Ronen Bergman’s front page NY Times Magazine feature story this week is important, but not for the reasons you might think. It is important not because it offers a constructive approach regarding urgent matters of the day, except possibly in a negative sense. In it, rather, we hear of all the common delusions and misconceptions of the main Israeli policymakers like Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who will make the decision to bomb Iran. We hear relatively little (except towards the end) from those within Israel who argue against an attack, and when we do hear from them Bergman allows them to speak mostly second-hand through his paraphrase rather than in their own words. This has the effect of minimizing the weight of opinion they offer.
When we do hear directly from Dagan, it is towards the end of the piece, well after numerous opposing sources have contradicted the premises of his thinking. For every one source the Israeli security reporter uses who opposes war, he brings two or three holding opposite views. Frankly, I’m not surprised at this since Bergman is a fan of a robust projection of Israeli interests, especially projections of military and security might, against its enemies. What I am surprised and disappointed about is the decision of NY Times editors to allow such a heavily weighted view to be offered to its readers.
But understanding the thinking, wrong as it may be, of the Israeli hawks is important and useful. It allows us to rebut and combat their logic with those in the public who retain an element of realism about the consequences of war against Iran.
Here are some of the most dubious passages in which the Israelis betray wishful thinking, rather than sober or serious insight. He quotes Bogie Yaalon, one of Israel’s most aggressive hawks, as claiming that Iran will actually introduce one of its own nuclear devices into the U.S.:
“The Iranian regime will be several times more dangerous if it has a nuclear device in its hands,” he went on. “One that it could bring into the United States. It is not for nothing that it is establishing bases for itself in Latin America and creating links with drug dealers on the U.S.-Mexican border. This is happening in order to smuggle ordnance into the United States for the carrying out of terror attacks. Imagine this regime getting nuclear weapons to the U.S.-Mexico border and managing to smuggle it into Texas, for example. This is not a far-fetched scenario.”
This is so incredibly far-fetched as to separate Yaalon, one of Israel’s most serious security policymakers, from reason. It makes you wonder how a country can allow someone so deluded, so Strangelovian to have his finger anywhere near the nuclear button.
In this passage, Barak raises the long-discredited discredited claim about Iran’s genocidal intentions against Israel:
The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.”
Iran’s leaders have said that the current Israeli regime would disappear from the pages of history, not that it would destroy Israel itself. “Disappearing” and “destroying” are two quite different words whose nuances Barak has conveniently confused.
Below Bergman outlines three critical questions Israel needs to answer affirmatively for its attack against Iran to be warranted:
1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?
2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?
3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?
For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged in the mid-1990s, at least some of Israel’s most powerful leaders believe that the response to all of these questions is yes.
In fact, Israel does not have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear capability. A Time Magazine report about a critical IDF intelligence briefing given to the cabinet earlier this fall said Israel could not destroy Iran’s nuclear plants and that the most likely development is that Iran will achieve the option of creating a nuclear weapon:
“I informed the cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way. If I get the order I will do it, but we don’t have the ability to hit in a meaningful way.”
Though the source is not identified in the Time post, the officer who delivered this pessimistic news was, according to a trusted Israeli source of mine, none other than IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.
Regarding point 2 above, I see no overt or even tacit U.S. support for an Israeli attack. In fact, Obama’s State of the Union address mentioned Iran almost in passing and did not contain any of the ringing affirmation of a hawkish position that one would expect if the U.S. was prepared to see Israel attack. The latest Israeli promise that it would give the U.S. 12 hours advance warning of such an attack may’ve been designed to assuage American concerns and show that Israel is acknowledging them, but it cannot have reassured anyone in Washington.
Below, you’ll find more delusional thinking arguing that Iran’s nuclear scientists are abandoning the program in droves out of fear for their lives (note no tangible proof is offered to bolster the claims):
Meir Dagan…has praised the hits against Iranian scientists…saying that beyond “the removal of important brains” from the project, the killings have brought about what is referred to in the Mossad as white defection — in other words, the Iranian scientists are so frightened that many have requested to be transferred to civilian projects. “There is no doubt,” a former top Mossad official told me…“that being a scientist in a prestigious nuclear project that is generously financed by the state carries with it advantages like status, advancement, research budgets and fat salaries. On the other hand, when a scientist…watches his colleagues being bumped off one after the other, he definitely begins to fear that the day will come when a man on a motorbike knocks on his car window.”
In fact, any scientist for any country who sees his nation intimidated by an enemy killing his colleagues is MORE likely to want to participate in the program. Not to mention that the leaders of that country will redouble their efforts out of a sense of national pride, to ensure they achieve their scientific and military objectives. Such covert attacks don’t seriously undermine the program. In fact, they bring it closer to fruition in the longer term.
Now, let’s confront some of the fuzzy thinking behind Meir Dagan’s justifications for his own covert war project:
“In the mind of the Iranian citizen, a link has been created between his economic difficulties and the nuclear project. Today in Iran, there is a profound internal debate about this matter, which has divided the Iranian leadership.” He beamed when he added, “It pleases me that the timeline of the project has been pushed forward several times since 2003 because of these mysterious disruptions.”
