It’s been almost a year since I posted on another site about the dangerous theater of confrontation between Israel and Iran.
Iran has an imperative to confront, and Israel has an imperative to deter a serious threat. No change there.
The big change over the past year has been successful American efforts to pressure Iran to prove their contention that they have no nuclear weapons program.
This is not to say that Iran is a state run by misunderstood teddy bears. If Iran wanted to allay the world’s fears they might, for example, stop parading ballistic missiles painted with slogans about destroying Israel. But holding stiff pointed sticks isn’t the same as attacking.
In recent weeks I’ve written about the way nuclear escalation is meant to work, and about the uncertainty of any attack on Iran. The dynamics of escalation are important now, as are the uncertainties of war: nobody has attacked anybody and the Iranians look ready to de-escalate.
The United States has pushed itself up the escalation ladder, positioning and exercising naval forces in the Persian Gulf, leaking loudly about the enormous bombs they can drop from super-stealthy B2 bombers and tightening the screws on Iran through sanctions.
This has been well-calculated by the American policy people. Noisy threats against Iran support the Khamenei regime’s narrative and unify the country against external enemies. We’ve all seen this happen: effigies of the President of the United States dressed as a cowboy, makeshift American flags torched by members of the Pasdaran dressed as ordinary protesters. It helps the Iranian regime, and it helps Hizballah too.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, did something ambassadors occasionally need to do: he talked rubbish for his country. He said that an attack on Iran would be worthwhile even if it only delayed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability by a year.
Why is this rubbish? Because he didn’t define his terms: if a raid on Iran delayed an Iranian nuclear device for 100 years and nobody unintended was killed in consequence of the raid, then it would be worthwhile. Of course it would be worthwhile.
If a raid on Iran delayed an Iranian nuclear device for a year and Israel had to fight a land war in Lebanon while a newly-energised and newly-unified Hizballah rocketed Hadera then perhaps the calculus would be different.
Oren knows that he was talking rubbish because he’s an historian. Historians spend years marking undergraduate papers, writing “DEFINE YOUR TERMS!” in brightly-coloured ink whenever their students talk rubbish, so he definitely knows. But that’s being an ambassador for you.
He did it because he was escalating the rhetoric of confrontation. He was making it clear that even if the Iranians put their entire nuclear programme underneath Fordo Mountain (which they haven’t), it’ll still be worth the Israelis taking a poke at them.
Where I live nobody faults President Obama for being insufficiently threatening to the Iranians. One reason is that even though British flags are burnt alongside Israeli flags, the Iranians aren’t about to chuck a warhead across the English Channel. Another reason is that after standing stalwartly side-by-side with our American allies in two southwest Asian wars the sound of presidents threatening southwest Asians isn’t music to our ears. A third reason is that, from anywhere but Israel, including from Tehran, it looks as though the White House is turning the screws on Iran already.
Make no mistake: a nuclear Iran doesn’t make anyone in Britain happy. Unleashing the suave John Sawers, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, to reveal hints about secret operations means the Prime Minister is taking Iran seriously. Revealing the assessment that Iran will have a weapon in hand by 2014 if they’re not stopped is serious talk indeed.
There has, however, been an indicator that escalation to date is working. Khamenei’s unambiguous public statement that nuclear weapons are not, as it were, kosher takes the pressure off his own government to press their nuclear programme past power production and towards weapons production.
There is another indicator: comparatively little Iranian rhetoric threatening attack against Israel. Apart from some barbs in Khamenei’s statement, it has been pointed out on this website that Iranian rhetoric is anything but fierce. Iranian statements about upcoming combined naval exercises in the Persian Gulf have been placatory, even from the Revolutionary Guards. Israel is still vilified, but in a tired Ahmadi-Nejad way that doesn’t even make the lead of Times of Israel articles. This will facilitate a climb-down when it needs to happen.
The uncompromising approach of Ban Ki-moon at the same moment as Khamenei’s speech made it clear that Iran isn’t going to get off lightly. For anyone used to the UN’s consistent ineffectuality this was significant. This was no Kofi Annan moment: this was a public spanking for Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadi-Nejad has taken an injured tone. The world is making all-out war on Iran. It’s clear he sees Iran losing, and is readying the narrative of longstanding Shi’a victimhood to explain whatever concessions will be wrung from the hands of his negotiators.
Iranian policy is to push as hard as they can, and to pull as hard as they can. If nobody stopped them from making nuclear weapons, they’d make nuclear weapons. But a year on, Iran is hurting and in no mood to be hurt worse.