Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York this week, for his valedictory appearances as President of the Islamic Republic before the United Nations General Assembly. He gave several significant addresses, multiple interviews, and even held a session with a small group of Americans who have written or are writing books about Iran, in which we took part.
Although, as usual, Ahmadinejad had a rich and multifaceted set of messages that he worked to convey, media and public attention focused on his observations about Israel and the threat of an Israeli or U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic. On this topic, Ahmadinejad had two main points.
First, Israel is at a strategic “dead end,” or, as he explained in greater detail, see here,
“Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists. We believe the Zionists see themselves at a dead end and the way to find an adventure to get out of this dead end. While we are fully ready to defend ourselves, we do not take these threats seriously.”
Second, the reason why Israel finds itself in a dead end is not because of the Islamic Republic and its nuclear activities. It is because of the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders in their countries.
Although this was surely not his intent, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu confirmed Ahmadinejad’s assessment when Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly later in the week, see here. The heart of Netanyahu’s address, of course, was his remarks about the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program. By now, most people who might read this have, we are sure, already seen footage of Netanyahu deploying his Looney Tunes-like drawing of a cylindrical bomb with a hand-lit fuse, 25 minutes into the video linked above. (For those who were too dumbstruck by the absurdity of his visual aid to take in easily its intended message, Netanyahu pointed out, “This is a bomb. This is a fuse.”) Bottom line, Netanyahu holds that the United States should commit to bombing Iranian nuclear facilities before the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has stockpiled enough uranium enriched the near-20 percent level so that, if it reconfigured its centrifuges and put its 20-percent enriched uranium back through those centrifuges, it might be able to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to fabricate a single nuclear weapon.
Where to begin deconstructing all of this? Simply as a technical matter, Netanyahu’s analysis is deeply flawed on multiple levels.
–Netanyahu claims that, once Iran reaches his suggested red line, Israel, the United States, and others cannot rely on their intelligence services to detect an Iranian move to turn near-20 percent enriched uranium into weapons-grade fissile material. But, by Netanyahu’s own testimony, his analysis of Iran’s fuel-cycle program is “not based on secret information. It’s not based on military intelligence. It’s based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
–But it is also these public reports which will tell Netanyahu and others when the Islamic Republic has accumulated enough 20-percent enriched uranium to meet his red line. And in order to blow past this red line, Iran would have to take steps—breaking seals on IEAE-inventoried uranium stockpiles, reconfiguring centrifuges to produce weapons-grade fissile material, or moving stockpiles out of IEAE-monitored facilities—that the IAEA (not U.S. or Israeli intelligence) would detect.
–Furthermore, Netanyahu said nothing to demonstrate that, even if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear device, it has either the intention or the capability to weaponize the material—which is a considerably more complicated task than just stuffing highly-enriched uranium into the Prime Minister’s cartoon bomb and lighting the fuse.
Strategically, as we’ve argued before, see here, there is no way that a mythical nuclear-armed Iran, much less an Iran enriching uranium at well below weapons grade, poses an “existential threat” to Israel. In New York, Netanyahu made much of the Islamic Republic’s alleged irrationality, even citing Bernard Lewis that “for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.” But countless senior Israeli officials—including the commander of the Israel Defense Forces, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, including even Netanyahu himself, see here and here—have acknowledged, on the record, that it is highly unlikely that Iranian leaders would use nuclear weapons. (For the record, Iranian leaders have said repeatedly over many years that they don’t want nuclear weapons and, in the assessment of both U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, they have not taken a decision to produce them. In fact, we believe that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, has taken a clear decision not to do so.)
The real existential threat to Israel comes from what Israelis see going on around them right now, and which Ahmadinejad so aptly pointed out—the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders. For as Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, and other Iranian leaders understand very well, the governments that grow out of this demand will not succumb to American pressure cum blandishments to “make peace” with Israel, even as it continues to occupy Arab land, suppress Arab populations, and flout international law in its grossly disproportionate applications of military force around the region. Such governments will insist, before they can accept Israel, that it must change its policies in fundamental ways—ways so fundamental that most Israeli elites would see it as an abandonment of the Zionist project. And over time—perhaps measured in decades rather the merely years—that will persuade most of the rest of the world to demand basic changes in Israel, too.
Like President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly (which we will discuss in greater depth in our next post), Netanyahu expressed confidence that “modernity” will triumph over “medievalism.” But the success of the Zionist project rests ultimately on the ability of Israeli governments to tell Israeli Jews and those who might come to Israel from elsewhere that it is utterly feasible to live surrounded by hundreds of millions of people who do not accept Israel as a political order. Israeli governments have to be able to tell their target audiences that they do not have to be concerned about the long-term implausibility of such a proposition—because Israel, with its superior military forces and with the vast power of the United States deployed to keep genuinely independent power centers from emerging in the region, has its strategic situation under control.
Today, Israel clearly does not have its strategic situation under control. Indeed, Israel has not faced a strategic situation this challenging since the 1950s—the last time it faced the prospect of genuinely independent political orders emerging in Middle East that would refuse to accept an aggressive, territorially acquisitive interloper in their midst. Now, superior military forces no longer suffice to keep the regional balance tilted so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor. And the power of the United States to shape the Middle East’s strategic environment is hardly what it once seemed to be—and is shrinking virtually by the day.
At their root, of course, Israel’s problems are of Israel’s making. It would be disastrous for the United States to go along with the idea of using military power to enforce a technically and strategically nonsensical red line on Iran’s nuclear activities. Such an attack would have no legitimacy: there would be no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing it, and outside of Israel, Britain, and a few other subservient European states, no one would support the action.
–A U.S.-initiated war on the Islamic Republic would do so much damage to America’s long-run strategic position that it would make the Iraq debacle, in comparison, look almost like a success.
–And if we think anti-Americanism in the Muslim world—indeed, in most of the non-Western world—is at dangerously high levels now, imagine what those levels will be after the United States bombs Iran over nuclear activities that Arab populations, other Muslim populations, and other non-Western populations overwhelmingly see as legitimate.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett