War with Iran is closer than we think

Even if Netanyahu and Barak are only trying to encourage the international community to act against Iran, their actions are getting us very close to military confrontation

All public evidence suggests that there is no consensus in Israel regarding a military action against Iran. The three security figures that oppose the war – Mossad head Meir Dagan, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Beit head Yuval Diskin – are all retired, but there are no indications that the current heads of the security establishment believe that attacking Iran is preferable to other options. Still, I believe that latest diplomatic development has brought us dangerously  closer to war.

It’s no secret that Israel would rather have the United States attack, or at least lead the strike, against the Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli officials have confirmed this in an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic piece on the issue. In his article, Goldberg failed to mention the “Iran skeptics” camp, but he was right to note that the current Israeli leadership would like America to do the job for it. An attack on Iran would present a major challenge to the Israeli Air Force, and even if everything happens according to plan, there are serious doubts regarding Israel’s ability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear facilities.

For this reason, many observers believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak are bluffing – or at least, pretending to be closer to an attack than they really are – in order to mobilize the international community against Iran in the hopes that at some point, the United States will opt to lead the attack rather than let Israel do it, fail, and still drag the region into war. According to this logic, the more “serious” Israel appears to be (regarding a military strike), the higher the odds that the international community would take meaningful action against Iran that would convince the regime to abandon its nuclear enrichment program. The latest holocaust analogies by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the time table set by Defense Minister Barak are meant to prompt others to act; and Israel is still not about to attack Iran on its own.

There is only one flaw with this view: The conduct of the Israeli leadership will leave it in a position where it must attack Iran, even if it has to do it on its own, and even if the chances of meaningful success are limited at best.

Suppose Ehud Barak’s deadline passes, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. What then? Considering the show Netanyahu and Barak just put on, if Israel doesn’t attack, who would take any of their claims seriously from now on? If nothing happens in a year from now, and the Iranian regime continues its policy of opacity – without actually developing a bomb, but marching toward creating the capability to assemble one – would the hollow threats by the Israel leadership just make it clear to Iran that Israel and its allies don’t have the desire or the capability to stop it? Would other countries in the region get the same message? From the perspective of the Israeli leadership, this might be seen as a worse outcome even than a failed attack. At that moment, the rational choice for Israeli leadership would be to attack. Even if the threats were an act to begin with, at a certain point you must deliver in order not to experiance a total policy collapse.

This is the famous paradox of deterrence in international relations: You try to deter your adversaries in order to avoid engaging them in actual battle, but in order to keep your credibility – which is essential for successful deterrence – you must engage in military action at some point.

There are other reasons that make war more likely: The long preparations for a strike create organizational momentum towards it within the security establishment; even if initially people were inclined to oppose it they could change their mind as the planning process continues, maneuvers take place and the unthinkable becomes a viable option. Group thinking in the political leadership could also play a part, and so can the fact that there is no grassroots activism or a protest movement against the war.

To sum it up, I tended to doubt the possibility of war with Iran in the past, but politics are never static. Today I actually think that we are getting closer to war (which, I believe, is total madness, whether it is led by the United States or by Israel).

The Israeli leadership is playing a high-risk game, and the main element in it is completely unknown: The strategic calculations of the different forces in Iran. If the dominant thinking in Tehran is that the regime would survive a military confrontation and even score points from it, then the chances of war – and even a longer and bloodier one than most people imagine – are becoming extremely high.