The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Perils of Tough Talk

The rhetoric and political optics of the Iran issue are anything but second-order determinants of the outcome. Senior Israeli policy-makers already know this. Why don't we?

Published on June 10, 2012

For many years now the issue of Iran’s nuclear program has been at or near the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. For the most part the issue has been debated in strategic terms: Will deterrence and extended deterrence work on an Iranian nuclear weapons capability or not? What are the proliferation implications of an Iranian breakout? Would a nuclear weapons capability embolden or restrain Iranian policy? Politics tends to play a secondary role in serious analyses of such questions. It is not clear, however, that politics is necessarily a secondary factor, and the U.S. presidential election season is revealing how important it can be. In the end, political tails in the United States, Israel, Iran and elsewhere may wag strategic dogs. If they do, it would hardly be the first time history has recorded such a phenomenon.

The Iranian nuclear issue isn’t at the center of debate in the campaign thus far, but it may rise in importance as election day approaches if Republicans, deprived of major foreign policy issues, use Iran’s nuclear program and the Obama Administration’s handling of it against the President. If they successfully paint him as ineffective or failing on Iran, they could neutralize his popular national security accomplishments, like the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and his pledge to bring American troops home from Afghanistan.

It is risky for Republicans to appear to be pushing for another war, with an American public clearly wary of new military entanglements in the Middle East, but much of the debate could be driven less by campaign strategy as such and more by what Israel does or says. Given the special relationship between America and Israel, the Iran issue in American policy cannot be separated from the way Israel’s calculus flows into American politics. In an election year, that flow is bound to be stronger than in normal times, and it could trump the public’s wariness of new U.S. military engagement in the region. Tied in turn to the Israeli calculus are Arab attitudes toward Iran that are potentially consequential both in a rapidly changing Arab world political environment and in the U.S. assessment of the issue. 

As is obvious, Iran’s nuclear program remains a top policy priority for Israel, as Israel official and para-official rhetoric illustrates. But interpretations of the real purposes of recent Israeli rhetoric differ. Some believe that Israeli words should be taken at face value, meaning that the prospect of an Israeli military attack in the near future is quite high despite all the known risks involved. Others believe that the purpose of Israeli rhetoric is to raise risks in Iranian minds as Iran’s leaders debate among themselves how to proceed, as well as to extract pledges from the United States that Washington will ultimately act militarily if non-military solutions fell short. If this is the case, no near-term Israeli strike is in the cards.

Since it is impossible to be sure which interpretation is correct, it’s worth considering all possibilities. Let’s start with the obvious: An Israeli strike on Iran between now and the 2012 election would reshuffle the deck on the Iran nuclear issue and limit the possibilities for the incoming (or returning) Administration. If there is no strike before the election, the Administration will have to immediately concern itself with the possibility of its occurring sometime in late 2012 or 2013, drawing the United States into a military confrontation with Iran. Whoever is President in January 2013, he will have to begin by managing this as a triangular relationship, just as President Obama is doing now. 

If Israel does not attack Iran before November 2012 but simply keeps highlighting the Iranian threat and projecting a credible threat to attack, this alone will raise the importance of the issue in the presidential campaign. The American public is weary of pursuing military solutions in that part of the world, and polls I have conducted with Steven Kull indicate that most Americans prefer to give more time to diplomacy. But the start of a new round of international negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran presents a new risk for the Obama Administration come fall. If these diplomatic efforts succeed in securing a diplomatic deal that places verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, that would help the Obama Administration by validating its stress on diplomacy over the use of force and, of course, by sharply reducing or eliminating the likelihood of an Israeli attack. But if these efforts fail, even if the stringent sanctions now imposed on Iran appear to be making headway, the Administration’s ability to argue against an Israeli military strike will diminish, and the GOP campaign will predictably turn this issue against Obama.

Part of the problem for this Administration and the next is a proposition that has been adopted by large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans: that Iran’s nuclear program is essentially the greatest strategic threat the United States faces today. Because both parties have concluded that it is too risky for the United States to live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons capability, Washington finds itself on a slippery slope toward war, barring a major diplomatic breakthrough that takes the issue off the front burner if not off the agenda altogether.

