During the past few weeks the drums of war have been beating loud and clear. Prime Minister Netanyahu, during his meeting with President Obama and his speech to AIPAC, made it very clear that Israel reserves the right to attack Iran if it comes to it - even against the wishes of the United States. Ostensibly the difference between Washington and Tel Aviv seems to be on the issue of timing. This, in turn, is based on divergent interpretations of where the red line should be drawn in terms of Iran’s presumed nuclear capacity. While a highly subjective definition of “nuclear capability” appears to be the red line for Israel, “weaponization” or at least clear evidence of it is Washington’s preferred red line.
This semantic difference hides a fundamental disjuncture between American and Israeli approaches to the subject. Israel defines the red line in terms of its narrow strategic and political interests in the Middle East. Israel believes it is threatened by the perception, leave alone the reality, of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. America, as a world power, has larger interests at stake both in the region and in terms of its image and credibility globally.
Washington cannot afford another fiasco similar to the one when WMDs were touted as the major reason for the invasion of Iraq and none were discovered. Intelligence estimates and statements made by respected military figures in the United States testify to the fact that Iran is nowhere near acquiring nuclear weapons capability that may warrant an American attack.
Although Israeli leaders clearly state their sovereign right to make decisions vis-à-vis the threat that they perceive from Iran, their preferred option would be for the United States to take the lead in attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. This would make sense militarily because the American capacity to inflict sustained damage on Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to that of Israel. It would also make sense politically because it would demonstrate that there is no “daylight” between Israel and the United States when it comes to Iran.
Even if Israel decides to attack Iran by itself, its leaders may wish that Iran would retaliate against American as well as Israeli targets in order to draw the United States into a war against Tehran and thereby shift both military and politically responsibility onto Washington’s shoulders.
Unlike Israel, the United States has to worry about not merely the success or failure of exercising the military option but also about the impact of military action on the price of oil and, above all, America's future relations with the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular. No matter what advice the narrowly based autocracies of the Persian Gulf may give Washington, the Arab publics in a rapidly democratizing environment, regardless of sectarian affiliations, will not forgive the United States for a military adventure that will be widely interpreted as a direct attack on “Islam”.
Paradoxically, an attack on predominantly Shia Iran will end up alienating the Sunni-dominated Muslim Middle East from the United States for a long time to come. If this happens, Osama bin Laden would be chuckling from beyond his watery grave.
However, it is this prospect of the alienation of the Arab and Muslim countries from the United States that is a major reason why Israel is interested in dragging the United States into a war with Iran. A goal of Israel’s foreign policy has been to convince American policy makers and the American public that it is the only trustworthy ally that the United States has in a hostile Middle East. An American military venture against Iran will turn this argument it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The second major reason why Israel advocates war against Iran is related to its objective of preserving its military dominance in the Middle East. The real threat that a nuclear capable Iran poses to Israel is not that it will launch a nuclear strike against Israel. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the Iranian rulers, even if most Americans may consider them unreasonable, are “rational actors” in the sense that their major goal is regime and, I would add state, preservation. They are not an irrational bunch bent on committing collective national suicide - which is what would happen given Israel’s second-strike nuclear capacity based, among other platforms, on its submarines.
No one could have summed up this argument better than Paul Pillar, who spent 28 years in the U.S. intelligence community in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. According to Pillar, “More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power - in this life, not some future one.”
The threat that a nuclear or even near-nuclear Iran poses to Israel is political and not military. As Trita Parsi points out in his recent book, A Single Roll of the Dice, this threat is two-fold. According to Parsi, even the perception that Iran is a nuclear capable power “will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility.” Second, Parsi argues, “The deterrence and power Iran would acquire by mastering the nuclear fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would gain recognition as a regional power and acquire strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel.”
These arguments make it clear that the threat Israel perceives from Iran is not existential but strategic, in the sense that they relate to the regional balance of power and Israel’s apprehension that this balance may be tilted somewhat against it if Iran is perceived as having mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. Therefore, the question that American policy makers need to ask themselves is the following: Is it in the interest of the United States to engage in a military adventure whose outcome will be far from certain but whose political and economic costs are likely to be immense only in order to prevent the erosion of Israel’s strategic advantage in the Middle East? Much, including America’s future standing in the Middle East, hinge on how they answer this question.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by CNN.com on March 13, 2012. Read it here.