Robert A. Blum

In a New Era, How Does Bibi Begin to Deter the Iranian Threat?

In my last post, “Can Bibi Be More ‘Winston Churchill’ and Less ‘Edvard Benes’”?, I discussed disturbing, Munich Agreement-like historical parallels to Netanyahu’s situation in his attempt to prevent Iran, an enemy sworn to Israel’s extermination, from obtaining international approval for its nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, a powerful one, is done. It was both morally and strategically (if not tactically) the right thing to do. However, it is time to put aside wishful thinking that Obama, a man not known for flexibility or respect of dissenting views, will have a change of heart due to Bibi’s words. Likewise, it is unlikely that Congress will be able to substantially influence events or the terms of this deal, except on the margins. Obama likely views this Iran deal as his signature foreign policy accomplishment (at least until it blows up on another president’s watch), and it will likely only be stopped by the Iranians themselves and an internal dispute between their “moderates” and hardliners. Netanyahu can derail the deal by militarily attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, but I think that ship sailed in 2012. Such Israeli attacks are unlikely until breaches in Obama’s Iran deal begin to surface in coming years.

Therefore, it is probable that a nuclear deal will be consummated that leaves Iran with a short-term nuclear breakout option (i.e., a year under optimistic circumstances). Bibi (if re-elected) should next expect an unfriendly White House that will be focused on ramming a bad Palestinian deal down Israel’s throat, and that will be indifferent to Iranian territorial grabs that masquerade as anti-ISIS action. Accordingly, Israel will most probably be on its own in deterring more aggressive Iranian hostile actions in its neighborhood. Iran will be emboldened by newly found diplomatic and commercial access, even as it creeps closer to possessing a nuclear umbrella for increasingly nefarious actions by itself and its proxies.

In other words, the noose is going to get tighter around Israel’s neck — unless it modifies its strategy to effectively deter its existential enemy and pre-nuclear regional hegemon, Iran.

The Iranians, via proxies, are in the midst of surrounding Israel, from the Lebanese frontier, to the Syrian Golan Heights, and to Gaza through its renewed relationship with a hard-pressed Hamas. The West Bank could be next for the penetration of Iranian influence as the PA falters. Manipulating these levers, the Iranians can slowly strangle Israel and sap it of its vitality by enabling a multi-front war of attrition. The fear is that a  rocket here, a terrorist tunnel there, undermining the normality of every day life in Israel, could ultimately lead to excessive emigration, a brain drain and ruinously expensive levels of constant preparation. The alternative, of course, could be full, multi-front warfare for Israel, with rocket barrages, other forms of terrorist asymmetrical warfare and even actual invasion of Israel, conventionally or through tunnels (as was planned by Hamas for this past Rosh Hashanah, fortunately interrupted by Operation Protective Edge). For those who rest assured with Iron Dome overhead, please consider this: multiply the enemy rocket attacks in the past wars by a factor of ten, make them much more precise with Iranian rocket guidance technology – which will overwhelm any number of Iron Dome batteries — and you have an unlivable Israel and a big, big war.

The Israeli dilemma in deterring the Iranians is that, until now, Iran has successfully employed and hidden behind this proxy warfare and international terrorism as a core tool of its foreign policy, for which Iran pays no significant military or political cost. Iran is an extremist Islamic state almost as much at odds with Western culture as is ISIS, and has proven very successful at expanding its power base across a Shiite crescent of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, down into the Arabian peninsula into Yemen, and at times, with Hamas in Gaza. It has achieved this not through direct invasion by Iranian armies, but by the prolific arming and training of local proxies, which then tend to follow Iranian foreign policy directives. Iran has been both bold and careful in its tactics with these proxies, advocating aggressive military or terror activity against Israel at moments that suit Iran, often led or even manned by Iranian military “advisors” from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), while at the same time providing Iran the thinnest of veils of political deniability (i.e., Iran didn’t pull the trigger, Hezbollah did). At no direct price to Tehran, the Iranians have killed many hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq and Lebanon through Shiite militias and Hezbollah proxies, and the Israelis have suffered thousands of rocket strikes and numerous military and civilian casualties at the hands of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.

Due mostly to political expediency, both the US and Israel have created a monster in Iran by, incredibly, not holding Iran directly accountable (except through economic sanctions) for the actions of its proxy creations.

To “deter” is to discourage someone from doing something by instilling fear of the consequences. Today there is no effective deterrence of Iran’s destructive use of terrorists and proxy warfare, a situation that will get only worse following conclusion of this nuclear deal and Iran’s relief from sanctions.

