Why Israel really advocates war on Iran
March 13th, 2012
10:15 AM ET

Why Israel really advocates war on Iran

Editor's note: Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed in this article are his own.

By Mohammed Ayoob - Special to CNN

During the past few weeks the drums of war have been beating loud and clear. Prime Minister Netanyahu, during his meeting with President Obama and his speech to AIPAC, made it very clear that Israel reserves the right to attack Iran if it comes to it - even against the wishes of the United States. Ostensibly the difference between Washington and Tel Aviv seems to be on the issue of timing. This, in turn, is based on divergent interpretations of where the red line should be drawn in terms of Iran’s presumed nuclear capacity. While a highly subjective definition of “nuclear capability” appears to be the red line for Israel, “weaponization” or at least clear evidence of it is Washington’s preferred red line.

This semantic difference hides a fundamental disjuncture between American and Israeli approaches to the subject. Israel defines the red line in terms of its narrow strategic and political interests in the Middle East.  Israel believes it is threatened by the perception, leave alone the reality, of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. America, as a world power, has larger interests at stake both in the region and in terms of its image and credibility globally.

Washington cannot afford another fiasco similar to the one when WMDs were touted as the major reason for the invasion of Iraq and none were discovered. Intelligence estimates and statements made by respected military figures in the United States testify to the fact that Iran is nowhere near acquiring nuclear weapons capability that may warrant an American attack.

Although Israeli leaders clearly state their sovereign right to make decisions vis-à-vis the threat that they perceive from Iran, their preferred option would be for the United States to take the lead in attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. This would make sense militarily because the American capacity to inflict sustained damage on Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to that of Israel. It would also make sense politically because it would demonstrate that there is no “daylight” between Israel and the United States when it comes to Iran.

Even if Israel decides to attack Iran by itself, its leaders may wish that Iran would retaliate against American as well as Israeli targets in order to draw the United States into a war against Tehran and thereby shift both military and political responsibility onto Washington’s shoulders.

Mohammed Ayoob

Mohammed Ayoob

Unlike Israel, the United States has to worry about not merely the success or failure of exercising the military option but also about the impact of military action on the price of oil and, above all, America's future relations with the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular. No matter what advice the narrowly based autocracies of the Persian Gulf may give Washington, the Arab publics in a rapidly democratizing environment, regardless of sectarian affiliations, will not forgive the United States for a military adventure that will be widely interpreted as a direct attack on “Islam”.

Paradoxically, an attack on predominantly Shia Iran will end up alienating the Sunni-dominated Muslim Middle East from the United States for a long time to come. If this happens, Osama bin Laden would be chuckling from beyond his watery grave.

However, it is this prospect of the alienation of the Arab and Muslim countries from the United States that is a major reason why Israel is interested in dragging the United States into a war with Iran. A goal of Israel’s foreign policy has been to convince American policy makers and the American public that it is the only trustworthy ally that the United States has in a hostile Middle East. An American military venture against Iran will turn this argument it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second major reason why Israel advocates war against Iran is related to its objective of preserving its military dominance in the Middle East. The real threat that a nuclear capable Iran poses to Israel is not that it will launch a nuclear strike against Israel. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the Iranian rulers, even if most Americans may consider them unreasonable, are “rational actors” in the sense that their major goal is regime and, I would add state, preservation. They are not an irrational bunch bent on committing collective national suicide - which is what would happen given Israel’s second-strike nuclear capacity based, among other platforms, on its submarines.

No one could have summed up this argument better than Paul Pillar, who spent 28 years in the U.S. intelligence community in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. According to Pillar, “More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power - in this life, not some future one.”

The threat that a nuclear or even near-nuclear Iran poses to Israel is political and not military. As Trita Parsi points out in his recent book, A Single Roll of the Dice, this threat is two-fold. According to Parsi, even the perception that Iran is a nuclear capable power “will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility.” Second, Parsi argues, “The deterrence and power Iran would acquire by mastering the nuclear fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would gain recognition as a regional power and acquire strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel.”

These arguments make it clear that the threat Israel perceives from Iran is not existential but strategic, in the sense that they relate to the regional balance of power and Israel’s apprehension that this balance may be tilted somewhat against it if Iran is perceived as having mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. Therefore, the question that American policy makers need to ask themselves is the following: Is it in the interest of the United States to engage in a military adventure whose outcome will be far from certain but whose political and economic costs are likely to be immense only in order to prevent the erosion of Israel’s strategic advantage in the Middle East? Much, including America’s future standing in the Middle East, hinge on how they answer this question.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mohammed Ayoob.

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Topics: Iran • Israel • Middle East • Military • Nuclear

soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. mot ekralc

    Paradoxically, an attack on predominantly Shia Iran will end up alienating the Sunni-dominated Muslim Middle East from the United States for a long time to come.
    How do you figure? I thought that Shia's hated Sunni's almost as much as westerners. If it weren't for the west they'd already be focused on slaughtering each other.

