Friday, June 29, 2012

War. Huh! What Is It Good For?

Hey!  Infographics are cool, Dammit!
Conventional wisdom is crystallizing around an Israeli attack on Iran late this summer or in the fall, in the months leading up to the American election in November.  The argument goes that the Israelis will wait for the last round of diplomatic talks between the Islamic Republic and the so-called P5+1 to fail, as they can then claim they started a war as a "last resort", and then, before the bad weather closes in, but close enough to the November US Presidential election that Obama's hands will be tied, they will launch a series of airstrikes on nuclear and defense facilities in Iran.  They will operate at a very high operational tempo for the first 72 hours and then, with munitions depleted, casualties mounting and a diverse Iranian retaliatory response causing them to reallocate their forces, they will demand the US and perhaps the UK and France join the fighting to at least suppress the Iranian counterattacks.

But trying to determine under what circumstances and timing would the Israelis launch a war with Iran might very well be asking the wrong question.  It seems more important to me to try and determine if the Israelis would EVER decide it was in their interests to start that war.  Now, obviously, if you take the Israeli position at face value, and accept that they truly believe that a nuclear armed Iran would represent an existential threat to the Israeli state and its population, than there is no question here to be asked.  They would clearly arrive at the conclusion that, at some point, regardless of the risks and costs, a war to prevent the Iranians from developing weapons, even if only temporarily, makes sense.

But there's a fairly compelling basis to believe that the Israelis are lying.  If anything is glaringly obvious, it is that there is no benefit outside of mere survival that would accrue from a war with Iran.  It would cost billions, kill thousands, inflame global opinion, strengthen the Iranian regime, and sink the global economy.  You might choose to accept those consequences if the alternative was annihilation, but in any other scenario you would have to be both stupid and insane to choose that path.  It is generally accepted that there is no formal Iranian nuclear weapons development program, the IAEA inspectors are in place, and while there are some disagreements over some inspections and protocols, there is a robust consensus that the Iranians have not diverted any fissile material from the civilian program, which, unlike American allies India, Pakistan and Israel, they are entitled to operate as NPT signatories.

So why would Israel create this massive fiction that a war is iminent?  Politics.  Politically, Israel is crumbling into increasingly incompatible factions.  There is a large bloc of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who are mostly secular but who have a powerful racial hatred for Arabs, particularly Palestinian Arabs.  There is a fundamentalist religious political wing in ascendency, and in a Jewish state no government can survive without appeasing their more extreme demands.  There is a mainstream right wing Likud government bloc, led by men who came of age in the crucible of regular horrific wars of national survival.  They view all regional challenges through a military prism, and tend to define political and diplomatic conflicts and their resolution in terms of warfare.  And there is the traditional, large secular liberal Jewish mainstream, who have the power and wealth to drive Israeli politics in the direction they choose.  Confronted with these domestic political challenges, Netanyahu and the Likud leadership has created the broadly accepted perception of a crazed enemy, one bent on nothing short of the utter destruction of the nation of Israel and the murder of all her people.  As long as this narrative can be convincingly sold to the Israeli electorate, the governing coalition retains essentially unfettered power to enact whatever policies it wishes.

So if we make the assumption for a moment that the 'threat' posed by Iran was manufactured for political purposes, the next question is what might cause that narrative to lose its utility?  Well, the Iranians could announce they were giving up their nuclear program entirely, right?  Maybe not.  With complete international consensus that there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Netanyahu government just accuses them of lying and hiding the program, and for some reason the world continues to give the Israeli leadership the benefit of the doubt.  As long as the Israeli leadership wanted the Iranians to serve as the regional boogeyman, they would continue to claim the Iranians were only "six months away from building a bomb".  But what if Israel actually attacked?  What then?  Well, missiles would rain on Israel from Iran, from Gaza, from Syria and from a newly hostile Lebanon.  Terrorists would strike Israeli targets both in Israel and around the world.  Newly energized, funded and armed groups would infiltrate from Egypt, Lebanon, anywhere they could.  Nations in Europe, Latin America and the mid-east would react with outrage at the agression, costing Israel allies and commerce.  The price of oil would skyrocket, driving the global economy into recession and further damaging the Israeli economy.  If the costs of the war, both in blood and treasure are great enough, the Israeli people will blame Netanyahu and his government, and it will be ousted from power.  If the narrative of the Iranian threat was a political contrivance, it could very well be one that cannot survive if the Israeli leadership were to actually act on that threat.

Ultimately, there's no way to make a practical judgement on the question of whether the Netanyahu government is actually willing to start a war with a nation as large and powerful as Iran.  As we discussed earlier, it all comes down to whether they truly believe their own rhetoric about Iran or whether that rhetoric is merely political, targeted on a domestic audience.  It's also one of those 'one-way' questions - if the Israelis do start a war with Iran, we'll know they beleived that the nuclear threat was greater than the costs of a potentially prolonged, multi-front war.  But as long as they keep threatening and not acting, we won't know either way for sure.


  1. I got something in my email about Iran, but it's against my religion to pay for this stuff.

  2. Yeah, I saw that. Stephen Walt was talking about it. This idea that somehow sixty years of experience with nuclear deterrence doesn't apply to Iran, presumably because the Mullahs are insane, is nothing but a bad sell job. If we don't need to attack North Korea, if China and Russia have never used their weapons, hell, if Curtis fucking LeMay didn't gleefully incinerate a million people then a nuclear Iran would be much harder to attack with conventional weapons, but would represent no greater offensive threat.