A change is necessary a paradigm shift in Iran’s cost-benefit analysis must take place. It is time for Israel, if not also the United States, to declare that Iran will be held directly and militarily accountable for the acts of its proxies and its shadow agents from the IRGC. If rockets are fired at Israel by groups aided and abetted by Iran, Israel will retaliate by firing missiles at or taking other direct actions against appropriate targets in the Iranian homeland, period. The bold, public declaration of such a rule by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Netanyahu Doctrine, could do more to deter Iranian actions than any amount of negotiating or threatening. In warfare that is fought asymmetrically by foes of the west, symmetry would be partially reestablished – a regional power could no longer attack another regional power indirectly and get away with no direct consequence.

If Hezbollah, armed, trained and funded by Iran, fires a rocket barrage at Tel Aviv or Haifa or perpetrates a terrorist attack inside Israel or on Israeli targets abroad, should not the kingpins in Tehran who enabled, planned, manned and/or may have called for that strike be held directly responsible, in a public manner? If Iranians knew that Israel would respond to attacks on Israeli territory with a missile fired at IRGC headquarters in Tehran, for example, in accordance with a previous, publicly stated policy of direct retaliation, would the attack on Israel have occurred in the first place? That is deterrence. While the Iranian leadership talks a good game of martyrdom, would they wish to take the risk that these Israeli counter-attacks expose to domestic ridicule Iranian propaganda about its military strength, and subject Iran’s expensive, adventurist foreign policy to domestic protest? The Iranian theocracy, already deemed illegitimate in large swaths of Iranian society, has a lot more to lose than Hamas or Hezbollah.

This is not just an issue of military deterrence. It is not moral for Israel’s leaders to allow Iran to make the territory of Israel the battlefield, with no real threat of retaliation on Iranian soil. Politically, a clearly stated doctrine like this would provide Israel some cover in international forums if it were forced to attack Iran. Yes, Israel can be lambasted for not sufficiently “proving” that the Hezbollah attack on Israel was directed by Iran or that the attack was “disproportional” (e.g., not enough Israeli blood was spilt in the precipitating attack due to missile defense successes), However,  Israel faces those challenges now when they retaliate against Hamas rocket attacks, and has never had a problem successfully garnering proof of Iranian complicity in the dealings of its immediate enemies.

In enforcing the Netanyahu Doctrine, Israeli retaliation for aggressive actions by Iranian proxies is easier to defend in the court of international public opinion than pre-emptive Israeli strikes. However, in a corollary to this doctrine, Israel must also keep the Iranians and their proxies off of its borders, and that would likely require preemptive action. For better or for worse, Lebanon is already under effective Hezbollah/Iranian control, where Israel can only influence Hezbollah around the margins by, for example, enforcing red lines against the transfer of certain sophisticated weaponry. However, Iran and Hezbollah are now seriously creating a second front with Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights, re-conquering this area in the name of the Assad regime. Israel has already taken some action to attempt to deter Iranian and Hezbollah presence there, killing an IRGC general and Hezbollah leaders in an aerial attack last month, but it will have to do more and be more public, because this is territory the Iranians and Hezbollah mean to occupy. Israel already provides tacit medical and other non-lethal material support to Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, and it must look for ways to increase aid and cooperation, up to and including contemplating declaring a military no-fly/no-drive zone in the UN demilitarized area of the Syrian Golan Heights to protect rebel troops on the border — fully knowing that there are no good choices and very few good allies to be had in Syria.

Statesmen prefer to avoid red line public policy doctrines like my Netanyahu Doctrine, keeping these policies unofficial or private, so that they can be walked back or skirted without public embarrassment or diminution of the effectiveness of future “red lines”. However, certain policies, those related to the cornerstones of national survival, should not be “walked back” or risk being rationalized away – these policies need to be declared publicly to avoid potentially tragic miscalculations by the enemy. The declaration of a clear public doctrine by a leader on behalf of his nation, whether by Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, Begin or Netanyahu, deters adversaries by telling them conclusively what your nation will do. Pronounced doctrines that create real red lines (not mushy Obama red lines) provide a greater level of deterrence and protects the peace by delineating for the enemy the greatest level of certainty of action.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the ultimate embodiment of deterrence, was a US doctrine during the Cold War resting on the assumption that each of the US and Soviet Union would inflict unacceptable nuclear damage on the other in retaliation for a nuclear attack, thereby successfully deterring both sides from commencing a nuclear attack.

In short, certainty of clear, costly retaliatory action maintains deterrence, and peace.


About the Author
After earning his B.A. in International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Blum went on to obtain his law degree at the University of Chicago, practiced law, worked on Wall Street and eventually built several successful asset management businesses. However, he never lost his first love of thinking and writing about international affairs, nor of his love of Zion, best developed during eight summers at Camp Massad in the Poconos. He is active in several Jewish charities, including as chairman of the board of HonestReporting, a media watchdog group, which is not responsible for the content of this blog.
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