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New Iran Crisis Wrinkle: Who’s Bluffing Whom?

Yesterday, the Iranians threatened to call what they hope is Europe’s bluff.  Today, Israel is musing out loud whether it is Iran that is bluffing.

The EU recently announced plans to embargo oil shipments (starting in six months) while admitting that, due to Greek and Italian dependence on Iranian supplies, the boycott can’t start immediately.  Iran thinks the whole thing could be a bluff, and its Parliament wants to cut Europe off immediately by imposing an Iranian ban on shipping oil to Europe, effective now.

The Israelis, meanwhile, are arguing over whether Iran’s threats of massive retaliation in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran are a bluff.  As the New York Times reports,

“A war is no picnic,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said. “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”

Some analysts also think Iran’s threats of setting off regional wars and chaos are also overblown.  Hamas appears to be drifting out of Iran’s orbit, Hezbollah is worried by the threat to its Syrian patrons, and Shiite Iran’s ability to win support from Sunni radicals at a time of religious polarization in the Middle East may not be that high.

There are still others who think Israel’s threats to attack Iran are a bluff intended to push Europe into tougher action and to force Washington to take a stronger stand.

It’s too soon to tell how things will shake out in the struggle over the Iranian bomb program, but by the time this is done, some of these players are going to have their bluffs called.

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  • Cunctator

    Isn’t bluffing a natural (or necessary) aspect of brinkmanship?

    I think the problem in this particular case is that all three major players — the US, Iran and Israel — are all engaged in bluffing of one sort or another to deal with the growing challenge that Iranian nukes would pose. What is especially worrying, however, is that the US president might well believe that bluffing is a policy (rather than a strategy) because that avoids having to confront the failure of his Iranian policy to date. Moreover, the more bluffing that the US does to reassure Israel, the more (perhaps) that Tehran feels itself threatened and could seize the initiative to attack when it thinks it opportune to do so.

    The situation is really quite explosive.

  • GSo

    I find the internal consequences for Iran under analyzed.
    I would be very worried about the consequences of the embargo if I were the Iranian authorities. They have very heavy subsidies on gasoline, and they do not have sufficient refining capacity to produce the volume they consume. A huge part of it must be imported.

    There is a long history of civil unrest caused by people not getting their car tanked up. Last time now in Nigeria. If the embargo cause a big shortage, we will probably see a lot of angry Iranians.

    The other side of the coin is that a lot of kurds are going to make a(nother) fortune from smuggling.

  • Toni

    I’m not worried about whose bluff is being called. I worry about how far Iran’s military is willing to go to support Iran’s mullahs.

    We saw the long, murderous stalemate of the Iran-Iraq War. Israel has previously fought, I think, four wars against Arabs — all previous to the Iran-Iraq War. But now Israel has an Arab enemy with commanders who remember and probably fought in that war, and who knows how many thousands or millions of experienced soldiers.

    Iran’s military & mullahs & secret police know they face an existential threat. Like the Soviet Union fighting Hitler, they would probably throw everything they had against Israel if they thought they had to. Now, in 2012, could tiny Israel’s military effectively combat another Arab army?

    Don’t underestimate the effect of groupthink. Since 1979, Iran has been a theocracy which has suffered only inept U.S. foreign policy (Reagan, Obama) or realist foreign policy (both Bushes, perhaps Clinton). I think the Taliban and al Qaeda were born from the notion that what ails Islam is Western cultural values. It’s no stretch to speculate that Iran’s isolated mullahs etc. have convinced themselves that if they can’t get at the Great Satan itself, they can attack its tiny ally on the Jordan River.

    And in a US presidential election year, when inept Obama has repeatedly dissed Israel’s leadership! Withdrawing from Iraq has left that place a mess that may tip into full-blown civil war, and Iraq is pretty much all that stands between Iran and Israel.

    His State of the Union address made it clear that Obama is still bent on his elitist “fundamental transformation” of America into the Blue European Social Model. And Americans are war-weary. The mullahs are no dummies. They might think it a good bet that our Commander in Chief would not intervene if the Iranian military machine went to war against Little Satan over on the Jordan, and that Allah would bless their venture and ensure their success.

    Who knows, the mullahs may think that once they’ve taken out Israel, Allah may grant them Iraq as well, and who’s to stop them? Will well-armed Saudi Arabia try to intervene in order to stop the Persian Empire from arising again?

    Remember: Iran’s leadership has been at its Muslim Model project for more than three decades, and they know that their project runs on oil exports. They’ve think they’ve gotten this far by relying on Allah. We outsiders have literally no idea what they’ll do next.

    I think we should be afraid, very afraid.

  • Uli Speck

    Barry Rubin: Israel is not going to attack Iran. What’s Via Media’s take on his arguments?

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