Israel Cries Wolf
By ROGER COHEN - NYT Opinion
ISTANBUL — “Iran is the center of terrorism, fundamentalism and subversion and is in my view more dangerous than Nazism, because Hitler did not possess a nuclear bomb, whereas the Iranians are trying to perfect a nuclear option.”
Benjamin Netanyahu 2009? Try again. These words were in fact uttered by another Israeli prime minister (and now Israeli president), Shimon Peres, in 1996. Four years earlier, in 1992, he’d predicted that Iran would have a nuclear bomb by 1999.
You can’t accuse the Israelis of not crying wolf. Ehud Barak, now defense minister, said in 1996 that Iran would be producing nuclear weapons by 2004.
Now here comes Netanyahu, in an interview with his faithful stenographer Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, spinning the latest iteration of Israel’s attempt to frame Iran as some Nazi-like incarnation of evil:
“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”
I must say when I read those words about “the wide-eyed believer” my mind wandered to a recently departed “decider.” But I’m not going there.
The issue today is Iran and, more precisely, what President Barack Obama will make of Netanyahu’s prescription that, the economy aside, Obama’s great mission is “preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons” — an eventuality newly inscribed on Israeli calendars as “months” away.
I’ll return to the ever shifting nuclear doomsday in a moment, but first that Netanyahu interview.
This “messianic apocalyptic cult” in Tehran is, of course, the very same one with which Israel did business during the 1980’s, when its interest was in weakening Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That business — including sales of weapons and technology — was an extension of Israeli policy toward Iran under the shah.
It’s also the same “messianic apocalyptic cult” that has survived 30 years, ushered the country from the penury of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, shrewdly extended its power and influence, cooperated with America on Afghanistan before being consigned to “the axis of evil,” and kept its country at peace in the 21st century while bloody mayhem engulfed neighbors to east and west and Israel fought two wars.
I don’t buy the view that, as Netanyahu told Goldberg, Iran is “a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest.” Every scrap of evidence suggests that, on the contrary, self-interest and survival drive the mullahs.
Yet Netanyahu insists (too much) that Iran is “a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.” Huh?
On that ocular theme again, Netanyahu says Iran’s “composite leadership” has “elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world.” No, they exist in an actual nuclear power, Pakistan. Israel’s nuclear warheads, whose function is presumably deterrence of precisely powers like Iran, go unmentioned, of course.
Netanyahu also makes the grotesque claim that the terrible loss of life in the Iran-Iraq war (started by Iraq) “didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness.” It did just that, which is why Iran’s younger generation seeks reform but not upheaval; and why the country as a whole prizes stability over military adventure.
Arab states, Netanyahu suggests, “fervently hope” that America will, if necessary, use “military power” to stop Iran going nuclear. My recent conversations, including with senior Saudi officials, suggest that’s wrong and the longstanding Israeli attempt to convince Arab states that Iran, not Israel, is their true enemy will fail again.
What’s going on here? Israel, as it has for nearly two decades, is trying to lock in American support and avoid any disadvantageous change in the Middle Eastern balance of power, now overwhelmingly tilted in Jerusalem’s favor, by portraying Iran as a monstrous pariah state bent on imminent nuclear war.
A semblance of power balance is often the precondition for peace. Iran was left out of the Madrid and Oslo processes, with disastrous results. But that’s a discussion for another day.
What’s critical right now is that Obama view Netanyahu’s fear-mongering with an appropriate skepticism, rein him in, and pursue his regime-recognizing opening toward Tehran. The president should read Trita Parsi’s excellent “Treacherous Alliance” as preparation.
The core strategic shift of Obama’s presidency has been away from the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric of the war on terror toward a rapprochement with the Muslim world as the basis for isolating terrorists.
That’s unsustainable if America or Israel find themselves at war with Muslim Persians as well as Muslim Arabs, and if Netanyahu’s intense-eyed attempt to suck America into a perpetuation of war-on-terror thinking prevails.
The only way to stop Iran going nuclear, and encourage reform of a repressive regime, is to get to the negotiating table. There’s time. Those “months” are still a couple of years. What Iran has accumulated is low-enriched uranium. You need highly-enriched uranium for a bomb. That’s a leap.
Israeli hegemony is proving a kind of slavery. Passage to the Promised Land involves rethinking the Middle East, starting in Iran.