Netanyahu’s war talk politics

Published 2:51 pm Friday, March 30, 2012

Two big things about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s beating the war drum against Iran: First, Netanyahu has been predicting Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons for 20 years. The usual time horizon he’s cited has been roughly one year.

Evidently, however, the Persians have fallen about 19 years behind schedule. According to “senior Israeli government and defense figures” recently interviewed by the Associated Press, the best available intelligence is that the Iranians not only don’t have nuclear weapons now, but haven’t decided to build them. This also squares with the U.S. intelligence community’s view.

“The suspicion in Israel,” the AP report continues, is (get this) “that the Iranians have held off on a decision in order to deny Israel — and other countries — the pretext for an attack.” The cunning devils.

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This also agrees with U.N. inspectors’ conclusions about Iran’s allegedly peaceful uranium enrichment activities. That while the potential for making bombs exists and the Iranians haven’t been exactly forthcoming, there’s no direct evidence the country’s moving toward atomic weapons.

For that matter, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently made a foreign policy address following parliamentary elections. “The Iranian nation,” he said, “has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision-makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

The Ayatollah’s been saying these things almost as long as Netanyahu’s been saying the opposite. “Khamenei has also repeatedly said that Iran has a ‘no first strike’ policy,” notes Middle East expert Juan Cole, “that it will not fire the first shot in any conflict.” It bears emphasizing that the Supreme Leader, not lame duck President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, controls Iran’s armed forces.

The Ayatollah’s ecclesiastical role in Iran’s Shiite theocracy is very roughly that of Pope. One needn’t take him at face value to understand that having brought God into it, Khameni can’t easily turn into Mitt Romney in a turban and beard: shamelessly championing what he once abhorred. The Supreme Leader has also given himself a theological pretext for cooperating with the West, should a face-saving compromise become possible.

Of course, if you’re like most Americans, you’ve never heard these things. Where U.S. news media are concerned, Israel is subject and its enemies object, with opponents of Israel rarely depicted as having legitimate interests or a sane point of view.

Meanwhile, the second big thing to understand about Netanyahu’s threats is that all relevant military experts agree that Israeli bombs can’t stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. That would take a prolonged U.S. bombing campaign and full-scale ground invasion of a country with three times Iraq’s population, five times its land area, and a tough terrain. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told CNN that an Israeli raid on Iranian nuclear research sites “won’t achieve their long-term objectives.”

What Israel’s bombing Iran would do is kill a lot of people, inflame the Iranian people’s nationalist passions and scatter radioactive materials far and wide. But I digress, as we’ve already established that the Persians have no sane perspective. Ed Kilgore neatly satirizes the pro-Netanyahu point of view: “Danger! Mullahs! Nukes! Oil! Supplies! Let’s blow up the region before something bad happens!”

Now then: Whatever else can be said about Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s definitely not crazy. As only a crazy person would advocate a futile attack against a hypothetical threat, it follows that the prime minister’s short-term motives aren’t primarily military. Instead, they’re political, and very much in keeping with what Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf calls Netanyahu’s increasingly open “Republikud” stance.

Specifically, the hypothetical “red line” everybody talks about isn’t in Tehran; It’s in Washington. The precipitating event isn’t anything Iran has done, but what the United States might do, specifically, re-elect Barack Obama. The president came into office talking about Palestinian rights, and hasn’t been forgiven.

Short of openly endorsing the GOP nominee, Netanyahu’s bellicose stance appears contrived to put Obama in a corner: damned if he doesn’t, ruined if he does. Meanwhile, the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf has driven the world price of oil sky-high, a boon to speculators and GOP candidates.

Recognizing this, Obama neatly outflanked Netanyahu during his recent U.S. visit, promising that he’s got Israel’s back, won’t hesitate to use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but also praising diplomacy, economic sanctions and pointedly warning against “loose talk of war.”

In public, the Israeli prime minister had little choice but to sit and take it. Now he’s back home fuming. Does he dare try to force Obama’s hand?

And if he fails? Netanyahu’s well advised to sit tight.

Americans have no heart for this needless war.

(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be emailed at