    April 4, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  2. Pharos

    Do you know what would make Iran a 'rational actor?'
    They could have just stopped their nuclear program for a short time to allow inspectors and the rest of the world to get some different idea about their program. It would have helped diplomacy and given them some status in the world besides being a pariah, terrorist supporting state, where human rights are trampled.
    Instead, starting in June or July, we will see the ruin of the Iranian economy. Is that a rational result? If that doesn't work, then certain countries are going to use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear program. Now there's a rational result.
    When, because they are SO ratinal, they retaliate against Israel or the United States, what do you think well happen? I think you will see the destruction of a significant portion of the Iranian military. First, as you know, they destroy the infrastructure that supports the military. That means water, food, electrical, bridges and highways. Now there's a rational result.
    Whenever I hear some fool use that term, I just want to smack the user. The user seems to think that if the country thinks it's rational, then it's rational. What a huge crock that is. I guess Hitler was rational too, wasn't he? Of course he was. Till he wasn't.
    The reason that Israel is advocating a military response to Iran's nuclear program is because for around 10 years, diplomacy has FAILED. It's not Israel who has said that this is an existential threat, it's the barbaric words of the Iranian president. Both the governments of Israel and the United States are STILL committed to diplomacy. How they remain patient with a beligerant, dangerous nation like Iran is beyond me. Unless they were waiting for the delivery of a more effective bomb. By the way, that new bomb has just been delivered. I'm sure Iranians can rationalize the smoking holes where their nuclear program used to be.
    This is just another phoney Iranian apologetic, anti-Semitic article.

    April 5, 2012 at 6:00 am | Reply
  3. i8on

    The "evil" Zionist regime, the "Little Satan", "has no right to exist", "should be destroyed", "will be destroyed", "we promise, by Allah, to destroy them." So has progressed the proclamations from the Mullah's of the Islamic Republic of Iran's mouthpiece Achmadinijab. And Israel doesn't really see them as an existential threat, it's only political power Israel seeks in a military attack against Iran's nuclear weopons ability? Do do you think you fool?

    April 5, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  4. Wasi Ahmed

    Reading the comments on all these weblogs I see that there will be a genocide of Muslims coming at the hands of hatemongers. The aparthied in Israel, the control foreign countries through backdoor channels and overt threats is already there to see for anyone who cares to open their eyes.

    However open mass killings will start. The time to go to the mountains as the prophet said has come. The anti christ will come and fool everyone. So run to the mountains for you will be decieved if you stay.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • jenifleur

      It's hard to see how 5 million Jewish Israelis are going to perform a genocide on 100 million Moslems? But anyway, I invite you to Tel Aviv where you can see for yourself the Jewish population and the Arab population studying together at univeristies, dining together in restaurants, shopping together at malls and going to the park togetherat holidays . The way to make a better world is not by running for the hills, my friend, but by getting to know your 'enemy'. You will find he surprisingly resembles yourself.

      April 11, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  5. tk

    Is there any chance that Iran will attempt to make creation of a Palestinian state a condition for accepting limitations and inspections regarding their enrichment program? It occurred to me that this could be a big enough prize for the Iranian regime to consider a bargain. I am thinking the regime could gain prestige, influence, political legitimacy, termination of sanctions/improved economic conditions, just to name a few items. Wouldn't this obligate the US to finally pressure Israel to implement a two state solution? Thoughts? Am I dreaming?

    April 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  6. ted

    Israel does not want war against Iran. Bombing nuclear facilities is not war. There is no chance of an Israeli invasion and, frankly, that idea is humorous given Israel's size and the great difficulties that Israel had in the Yom Kippur War, which was a defensive war and fairly short.

    Stop spreading lies. Thanks.

    April 9, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  7. enkephalin07

    Presidents of both Israel and Iran (please don't ask me to spell their names) have made political gains on fearmongering, so I doubt the war rhetoric will cool until they're both cycled out of politics. The Ayatolla may roar and froth at Israel, but he's placed a fatwa against nuclear weaponization, and I don't believe he's the kind of man who would do that as an empty foreign relations gesture. So either their claims about their development is purely for peaceful purposes is true, or there's another Iranian faction working toward nuclear arms against their own law.

    April 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  8. Mark

    Jews are going to start ww3....let them go at it alone.

    April 11, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
  9. Don Canard

    well put. we've had likudnik morons in power in israel for far too long. were they to be replaced, their neighbors would have no excuse not to behave themselves.

    April 11, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  10. jenifleur

    Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel, not Tel Aviv. And if Mr. Ahmedinejad is a 'rational actor', then I am Donald Duck.

    April 11, 2012 at 10:13 am | Reply
  11. Ritesh

    Notice the passive naurtel Sectarian violence is nothing new here. Sectarian violence runs one direction. A more informative reportage without ulterior motives would describe it thus Muslim violence against religious minorities especially Jews and Christians, is nothing new here .or where-ever Mohammadeans gather in numbers.

    April 21, 2012 at 6:29 am | Reply
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