Another look at Israel vs. Iran

The most interesting thing I’ve read on the Middle East in the last week has been this piece by Ben Caspit at Al-Monitor, which claims to tell the inside story of the discussions “behind closed doors” between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu during Obama’s visit to Israel last month. (Thanks to Sol Salbe for the pointer.)

It’s particularly interesting because of the last fortnight’s hysteria about North Korea, drawing attention to the contrast between its nuclear program and the allegedly similar ambitions of Iran. Capsit quotes Netanyahu telling Obama “Look at how [the North Koreans] are sticking their tongues out at you … The fact that you are restraining yourselves and letting them go wild and do whatever they want reverberates all the way to Tehran.”

I have no idea whether Caspit’s sources are as good as he claims, but I’ve never placed a lot of reliance on insider accounts. In most cases, you get just as much (or as little) information from listening carefully to what politicians say in public and then thinking about their motives. If they’re lying to the public, they’re quite probably lying to their intimate sources as well (usually because they’re also lying to themselves).

Capsit’s account is plausible because it fits with what we already know. Here’s his concluding summary:

On the Iranian issue, Netanyahu said that there is no time, and that we have to act now, while the Americans told him to calm down. They said that there is time, and that they will only act when the conditions are ripe, and they have no other options on that. As for the Palestinians, it was the exact opposite. The Americans say that there is no time, that we have to act now … In contrast, Netanyahu says, “Calm down. There’s still time. We’re not ready yet. I will act. I want peace, but only when the conditions are ripe.”

But note the asymmetry here. Capsit, like the rest of us, assumes that Netanyahu is insincere when it comes to the Palestinians; that he doesn’t really want peace and simply aims to put everyone off indefinitely. But he seems (apologies if I’m misinterpreting him) to be inviting us to take Obama more or less at his word when it comes to Iran.

My take on it is that the two issues are rather more on a par: that while Obama wants to keep his options open, he has no intention of ever countenancing an attack on Iran, just as Netanyahu has no intention of ever giving up control of the West Bank. And that while each would like the other to act, neither is willing to force the issue.

For more on the North Korea analogy, have a read of Michael McShane’s piece yesterday at Informed Comment. His argument is that the United States has let North Korea get away with what it won’t tolerate in Iran because it gives a higher priority to the Middle East, due to its ties with Israel and its concerns about oil.

There’s probably some truth in that, but to my mind the important thing is the simple fact that there’s a difference between real nukes and projected ones. Once a country has actual nuclear weapons, attacking it becomes a much less attractive option. Deterrence works. (That of course is also the moral of Israel’s nukes, which no-one is supposed to talk about.) The focus shifts to containment, as it has with North Korea.

If Iran ever reaches that stage, the Americans and even the Israelis will learn to live with it. Israel’s priority is trying to ensure that it doesn’t reach that stage, precisely because the deterrent would then be effective against future Israeli action. That’s a worthwhile objective for Obama as well, but I’m not convinced he thinks it’s worth going to war for.

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