as irrational while still allowing for concerns about reprisals against Iranian Jews.

      Plus, it is not required of opponents of military action to trust Iran with a nuclear weapon, as there is no proof that Iran is seeking one. Currently, what evidence there is would not distinguish Iran from any of the countries (e.g. Japan) that have sought and now possess nuclear latency. Fear is an insufficient justification for military action. There has to be a demonstration of immanent threat. As of now, there is not one. Of course, the Iraq War has made it clear certain nations have no respect for the rule of law.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Piotr Berman

      Prophet (PBUH) said that there are 72 sects of Jews, 72 sects if Christians and there will be 73 sects of Muslim. Clerics that rule Iran are not operating under the assumption that “all Jews are the same”.

      Perhaps it has some relevance that Ovadia Josef, perhaps the top Jewish Sephardi cleric, opposes the attack on Iran?

      I guess the best scenario for Israel is an attack that would fail utterly, like helicopters of Jimmy Carters. It would be not nice for Netanyahu and Barak, but otherwise the consequences would be negligible.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Bob

      Perhaps as an American I should not comment, but here goes: The more Netanyahu and the American hard right beat the war drums, the higher the gas prices. That slows the economy and threatens to derail the pitifully slow repairing of what our wonderful bankers did to us and the world. That threatens Obama’s already fragile re-election chances, and if any of our looney Republican candidates win, war will not be an “if” but a “when” (anti-war Ron Paul has no chance). The sabre rattling benefits the loonies.
      Further, in my mind, another war would bring America that much closer to economic collapse; we can’t fight another trillion dollar war on a credit card, and Iran would be worse than any of our past and current stupidities: the drug war, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Another “when,” not “if” is the coming end of the American empire. Israel would have to look for new friends. Only the Christian Nationalist Party (read Republicans) cannot see it.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Piotr Berman

      “We hope that if he is re-elected in November,” Channel 10 television quoted officials as saying, “that he will appreciate Israel’s restraint, if, in fact, Israel maintains restraint.”

      How much restraint would the woodchuck show, if the woodchuck could chuck wood, and if it would not. These lovely animals are ubiquitous in the swath of USA where I live, and I am yet to observe one chucking wood. Usually they show admirable restraint. Unlike beavers.

      And high gasoline prices are good for the environment.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Bill Pearlman

      Very witty my KGB friend. But high oil prices have alot more to do with the federal reserve then they do with anything else.

      Reply to Comment
    21. BOB

      so do speculators.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Piotr Berman

      Matthew Yglesias made a good observation that news provide fodder for speculation and speculators, and we can read in financial pages the nature of those news.

      Besides war premium, there are some arcane effect of making Brent oil more expensive relative to other types of oil and strangely high premium that people in California pay compared with the East and Midwest.

      Reply to Comment
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