All I can say to you readers is: I hope you don’t get sick of this. I don’t know how you could, but it’s possible some of you would prefer to be ogling Lady Gaga’s latest outfit.
The drama playing itself out in the Middle East and other capitals around the world is endlessly fascinating. It’s almost like a miniature version of the lineup of world powers that faced off shortly before World War I. Though I don’t mean to imply that we’re facing the next world war. I do mean that the intrigue of this showdown between Iran and the west in general, and Iran and Israel in particular is riveting. There is so much blood, conniving, and spookery, it as good or better than a John le Carre spy thriller.
The post I’m writing tonight was inspired by a conversation I had earlier this evening with Avner Cohen, perhaps the world’s leading academic expert on Israel’s nuclear program. I’m going to weave together Avner’s ideas with my own, so the ones he agrees with shall be his own, and ones he doesn’t (if there are any) shall be mine.
A questions that always hovers over this debate for me is: why would Israel, in this day and age of savage advanced weaponry, play Russian roulette with Iran? Why are Israeli leaders ready to go to war? After all, the stakes are incredibly high. Thousands, if not more will die on both sides. The benefits to Israel appear marginal compared to the risks. Just why is this so damn important?
Avner offered me some interesting insights (he’s just published this op-ed in today’s Haaretz). Bibi and Barak have different, but overlapping motivations. For Bibi, Israel’s nuclear arsenal gives it the ultimate veto power over demands placed on it by the U.S. and the world. For the Likud and the Israeli far-right the biggest threat to their vision of Israel isn’t the Palestinians, whose power to change the map are minimal. Rather it is the outside world, who they believe could attempt in the future to impose an arrangement on Israel that was against their interests or principles. With a nuclear capacity, Israel can afford to say, simply, No.
For Barak, the considerations are different. It has always been critical in the defense minister’s view for Israel to have decisive military superiority in the region. With a nuclear advantage he has this in spades. WMD gives Israel the ability to maintain its regional interests. It throws just enough of the fear of god into other players that they must tiptoe where Israel’s interests are concerned. Were Israel to lose this advantage, its room for tactical maneuvering would be far more limited. Once Iran or another country in the region gets the bomb, Israel is no longer the top dog of the Middle East. It becomes merely one among equals, or perhaps even an also ran. Then Israel can get pushed around either by frontline states or world powers. Its sphere of interest will diminish considerably and it may even be forced to make concessions or compromises against its will.
Seeing the possibility that Iran will gain a nuclear capability and the ill that it could bring Israel, Barak is sorely tempted to do whatever he can to delay that day. For him, Iran with a bomb is not just a threat in and of itself, it marks the end of 60 years of Israeli dominance of Middle East realpolitik. It’s a fate the defense minister is prepared to do everything in his power to avoid–including war, if necessary. And he must do this while Israel still has the advantage. After Iran gets the bomb the region will be different, and it won’t be nearly as much fun for the generals and spymasters who’ve been used to having broad leeway and deference from their neighbors.
Avner also offered me a fascinating insight into how the warning flares of an Israeli attack first went up around six weeks ago. They began with reports in multiple Israeli newspapers, virtually at the same time that Bibi and Barak were prepared to go to war imminently. The language used was so dire, the pleading of the columnists so woeful, anyone with eyes in their head could see that these otherwise sober, even cynical reporters were begging the world to stop Israel before it was too late.
What was the spur for this, what convinced journalists that we were in a make or break moment? Cohen tells me he understands that something very specific happened during this period. He’s not sure what it was, but it clearly took the form either of the successful test of a new weapons system or technological capability; or perhaps the completion of a major training exercise/drill connected to an Iran attack. Here is how Haaretz, in a November 4th article by Yossi Verter, alluded to the same phenomenon:
Why did the public-media discussion [regarding an Iran attack] break out in such intensity in the past week? According to several discreet independent sources, in the last two to three weeks something happened, some sort of development in the political-security arena which pointed out to those in the know that the level of preparation for an attack had risen by a significant step. The various sources don’t disagree on the importance of the development, only on when it occurred.