There is of course a big difference between a stated willingness to use force against Iran if all other options fail and an actual decision to wage war. That difference opens up space for conflicting judgments about, for example, what constitutes a final failure of diplomatic options, or how much time there is before various levels of attack degrade in effectiveness. Into this space, too, politics will inevitably stride. If a second Obama Administration, like the first, declares that it is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, then that posture will limit options and force a particular order on U.S. foreign policy priorities. In short, how the United States frames the issue politically will affect its strategic options and circumstances.

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n that light, there is perhaps something to be learned from the Israeli framing of the Iran nuclear issue as an “existential threat.” For months, many Israeli leaders, most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have reiterated that framing. This has troubled many leaders of Israel’s security establishment, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who otherwise, like Netanyahu, appears to be stressing the war option) and former Mossad chiefs Efraim Halevy and Meir Dagan, who have counseled against using such terminology. Their position has been based on concern not only that Netanyahu might use this kind of rhetoric to justify a risky war that Halevy and Dagan appear to oppose, but also that it might have adverse effects on Israeli public morale and Israel’s deterrence posture in a changing Middle East. 

In one surprising statement, IDF Chief Benny Gantz seemed to clash with Netanyahu’s assessment that the world had given Iran a “freebie” by allowing more than a month of recess before the second round of negotiations, scheduled in late May. Declaring that pressure on Iran is bearing fruit and that Tehran has yet to make a decision to build nukes, Gantz counseled caution, seemingly uncomfortable with talk of an “existential threat”:

If they have a bomb, we are the only country in the world that someone calls for its destruction and also builds devices with which to bomb us. But despair not. We are a temperate state. The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.

Gantz’s comments were followed by new statements by another Israeli security heavyweight, former Shin Bet (International Security) chief Yuval Diskin, who criticized the positions of Netanyahu and Barak on Iran, saying, “I don’t believe in either the Prime Minister or the Defense Minister. I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings.” These statements were followed by expressions of mistrust in Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran issue by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Despite such reservations among leading members of Israel’s security establishment, the Israeli public appears to be taking the threat to heart—perhaps, as some fear, too much so. Polls show that a majority of Israelis believe that if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons it would be prepared to use them against Israel, even though Israel could destroy it in return. Polls have shown that anywhere from 10–23 percent of Israelis would consider leaving Israel if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. This helps explain why, in a poll Kull and I conducted with Israel’s Dahaf Institute last November, most Israelis prefer a scenario in which neither Israel nor Iran has nuclear weapons over a scenario in which both possess them. Perhaps for related reasons, two-thirds of Israelis support a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East—including Israeli disarmament—if such a plan also ensures that Iran and the Arab states do not acquire nuclear weapons. 

The perception of existential threat could further lower Israeli morale if it affects Israeli deterrence, particularly in the Arab world. Iran’s threat has been as much psychological as real. Iran’s argument that Israel is bound to disappear one day, and that its superiority is a myth, was bolstered by the black eye that many thought Hizballah gave Israel in the summer 2006 Lebanon war. The argument has found many takers in the Arab world. Israel seeks technological and military superiority in the Middle East not only to allow it to win any conceivable war, but also to deter possible enemies, discourage efforts to counter its power, and ultimately convince its enemies that they have no choice but to accept Israel as a permanent part of the region and make peace with it. 

Iran and Israel have for some years now been playing this game of perception shaping, and the indications are that Iran has been the winner in Arab perceptions. If Iran wakes up one morning with nuclear weapons capabilities and these weapons are seen as an “existential threat” to Israel, imagine the emerging perception of Israeli vulnerability in the region and in turn inside Israel, even if Iran is thoroughly deterred from using those weapons by Israel’s own much more formidable nuclear arsenal.

While Israeli Jews fear that Iran’s mullahs may use nuclear weapons against Israel despite the sure knowledge of Israeli retaliation, Arab citizens of Israel have an altogether different outlook. Israeli Arabs believe that Iran is building nuclear weapons, but most also believe that the international community should not pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program, in large part because they sense a double standard in the international position with regard to Muslim countries. These conflicting positions suggest that both sides perceive the threat of Iranian nukes through the narrow prism of their own particular fears. While understandable and legitimate, these fears do not reflect sober analysis of objective threats.

