Many observers believe that Israel is pushing the U.S. to take military action against Iran's nuclear program. We asked Israel's senior defense journalist, Ze'ev Schiff, a man with outstanding contacts, to describe Israeli establishment thinking today on the Iran challenge.
When in Washington, I was amazed to hear on a number of occasions that Israel was urging the United States to go to war with Iran and that its strategic objective was to induce the United States to attack Iran, thus putting an end to that country's nuclear program. To the best of my knowledge and understanding this claim is totally false. It is an error based on ignorance or on disregard for important details in Israeli strategic thinking. It may even be founded on a deliberate lie.
To the best of my knowledge, Israel does not believe war against Iran to be the best way to eliminate the Iranian nuclear project. There is a common tendency to forget that Israel lies on the frontline of such a war. Israel stands to suffer more than anyone else, including the United States, should such a war break out. It would certainly be the prime target of Iranian retaliation should the United States decide to use force against Iran. It is a known fact that the attack on the Israeli consulate in Buenos Aires some years ago was the work of Iranian agents. Also in Buenos Aires, Iranian agents were responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community offices, causing many casualties. In fact, the Iranian government aims its violence against Jewish institutions in countries outside the Middle East.
Although Israel is not pressing for a military solution of the nuclear problem, it would be wrong to deduce that Israel is not preparing for a military deterioration. It has been clear to the Israeli government in recent years that should Iran finally be armed with nuclear weapons, the main threat would be directed against Israel, more so than against any other target be it the United States, Turkey or neighboring Arab states. Since Israel regards an Iranian nuclear threat as a threat to its very survival, it is preparing for any possible scenario. That was the way Israel acted in 1981 when it wrecked the nuclear reactor in Iraq ("Osirak"). Actually, Israel only acted after two failed attempts by the Iranian air force. It is quite obvious to Israeli strategists that operationally speaking, the blowing up of the Iraqi reactor cannot be compared with the situation in Iran today, but that is quite another matter nor is this the place to discuss it.
However, Israel's main interest is in buttressing the thus-far insufficient political-diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability. To this day, the Iranians have not paid the full price for their disregard for the international community, the IAEA, the UN, and various countries, even Russia. They feel free to ignore urgent proposals for a compromise on the nuclear question.
We have reached a stage where the United States should not be satisfied with negotiations with Iran through messengers. These messengers are important and they are convinced Iran is deceiving them. However, the time has come for the United States to be more directly involved in the negotiations rather than remain behind the scenes.
Not only should Washington engage directly with Tehran, the United States also needs to repair the American-Russian track. Russia's policy on Iran appears to spring from the Kremlin's anger with the United States over sensitive Russian issues, such as the Ukraine or Georgian questions. If getting rid of the Iranian nuclear arms project means so much to the United States, it should make certain compromises with the Kremlin on issues vital to the Russians. The United States can induce Russia to play a more positive and active role over Iran's nuclear program.
Unwillingness by all relevant parties to do what is necessary to strengthen the diplomatic effort is bound to promote the military option. To avert military strikes against Iran, greater stress needs to be put on the diplomatic option. That includes, inter alia, the imposition of sanctions against recalcitrant Iran. Such treatment is sure to heighten the domestic debate in Iran over the risks the Ahmadinejad regime is taking in a possible confrontation with the United States. Addressed to President Bush, Ahmadinejad's letter was actually intended to address the Iranian public criticism of the unnecessary risks their president is taking. The letter was meant to carry the message to Ahmadinejad's critics that he was calling for dialogue and for negotiations.
Israel fears another negative development - the theory that it would be possible to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb. That attitude is especially alarming when the Iranian president is calling for the annihilation of Israel. Just as the West has practically come to terms with the nuclear activity of North Korea, it would also come to terms with the existence of Iranian nuclear weapons.
There are indications that such dangerous negative thinking is finding its way into strategic academic circles in the United States. It includes, among other things, the statement that there is no need to fear an Iranian nuclear bomb, because Teheran realizes that it would be severely punished for the use of its nuclear weapons against the United States or against Israel. The comparison between the United States and Israel in this context is strange, to say the least. What point is there in a counter strategy after geographically minute Israel is destroyed?! Israel is sure to do everything in its power to prevent such considerations.
Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center, rightly said that as in the Cuba missile crisis, when President Kennedy refused to choose between the military option and coming to terms with the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, there must be a third choice in relation to Iran, one with which even if directly threatened, Israel could also live with. Just as President Kennedy found a third way to solve the missile crisis in Cuba, a fertile imagination is necessary today in the search for some sort of compromise. This must not mean giving Iran a carrot on the understanding that it would only produce one nuclear bomb, or the equivalent. Reasoning by analogy, it is worth recalling how former Israeli Prime Minister Yitshak Rabin responded when Egypt pressed Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Rabin said Israel would be prepared to consider the matter two years after the Arab states and Iran sign peace agreements with Israel.
Ze'ev Schiff is the dean of Israeli defense correspondents and columnists, writing for Haaretz. He wrote this analysis for the Carnegie Endowment.