Whatever the specific event, it was some sort of milestone that Israel needed to pass in order to offer certainty that the attack was guaranteed success (at least in Israel’s eyes, if not those of the rest of us who are doubtful). Once it was completed, Israel was ready for war.
I ran this scenario by my own Israeli source who confirmed the general outlines but would not go into particulars because it is “very sensitive.” If you add to this the fact that the same source has told me that there are many more “surprises” in store for the Iranians in the future, I come to believe that Israel has been spending massively to prepare multiple types of cyberattacks and advanced weapon systems which will amplify the impact of their strike. In his own pro-Israel ‘kid in a candy store’ sort of way, Eli Lake wrote exuberantly of such prospects recently.
Remember the $300-million that George Bush gave Meir Dagan around 2007? Where do you think it’s being spent? In mounting a massive campaign to develop cyberwarfare skills (of which Stuxnet is only the tip of the iceberg), in subsidizing the Mossad to the tune of tens of millions, and its MEK collaborators to the likely tune of millions for their spying and sabotage missions inside Iran among others. Where do you think the hundreds of thousands of dollars MEK is spending to lobby for its removal from the Treasury Department’s terror list comes from? How ’bout the black ops program which caused the Nov. 12th missile base explosion and the Isfahan blast and assassinations of three nuclear scientists? All paid for by Bush and implemented by Israel through its spy agencies.
Yossi Melman with his typical touch of Israeli braggadocio, confirms as much (Hebrew) in today’s Haaretz, in which he recites the litany of suspected terror attacks by Israel against Iran, ending with this:
It’s clear that the damage caused by these types of operations required great sophistication and financial and technological resources in the form of field agents and intelligence that was timely and precise.
Where I profoundly disagree with him and all the other Israeli spooks who brag and crow about these achievements, is that it will have any sort of long-term impact on Iran, its possible WMD development, or the region. Here’s an example of what I find objectionable in this approach:
Even if the CIA and Mossad are not involved in these operations, the very hints which allude to their involvement serve the purposes of western intelligence services. They create an image of them as omnipotent and intensify the fears of the Iranian leadership. In the lingo of intelligence this is known as psychological warfare.
I’ve got news for Melman. It ain’t gonna work. Meir Dagan may have ice water running through his veins, but his Iranian counterpart is no less steely. The rhetoric above is precisely what is wrong about the Israeli attitude and psychological profile. There’s a sort of swagger in the step, and self-confidence bordering on pathology. Whatever we do is gonna work. Whatever we say is going to throw the fear of God into ‘em. But it doesn’t work that way anymore. Israel is no-doubt powerful, it may even win the battle if it strikes Iran. But as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Israel will lose the war.
In fact, another interesting part of my conversation with Avner Cohen involved a discussion of the aftermath of such an attack. He believes that the world will be so disturbed by the outcome that there will be an outcry for a Middle East nuclear free zone. Though Barak believes he can finesse his way out of such a development, the Israeli scholar believes there will be overwhelming international support for one. The numbers of dead on both sides, the devastation to city and countryside, all will be so severe that nothing less than ridding the region of WMD will have to be the result. It will be the price the world will expect and demand from both Israel and Iran.
I’m not sure I agree. Avner may be more of an optimist on this score than I. Of course, if something as disastrous as a war has to happen it would be redemptive for some good to come out of it as the declaration of the United Nations emerged from the ashes of World War II. But I’m not as sanguine that the world can be unified enough to make such a thing happen.
Now a word about the MEK, those darlings of the Beltway political punditocracy. Yossi Melman confirms the critical role it plays in fomenting terror and instability inside Iran:
With all due respect to the great efforts invested by western intelligence agencies–and we’re speaking here of operational coordination whose like may never have been seen before–it’s hard to imagine that such operations could’ve succeeded without internal support [within Iran]. That is, without the support of individuals, groups and organizations opposed to the regime and prepared to aid in these acts of sabotage [or "terror"].
Melman continues droning on about the dissatisfaction brewing within the country among ethnic minorities so angered by the regime that they’d be willing to rise up against it, engage in massive terror attacks, and overthrow it. It’s precisely such delusions and utter ignorance about the actual internal dynamics of Iran that breed the types of monomaniacal Israeli policies I’ve been discussing here.