The air is full of dire warnings of an impending Israeli attack on Iran. Prophets of doom declare themselves full of forebodings and point fearfully to the meeting in the White House between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as crucial in making the decisions that will lead to peace or war.
Many Israeli and western commentators adopt a tone so portentous about this meeting that parody is difficult. For instance, Ari Shavit writes in Haaretz that “next Monday, in the White House, the man from Washington and the man from Jerusalem will look into each other’s eyes. Each will see the abyss in the other’s pupils.” Mr Shavit does not reveal what lies at the bottom of this ocular cavity, but he sternly warns the American and Israeli leaders that if they don’t work together “they will bring disasters on their nations.”
Wars in the Middle East commonly come as a surprise aimed at catching the enemy napping or, at least, with little preliminary warning. This was true of the Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, and even NATO’s air assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks as they advanced on Benghazi a year ago. Where the build-up has been slow, as in America’s wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003, it is because the US was certain of victory.
The highly-publicized impending Israeli air strikes on Iran are different from these previous conflicts in several respects: They are extremely unlikely to achieve their declared aim, which is to end permanently Iranian capacity to build a nuclear bomb. A bevy of former Israeli intelligence and army chiefs along with senior serving American officials are at one in saying this cannot be done. An Israeli attack is, if anything, likely to decide Iran to build a nuclear device, a decision which, it is generally admitted on all sides, it has not yet made.
The Israeli assault will not only come as no surprise, but it will be one of the most heavily advertized events in the world in recent years. Promoters of Hollywood blockbusters must look with envy at the pre-publicity for this war. The Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barack makes bloodcurdling threats. The US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta even put a date on the attack, saying to journalists that there is a “strong likelihood” of an Israeli air assault this spring. The New York Times reverently quotes Israeli officials as saying that Israel might attack Iran without informing the US. Well-advertised Israeli air training exercises take place over the Mediterranean. The Hollywood analogy is apt because there is something very stagy about these oft-repeated threats, though the international media happily takes them at face value.
There is a persistent misjudgement that mars much of the commentary on the relations between Israel, Iran and the US. This is to do with the size and the military capacity of the antagonists. Taking its threats at face value, Israel is saying that it will fly its planes to Iran and destroy widely dispersed and heavily protected Iranian nuclear facilities. But this is the same air force that in 1996 and 2006, though supported by artillery and facing no anti-aircraft defenses, failed to defeat a few thousand Hezbollah guerrillas dug into bunkers a few miles from Israel’s northern border. Two years later, the bombardment of tiny undefended Gaza succeeded in killing some 1,300 civilians, but failed to eliminate the Hamas leadership.
Israel is at its more influential when threatening war than when it is actually fighting one. The last time Israel conclusively won a war was forty years ago in 1973, and then only after serious setbacks. Its prolonged incursion into Lebanon brought only humiliation and failure.
Israeli leaders do very little militarily with which the US seriously disapproves or cannot live with. It is Israel’s relationship with the US, not Iran, that is crucial. Israelis sense this and do not vote for leaders who get on permanently get on bad terms with Washington, as happened to Netanyahu to his cost in the election of 1999. Israeli attitudes are reflected in an opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Brookings Institution, and released last week, which shows that only 19 per cent of Israelis favor a unilateral strike on Iran without US support. This figure goes up to 42 per cent if an Israeli strike does have American backing. A third of Israelis is against a strike in any circumstances and think it will have no effect or lead to the speed up an Iranian nuclear program.
All these are reasons why Israel’s threats of imminent war against Iran are most likely high quality bluff. It is a bluff, moreover, that has so far proved highly successful in isolating Iran politically and economically. Israeli leaders in their hearts may secretly not feel as threatened by an Iranian bomb to anything like the extent they claim (though one should not under-estimate the capacity of Israelis, and indeed everybody else, to be convinced by their own propaganda). In any case, the US National Intelligence Estimate, the collective opinion of the US intelligence agencies, confirms that Iran has not taken a decision to build a nuclear weapon, and has not had a program to do so since 2003. Even then, one US intelligence agency concludes, the Iranians were only doing so in case Saddam Hussein built a nuclear bomb to use against them. If Iran does succeed in building some nuclear devices, it will be deterred from using them by the far greater arsenals of Israel and the US. Deterrence works, as witness the stand off between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War.
Of course, Israel would prefer Iran to be without nuclear weapons, but they scarcely pose the threat to Israel that Netanyahu and Barak pretend. But their repeated threats to strike Iran before it strikes Israel has proved highly successful in persuading the Europeans, and much of the rest of the world, to join the US in imposing severe economic sanctions. They would scarcely have done this without them being persuaded that the alternative to harsh sanctions was a new war in the Gulf.
The fresh wave of sanctions is effective. Iranian oil exports are being crippled. Iran may be able to sell its crude oil, but in smaller quantities and at reduced prices. International trade links with Iran are being paralysed, domestic prices are rising swiftly and, in the long term, support for the authorities in Iran is being sapped.
This is a further reason for suspecting that threats of war are overblown. The US and Israel may publicly differ on how to respond to Iran’s nuclear program, but they are at one in wanting to change the regime in Tehran. And here they are making much more progress than seemed likely a year ago. Syria, Iran’s main ally in the Middle East, is on the ropes and, in the long term, may not survive. The number of people and parties boycotting the Iranian parliamentary election last Friday shows a divided and increasingly unpopular Iranian regime. Israel’s threats of war are turning out to be more potent than war itself.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.