There was a period just preceding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in March when the voices arguing against using the language of existential threat seemed to win out. Then Netanyahu’s speech to the AIPAC conference, and his later speech on Holocaust Memorial Day in April, raised the rhetoric of threat to new heights. In both speeches, Netanyahu compared the potential threat of a nuclear Iran to the Holocaust in a manner that left little room for backtracking. This led Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Ben to suggest that Netanyahu had “moved closer than ever to the point of no return en route to war with Iran.” Whether he intended to or not, Netanyahu’s framing of the Iranian threat has put Israel on a course to war. 

Netanyahu’s shocker of incorporating the Kadima Party into his expanding coalition was in the first place about domestic politics and electoral prospects, but it had consequences for war with Iran: On the one hand, Kadima’s head, Shaul Mofaz was known to have concerns about an Israeli attack and could be seen as a restraining force; on the other hand, if the cabinet decides to move in the war direction, it will have a substantial political coalition to rest on.

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here may be lessons for the United States from this Israeli discourse. Just as many prominent Israelis have been urging Israel to walk back rhetoric calling Iran an “existential threat” (because doing so portrays Israel as weak, lowers public morale and limits its options), the United States needs to walk back rhetoric calling a nuclear Iran the greatest strategic threat the United States faces today. It may in fact be a serious threat, but that is an entirely different matter from what American statesmen decide to say in public, because such framing has autonomous ramifications for political, economic and military priorities. 

Consider that the United States today faces challenges to its standing in the world unprecedented in the post-World War II era: the global shift of power toward Asia, its diminishing economic clout, and even the damage to its global image wrought by diminishing social mobility at home. Positing Iran as the greatest strategic threat the United States faces means that war must be a serious option, and broadcasting this message repeatedly means to many that we are on a path to war, barring a diplomatic breakthrough. That framing has a significant impact on what other states do on a whole host of issues. It suggests, in general terms, that an American policy which takes itself rhetorically hostage to the Iran portfolio encourages challenges against U.S. interests elsewhere. And it raises the cost of securing the cooperation of others—Russia, various European countries, even China—in dealing with Iran than would otherwise be the case. This is not to say that a nuclear Iran would not pose challenges to the region and to the United States, or that the United States should not undertake significant diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But given all the challenges that the United States is facing around the globe, and how the U.S. position relative to China fell in the decade following the launching of the Iraq War, there is much to ponder about the opportunity costs of U.S. declaratory policy toward Iran. 

Moreover, there is a significant disparity between American rhetoric on Iran (“greatest strategic threat”) and what the U.S. military might actually do about it. A threat described in such hyperbolic terms would seem to require regime change military strategies, but these would entail a level of force and long-term commitment that no one is seriously contemplating. If all the United States could reliably do by using force is delay Iran’s effort by one to three years, that hardly seems commensurate with how we have framed the threat, thus setting us up for a no-win outcome. No President should tie his hands and risk a war on such a frail basis. 

The threat of a nuclear Iran calls for preventive efforts, to be sure. But even if these efforts fail and Iran surprises us with weapons development, these threats can be managed better in the absence of war and with international support than they can be after a divisive and costly war that, for all the trouble it will cause, still leaves a nuclear Iran in prospect. 

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hether or not Iran moves to build nuclear weapons, there is little doubt that it is moving toward having the capability to do so. Its success in that effort is a function not only of opportunity and resources, but also of priorities and will. What the United States and other international partners do affects both Iran’s costs and its incentives. Tough sanctions may limit the resources available to the regime and create some internal fissures, but they can also persuade the regime that the West’s real aim is regime change. If so, Iranians might conclude that they are better off riding out the hardship and accelerating their nuclear program as a deterrent to future threats. Sanctions will slow Iran’s program only if, at an appropriate time, the United States and its allies put on the table a deal that provides the Iranians a face-saving way back from the edge of the abyss. 

