Israel vs. Iran, again

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel went on American television to remind the world (in case anyone had forgotten) that the threat from Iran remains very much alive. Speaking on “Face the Nation,” Netanyahu warned that the Islamic Republic is once again approaching a nuclear redline, and hinted that if the United States doesn’t take action soon, he will.

Expect to hear more of this in the weeks ahead; Bibi’s TV appearance was reportedly just the opening shot in a new campaign to push the spotlight back on Iran. But don’t expect Washington or the international community to leap into action.

Netanyahu won’t — and shouldn’t — get the kind of response he’s hoping for. Simply put, that’s because both his language and Israel’s behavior are make it harder and harder to take his warnings seriously.

The problem starts with just how familiar Israel’s warnings on Iran have become. Netanyahu went through a similar exercise, remember, last summer. And the summer before that. In fact, Israeli leaders have been issuing such alarms for almost a decade now.

That repetition wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if just what they’ve been warning about hadn’t also shifted so much. Consider: Back in 2004, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, he said the point of no return would come when Iran came close to developing the technical capacity to enrich uranium.

Months later, however, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said no, the real danger would come when Iran started enriching fuel on its own soil. Then, in 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the fatal moment would actually come when Iran started running a certain number of enrichment cascades. And then last year, Ehud Barak (Bibi’s defense minister at the time) said the real red line would be crossed when Iran entered the “zone of immunity” — the point at which its nuclear program would be so advanced or well defended that it couldn’t be disabled by attack.

What’s confusing about this litany is that Iran has blown by each red line in turn, yet the supposed disaster has yet to materialize. So Bibi now has a boy-who-cried-wolf problem. But there’s a deeper flaw in his case against Iran, and that’s intellectual incoherence. Netanyahu insists that the Islamic Republic must be stopped before it builds a bomb because it couldn’t be trusted not to use it. Iran, in other words, is undeterrable.

But for that to be true, the country’s leaders would have to be more evil and less rational than Stalin or Mao, whose crimes were infinitely greater, yet against whom deterrence worked just fine. That claim is tough enough to accept on its face. It gets even tougher when you remember that Iran has apparently slowed down its uranium enrichment in the last year. Tehran did so in response to concerted threats and sanctions — the very definition of rational behavior.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not trying to argue that Israel doesn’t have any reason to worry about Iran. Given Israel’s size and location, the Obama administration’s current preoccupation with Egypt and Syria, and Washington’s seeming willingness to engage Iran’s new president in yet another round of talks, Netanyahu’s anxiety is understandable (if excessive).

What’s not understandable, however, is how he’s dealing with it. Were his government truly determined to stop Iran’s nuclear program, it would be acting very differently in a few key respects.

First, in order to build broad international support for action, it would be doing everything — everything — in its power to make peace with the Palestinian Authority and thereby remove the biggest irritant in its relations with Europe and the Arab world.

Instead, Bibi is doing effectively nothing on that front.

Don’t be fooled by the recent U.S. announcement that peace talks might soon resume. The fact that the Israeli side will be led by Tzipi Livni — a coalition partner Netanyahu doesn’t like or trust — and that, even before the talks were announced, another of his cabinet members anonymously declared them little more than a ruse — shows how seriously Bibi takes them.

Second, if Jerusalem really wanted to stop Iran from getting a bomb, it would put its own on the table. This might sound outlandish, but consider what merely offering to establish a regional nuclear-free zone would buy Israel. Netanyahu could insist on the most intrusive verification mechanisms imaginable — Israeli inspectors on the ground at Fordow or Natanz, say. Iran would refuse, but it wouldn’t matter; Jerusalem would have put Tehran on the defensive and bought some of the international support it desperately needs.

Yet rather than take such bold steps, Netanyahu has resorted to an old tactic and is beating the drum in Washington instead. Which points to a cynical but unavoidable conclusion: that what he really wants is for the rest of the world to take care of his Iran problem for him.

It’s not that Netanyahu wouldn’t rather the mullahs were stopped from building a bomb. Of course he would. He’s just not willing to pay much of a price — such as offering painful concessions — to make it happen.

But if he’s not, why should anyone on the outside do it for him?

By The New York Times


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