Is Netanyahu a principled hero or an opportunist politician? It depends on what you believe about Iran.

Before we get into the credibility of the various parties arguing about Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to realize that nobody has complete knowledge of what is going on, and – except for a few people connected to the intelligence community – all of us know only what Iran, Israel, the U.S., and others want us to know.

Even those who have access to the best available intelligence have to deal with a lot of uncertainty: none of the parties will show their full hand to the others. All sides will deal in misinformation, misdirection, strategic omissions, and outright lies to advance their cause.

So what each of us is left with is a belief about what we find most likely. There is no middle ground in what you believe about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program. Either we are dealing with:

  • Hellbent Iran: Iran is hellbent (literally) on developing a nuclear bomb capability that it intends to use as a threat against rivals and enemies in the Middle East. If you believe this, then you must also believe that every concession the regime makes is only a tactical step in order to meet its objectives. You must also believe that the only remedy is to persuade or force Iran to give up the program entirely and open itself up to intrusive verification by the international community. OR
  • Benign Iran: Iran’s nuclear development only has a peaceful purpose that will remain at safe distance from any kind of breakthrough to weapons development. If you believe this, then you must also believe that the remedy is a negotiated settlement that ensures a credible gap to weapons capability.

Which of these you believe is most likely will also determine what you believe about Netanyahu’s intentions.

If you believe in a hellbent Iran, then you have to accept that Netanyahu has an obligation to do everything he can to prevent Iran from reaching its objectives. Reasonable people may disagree about his approach and his strategy, but they can not gainsay the moral necessity of his cause. You may dislike Netanyahu and/or vehemently disagree with his political philosophy and platform, but you have to accept and expect his efforts to stop Iran.

If you believe in a benign Iran, then it is obvious that Netanyahu is a political opportunist who is fraudulently talking about threats that don’t exist.

The Obama administration believes – or says it does – that Iran is most likely hellbent, but also believes that the tried-and-sometimes-true strategy of exerting pressure, delaying progress, and demanding incremental concessions will save the day. This is a legitimate course of action, though I have yet to see a coherent analysis that justifies it in this case.

Netanyahu believes – or says he does – that this is not sufficient, because the Iranian regime does not respect the commitments it makes, will continue to do whatever it can get away with, and is truly hellbent on achieving nuclear (military) power status.  I think there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support this belief.

But here’s the painful reality: the only way we will ever know which is the case is if Iran launches a nuclear attack on Israel, with all the unimaginable carnage such an attack would cause. Such an attack would cause horror in the US and Europe, panic in the rest of the Middle East, and entirely different postures among other nuclear powers. It would profoundly change every doctrine on the use of nuclear arms.

The effect on Israel (and Iran, should there be retaliation against the attack) would be beyond anyone’s comprehension. It would have immediate and profound effects on the meaning of the Holocaust in history and the place of Jewry in Western civilization.

No reasonable person would argue that the probability of such an attack is negligible should Iran acquire the means, though they may argue how large the probability is (though in truth, nobody knows exactly).

But neither should any reasonable person – and least of all the president of the United States – argue about the cataclysm that would result from such an attack should it occur. People might criticize Netanyahu for being prone to hyperbolic rhetoric, but when it comes to the scenario of a nuclear exchange in the Middle East, I don’t think it’s even possible to overstate the devastation.

Netanyahu is easy to dislike, especially – perhaps – if you are in the executive branch of the US government. And perhaps he would have done better with more finesse, protocol, etc., than what we have seen.

Disliking Netanyahu is not a good reason to downplay the risks that concern him and should under no circumstances affect the US policy on the issue. Even if Netanyahu’s efforts improve his chances at the upcoming elections; even if they play into the hands of US partisan politics; it shouldn’t matter.


About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.