Such a deal is theoretically possible, and some Obama Administration officials have been hopeful that sanctions are providing incentives for Iranian rulers to compromise. The commencement of a new round of negotiations in April was in part a reflection of the fact that both Iran and the United States could benefit from a negotiated settlement. The Iranians have given themselves a face-saving way out by denying all along that their aim is acquiring nuclear weapons, and they have wrapped that denial in religious language. But given the immense risks of being wrong, a skeptical Israel and much of the West are unlikely to take such statements at face value. 

More to the point, no one believes that Iran would give up the right to uranium enrichment on its soil—something that the Israelis are insisting on as a condition to shelve an armed strike once and for all. Compromise thus depends on reaching agreed limits on Iranian enrichment. By late May, there was reason for optimism that a formula could be found that would limit Iranian enrichment to somewhere between 3.5 and 20 percent, with additional limits on Iranian stockpiles of enriched uranium. But nothing so far suggests that a deal acceptable to both Israel and Iran is possible, even if such a deal would make it harder for Israel to strike in the near term. As the Israelis see Iran nearing the so-called zone of immunity, when Iranian enrichment facilities may become so hardened as to be beyond Israel’s or America’s military reach, mistrust will increasingly govern Israeli calculations—especially given likely continued Iranian hostility toward Israel and support for Hizballah and Hamas.

Complicating these calculations are the strategic and political ramifications of unfolding changes in the region. The conflict in Syria may in the end weaken Iranian influence in the Arab world, but an Iran deprived of its only real state ally might have a greater incentive to move rapidly toward nuclear capabilities. Either way, mere uncertainty is likely to push Iran toward security options that involve less dependence on its traditional Arab allies.

Beyond Syria, an increasing source of anxiety in the Arab world is that there may soon be two non-Arab nuclear powers in the region (Iran and Israel). Arab states may respond by acquiring their own nuclear arsenals. Saudi Arabia would be the most inclined and capable Arab country to go nuclear. As Egypt makes its post-revolutionary transition, public pressure could mount on Cairo to follow suit. In a poll I conducted in Egypt in May, about two thirds of respondents said they want Egypt to develop nuclear weapons if Iran gets its own. To be sure, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has the immediate capacity to build an advanced nuclear program, but the mere beginnings of such programs could have enormous political and resource consequences for regional cooperation and peace.

While Arab governments are particularly concerned about the growth of Iranian power since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Arab public opinion is caught between concern about Iran and hope that Iran could give a black eye to Israel and the United States. Arabs polled, including those in Saudi Arabia, rank Israel and the United States as bigger threats than Iran. And most Arabs, like the Arab citizens of Israel, reject international pressure to curb the Iranian nuclear program. An Iranian bomb would lead Arabs to want their own, but it would also increase Arab publics’ admiration for Iran in a manner that is potentially threatening to Arab rulers: Iran would be seen as standing up to Israel.

Even if a deal is reached to limit the level of enrichment on Iranian soil, Arab states would likely feel compelled to move in the nuclear direction unless a regional forum could contain pressure on regional proliferation—for example, through a convention to move toward a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. In the May poll, half of Egyptians said they would want Egypt to acquire nukes as long as Israel keeps its own—even if Iran reaches a deal to limit its program. While Israeli public opinion seems open to such a convention, Israeli leaders would almost certainly not be open to reducing, let alone giving up, their nuclear weapons before there is full and stable peace with Israel’s neighbors—something that is nowhere in prospect. 

Still, the beginning of a convention to achieve regional nuclear disarmament could be consequential. It could create a new means for regional engagement with a large impact on public opinion across the region and could provide a face-saving pretext for leaders who in any event want to avoid the nuclear course. However, such a conversation is unimaginable without parallel and credible peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. The bottom line is that any regional security approach, or any effective international mechanism to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, must march together with the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace, especially Palestinian-Israeli peace. As the Madrid Conference in 1991 showed, credible peace negotiations open the door for regional multilateral negotiations on other economic and security issues. 

