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Israel misguided on Iran [The conversation]

February 6, 2012 |  1:46 pm

If Israel really planned on attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, skeptics ask, would it be talking about it so publicly? Still, rumors that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may attack Iran before this summer has opinionators screaming waiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Waging war would backfire, they warn, ultimately causing more trouble for Israel and, subsequently, the United States. Some argue that even if this is simply Israel engaging in saber-rattling rhetoric, the threats alone are damaging enough and should stop immediately.

In a recent Op-Ed, Chuck Freilich, who was a deputy national security advisor in Israel during Labor and Likud governments, wrote in our pages:

So herein lies the dilemma: a potential risk to the nation's existence versus the uncertain results of military action, the likelihood of a devastating Iranian/Hezbollah response, the risk of an end to the peace with Egypt and even a military confrontation and regional war, severe international opprobrium and a partial rift with the United States.

Rather than wage war, Israel should wait for economic sanctions to cripple Iran, writes the New York Times editorial board:  

President Obama has spent three years rallying the toughest sanctions ever on Iran -- including a European Union oil embargo. Tehran is increasingly isolated; its economy is reeling. The administration was right to warn Iran against any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. We hope it is also looking to privately persuade Iran of the need for a negotiated solution.

Israel must defend itself. This country’s alliance with Israel is crucial. We hope for everyone's sake that Israel's leaders weigh all of the consequences before they act. A military attack would almost certainly make things worse. Tough sanctions and a united diplomatic front are the best chance for crippling Iran's nuclear program.

Leslie H. Gelb, author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy," agrees. In an open letter to Netanyahu posted on the Daily Beast, he writes:

Economic sanctions weaken and divide them -- and often produce constituencies for compromise. Give sanctions time to play out. […]

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.

Juan Cole also sounds a warning to Israel via CNN's GPS section. He lists 10 reasons why Israel shouldn't attack Iran, including…

Oil prices will spike. I imagine you could easily see $150 a barrel or maybe even more. This development could throw the U.S. and Europe back into deep recession.

And he concludes…

It seems obvious to me that if all these developments actually occurred, they would be much worse for Israel than if Iran actually did start a weapons program and Iran and Israel replicated on a regional scale the Mutually Assured Destruction of the U.S.-Soviet standoff of an earlier era.

For some, Israel's rhetoric is dangerous enough. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, explains on the Huffington Post:

If this is the game, then Israeli saber-rattling and American outrage play right into Iran's hand. […] 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.

But then there's the Daily Beast's Niall Ferguson, who argues that an Israeli attack on Iran may actually be a lesser evil. (Note: The Atlantic's James Fallows calls Ferguson's piece "the weakest case anyone has made in public for going to war, from a celebrity professor.")

The single biggest danger in the Middle East today is not the risk of a six-day Israeli war against Iran. It is the risk that Western wishful nonthinking allows the mullahs of Tehran to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Because I am in no doubt that they would take full advantage of such a lethal lever. We would have acquiesced in the creation of an empire of extortion.

War is an evil. But sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don't yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.

All of this commentary is beside the point for TruthDig's Barry Lando, who says we can't asses the situation honestly until we have the whole story. He writes:

Officially, however, Washington and Israel continue the ridiculous pretense that Israel has no nuclear weapons. To this day, Israeli reporters can write about their country's nuclear capacity only if they cite foreign publications as the source. And in the U.S., Washington's official silence seems curiously contagious: How often, in the current flurry of media reports about the threat from Iran, is there any mention of Israel's own nuclear arsenal?

The bottom line is this: Whatever your view about Iran or Israel's right to nuclear weapons, how can statesmen or reporters or anyone seriously discuss the current crisis over Iran when a key part of the dispute is officially hidden from view? How can the U.S. and Israel deal with proposals for a nuclear-free Middle East when they still refuse officially to acknowledge that the region is not nuclear free -- and hasn't been for the past 50 years?


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Photo: A worker rides a bike in front of the reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant near Bushehr, Iran, in this 2010 photo. Credit: Majid Asgaripour / Mehr News Agency

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