WASHINGTON — The loose talk of war is back after a brief period of calm.
This is stunning, as the facts about Iran’s nuclear program have not changed since negotiations over its nuclear program began in April. Iran does not have a nuclear weapon nor is it on the verge of acquiring one. The consensus view of American and Israeli intelligence agencies remains that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon. And the pressure on Iran to back down has increased through the imposition of crippling sanctions while international negotiations proceed.
So what is the strategy behind all this war talk? Is Israel really planning to bomb Iran? We don’t yet know the answer, but the impact of this type of saber rattling is decidedly negative.
First, it shifts the focus from Iran to Israel. Instead of maintaining the sole focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the war talk creates unnecessary and unproductive impediments. Such threats create confusion between Israel and the international community, distracting Israel’s allies and turning Iran into Israel’s problem alone, rather than a shared challenge to the international community. Now, Israel’s allies are spending their precious time prognosticating about Israel’s intentions.
This is why Israeli leaders such as President Shimon Peres, former chiefs of Israel’s army Shaul Mofaz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former head of the spy agency Mossad Meir Dagan, former Obama administration Iran chief Dennis Ross, and leading pro-Israel columnist Jeff Goldberg have warned against Israeli strikes. They argue that an Israeli strike at this moment would unravel the international sanctions on Iran, spike oil prices and fail to achieve its main goal — verifiably preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Second, it endangers Israeli security. Israel’s deterrence — essential to maintaining its security across the region by striking fear in the hearts of its adversaries — is being weakened before our eyes. Talk of war has ironically created a public discussion about Israel’s military capacities vis-à-vis Iran. As a result, we’re now seeing a full public airing of Israel’s military preparedness — offensively and defensively — to Israel’s detriment. Even Gen. Martin Dempsey, chief of staff for the U.S. Armed Forces, recently felt compelled to publicly state that Israel could not eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability on its own. This is a new dynamic for Israel, which prides itself on stealth and opacity. Instead, by pushing the idea of an Israeli strike, Israel is now exposing its military limitations to its adversaries, diminishing the exact fear of Israeli power that it is trying to create.
Third, it divides the Israeli population. Israelis are split on what should otherwise be a unifying issue. A majority of the population — 61 percent according to a recent Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University poll — opposes a unilateral strike against Iran without American backing. And the Israeli security establishment is also at odds with this approach. Lipkin-Shahak himself said “I assume that the decision makers have the same information as the heads of the security establishment … [and so] I ask myself how is it that the security officials and the politicians can arrive at such different conclusions?” Normally, Israelis have a shared view of Iran. Unfortunately, it is talk of war that is creating new divisions within Israeli society that would otherwise not exist.
Israelis understand the costs and uncertainties of war. They remember the Lebanon war, which lasted 18 years even though it was initially promised to last no more than several days. They witnessed the American war in Iraq, sold as an easy win to an uncertain public, only to become a vicious deathtrap, killing thousands and lasting almost nine years. They understand the dangers of being sold simple solutions to complex problems.
When it comes to unilateral military strikes against Iran, it is clear that Israelis are not all on board. As President Peres recently said, “Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”
It’s impossible to know what Israeli leaders will ultimately do. But it is clear that the talk of war is creating negative consequences both for Israel as it plots its next steps and for the international community’s ability to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
A strike right now would undermine the painstaking work that has taken place these past several years to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Israelis do not want to be opposite the United States on questions of war and peace. And many national security experts believe that military action may even hasten Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
So let’s remember that as the talk of war mounts, there is another perspective: the pressure on Iran remains, talks are under way, and there is no new evidence demonstrating that Iran is about to acquire nuclear weapons.
Now is the time for productive patience, not military strikes. After all, it’s much easier to start a war than it is to end one.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)