Prospects are dim both for Middle East peace and for a regional arms control agreement. We have to assume that the risk of war will remain high before and after the American elections. Certainly, a negotiated diplomatic agreement between Iran and the P5+1 would significantly reduce the chance of war. If an agreement satisfies Israeli concerns, Israel will not need to take military action. But an agreement would make it harder for Israel to contemplate a military option even if it were unhappy with the terms of the deal. Because there is a gap of several months between the commencement of negotiations with Iran and the American election, it is not enough for the Obama Administration to be engaged in a process with no end in sight. It needs either an agreement or a very high prospect of one before the election, lest the GOP and the Israelis alike make it a campaign issue. Without a deal, diplomacy and sanctions will be widely seen to have failed and the pressure for military action will increase. For that reason, the current negotiations are very much a political issue, too.

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here is no doubt that the Israeli threat to strike Iran has a political aspect. The real question is whether politics is its only near-term practical motivation. The costs to Israel of a strike would be enormous, but the Israelis may calculate the eventual costs of not striking to be even higher. This is, and has been for a long time, the gist of the dilemma as Israelis (but not only Israelis) see it. 

It has long been clear, too, that the Israelis much prefer to have the United States carry out a military strike against Iran, both for political reasons and because of America’s superior capability. For months it was thought that Israel was merely bluffing, in part to pressure the Obama Administration into action, or at least into a binding obligation against future developments, and in part to weaken a Democratic President whose relations with Netanyahu have been difficult. Certainly, the focus on Iran has diverted attention from the Israeli-Palestinian question (although the prospects of a deal, or even major progress, were severely limited in any case). 

But Israel’s reluctance to go to war reflects deeper concerns as well. Even beyond known and unknown but predictable unintended consequences, Israel must consider its long-term relationship not with the Iranian regime but with Iranian society. Israel and Iran have never been at war. Relations were generally good and practical between 1948 and 1978. In that light, Israelis know that an attack would cause a major rift between Jews and Persians that would likely endure for a very long time. And since an Israeli strike would only delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, and might even increase Iranian determination to get it, that kind of societal shift seems a very high price to pay for such a paltry outcome. Even in the near term, an Israeli strike might, as happened with the Iraq-Iran War, rally the Iranian public behind their rulers and extend the life of the regime—so much so that some Iran analysts believe that Iranian hardliners desire an Israeli attack for precisely that reason.

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s for American policy, there are some important near-term considerations that are consistently overlooked in what passes for debate on this issue. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which an Israeli strike does not ultimately draw the United States into conflict with Iran. It is equally hard to envision a confrontation that does not have serious ramifications for the price of oil for months to come. In fact, the imposition of an embargo on the sale of Iranian oil may have an unintended consequence in case of war: It may substantially increase Iran’s incentive to block oil shipping (although its ability to do so is uncertain). Indeed, it is possible that sanctions could squeeze the regime so painfully that it might throw the first punch, not against Israel but against U.S. interests in the region. That scenario is rarely credited, but it is not at all far-fetched.

Thus no idea or political effort with a potential to defuse the Iran issue should go unexamined, even if its prospects seem limited. While there is always a risk that negotiations and diplomacy are just a way for certain actors to stall for time, in this case it makes sense to generate the most intensive effort possible to negotiate a diplomatic deal with Iran that assures the international community that Iran is not persuing nuclear weapons. Even a limited deal to slow down Iran’s program while heading off an Israeli strike in the next year would be welcome. But the thinking has to go beyond simply one side or the other buying time. It has to explore all options, including those that have been off the table so far. 

One such option is for the United States and its allies to use the upcoming UN conference on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East to launch serious regional security engagement. There are dangers in this, and the Israelis have been generally suspicious that UN efforts would be turned against them. But if the United States takes the lead and coordinates beforehand with its allies—including Europeans and Arab states that prefer to avoid being drawn into a nuclear arms race—there is at least some prospect for establishing a new mechanism that changes the conversation and plants the seeds of new initiatives after the American presidential election. Otherwise, the chances of a risky and enormously consequential war will remain uncomfortably high. 

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution. He conducts regular public opinion polls in Arab countries, Israel and the United States.