In a separate NY Times story by Ethan Bronner, Bibi Netanayahu betrays the same wishful thinking:
Mr. Netanyahu…believes the Tehran government to be deeply unpopular, indeed despised [by Iranians], and that a careful attack on its nuclear facilities might even be welcomed by Iranian citizens.
Actually, public opinion polls show almost unanimous Iranian support for the nuclear project and that they do not blame their economic woes either on the domestic leadership or the nuclear program. In fact, they correctly blame the west for bringing these woes upon them. As for a “profound internal debate,” I’ve seen no evidence of this whatsoever. Finally, his claim to have delayed the Iranian nuclear program is debatable. Since 1996, Israelis and western figures have predicted Iran’s imminent nuclear bomb. A combination of a western Chicken Little “sky is falling” fear-mongering and Iranian opacity has certainly contributed to rolling back the dates by which Iran would acquire nuclear capability.
Here is a prize example of Ehud Barak’s delusional thinking around the assertion of Iran’s aggressive intentions toward its neighbors:
“An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West. With a bomb, it would be very hard to budge the administration.” Barak went on: “The moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same. The Saudi Arabians have told the Americans as much, and one can think of both Turkey and Egypt in this context, not to mention the danger that weapons-grade materials will leak out to terror groups.
“From our point of view,” Barak said, “a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”
At that point Barak leaned forward and said with the utmost solemnity: “And if a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some gulf state, who will liberate it?
The alleged “admiration” in which the Iranian younger generation holds the west has been considerably tempered by precisely the sort of acts of terror which Barak has championed. That same younger generation will certainly not challenge or topple the regime while it is under such a threat to its existence.
As to whether or how neighboring states would procure nuclear weapons, Barak omits of course the fact that Israel has had such weapons since 1967. Pakistan has had a “Muslim bomb” for decades and not used it or even threatened to use it against Israel. Indeed Iran itself has never threatened to attack Israel militarily or with a nuclear weapon, while Israeli leaders regularly advocate violent regime change against the current regime.
As for “protection,” here Barak is right. Indeed, Israel has 200-400 nuclear weapons for precisely the same reason: to ensure it will not be destroyed. Yet somehow what is bestowed to Israel is treif when Iran seeks the same. But where Barak falls down, is in his assumption that Iran would use its weapon in an aggressive manner to threaten others. Israel has always claimed its weapons exist to guarantee its enemies cannot wipe it out. Iran’s motivation is precisely the same. It has never asserted it would use weapons to dominate the region.
Another troubling aspect of this piece is that Bergman omits most of the more troubling issues concerning an Israeli attack. For example, he doesn’t mention one of Ehud Barak’s more notorious claims about an Iranian counterattack–that it would take at most 500 Israeli lives. This is a figure that Meir Dagan practically sneered at when he discussed it on Israeli TV with Ilana Dayan. It is further evidence of the delusions under which the hawks operate. In 2006, Hezbollah alone caused over 100 Israeli deaths with its rocket barrages. Even if you anticipate Israel may’ve further perfected its anti-missile defenses, when you add Iran’s far more potent and accurate missile arsenal into the mix, the likelihood of thousands of Israeli deaths is almost guaranteed. Yet Bergman reassures that the Israeli military has taken this into account and developed measures that will somehow mitigate the danger. He notes that proponents of war claim that if Iran gets a bomb Israel will still be guaranteed an Iranian attack later rather than sooner and it might just as well face this attack now when it has a chance, supposedly, to knock out the nukes. This is a perfect example of Israel’s cock-eyed thinking where you anticipate a future hypothetical act as a given while having no definite basis to justify such certainty. Somehow, this doesn’t exactly reassure.
One element of Israeli military that Bergman offers is fascinating in its own right. He indicates that the Mossad director at the time of the 1967 War summoned the CIA station chief to his home, where they had a knock down drag out fight about an imminent Israel attack on Egypt (one that would precipitate the coming war). While the CIA officer warned that the U.S. would actively fight against Israeli aggression, the Mossad chief argued that Israel would attack and indeed should’ve done so sooner.
The Mossad chief went over the CIA officer’s head and flew to Washington where he received a tacit green light from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to attack. The rest is history. One important aspect of this encounter is to confirm the fact that Israel itself started the 1967 War and was in no way forced into that War. In other words, it was a war of choice and not last resort. The fact that Israel believed that Egyptian forces were prepared to attack it in no way justifies subsequent Israeli action because the judgment of Egyptian military movement is open to interpretation and most analysts now are not convinced that Egypt intended to attack.
Bergman brings this story because he hopes it will serve as a historical analogy to what could happen in the case of Iran. He harbors a lingering hope that while the U.S. will do everything in its power to stop Israel from attacking, that when push comes to shove, we will acquiesce once we see that Israel is hell-bent on doing so and there is nothing we can do to stop them.
If this is Israel’s real belief, then we are in for real trouble for several reasons. First, if Bergman is right and the U.S. does support or even participate in the attack, then both powers will have guaranteed a bloody regional war in which no one will be spared the sort of mayhem that Meir Dagan has warned about. Second, if Bergman is wrong and the U.S. hangs tough and refuses to support a war, then Israel will go it alone and the damage done to Iran will be limited, will not cause significant damage to its nuclear program, but will cause severe ramifications for regional relations.