Seven years ago, Professor Efraim Inbar wrote a document whose bottom line could be summed up as advocating for Israel to attack Iran to stop it from attaining a nuclear capability. This week, Inbar, a political scientist who currently serves as the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, is somewhat encouraged that more and more Israelis have now reached the same conclusion.
To bolster this line of thinking, a poll commissioned this week by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the think tank headed by Dore Gold, indicates that 60 percent of the Israeli public believes the only way to stop Iran is by means of a military strike. Inbar agreed to Israel Hayom’s request and invited four research fellows to take part in a discussion aimed at re-examining the Iranian issue.
“We are realists, not just conservatives,” Inbar said. He also offered a reminder of how his scholar colleagues were correct in their analyses of the Arab Spring, the proliferation of the arms race, the peace process, and Turkey’s shift in policy.
Every semester, Inbar begins the first lesson in his war and strategy course by informing students that there are two significant factors that govern relations between states: Who can hurt the other more; and who can withstand the pain more. He wants to apply these two equations to the Iran issue. “We need to ask ourselves, what goal have the Iranians chosen for themselves and what is the price in pain that they are willing to pay?” he said. “That is the only way we will be able to understand what it is they want to do tomorrow.”
“The way to stop Iran is by means of a military assault,” Inbar said. “I don’t believe that sanctions will help. Officials in Tehran view the bomb as their regime’s insurance policy. Their opinion was reinforced by the West’s behavior toward the Libyan regime. The former ruler of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, gave up nuclear weapons and eventually was removed from power. If he would have developed nuclear weapons, it would be reasonable to assume that the West wouldn’t cause him any trouble.”
“If the Ayatollahs’ regime comes into possession of nuclear weapons, it will be very difficult to create an effective level of deterrence in the future,” he said. “I also don’t agree with assessments that a second strike is effective enough since this is a dynamic process that requires [Israel] to improve itself in relation to the enemy’s capabilities. Iran’s development of the bomb would trigger a nuclear arms race. In a relatively compact region [like the Middle East], deterrent systems and short distances bear critical significance.”
Trust no one
Inbar minces no words, in expressing his unequivocal view that Israel cannot trust the United States. The era of American deterrence in the region is over. In the short term, the Americans are preoccupied with elections. In the long term, it is uncertain as to whether there will still be a window of opportunity for an attack. Yet even if that window closes, the Americans still believe negotiations can solve everything.
The promises the Americans are making now will not stand up in another month. A history of U.S.-Israel relations teaches us that there have been a great number of promises that haven’t been honored, like the Bush letter regarding settlement blocs that has not been adopted by President Barack Obama.
“States act according to their interests, and they are flexible,” Inbar said. “At the end of the day, you have to be realistic. The world wants quiet. The world wants oil at a reasonable price. If Israel disrupts this calm and upsets global economic stability, the international community will do everything to prevent us from launching a military attack. Another thing is that there are people who say the Iranians are rational. But what if the person who makes this assessment is 10 percent wrong? There is no reason to trust the Iranians.”
Despite his firm beliefs, Inbar knows that the enemy can be unpredictable when it comes to its response to an Israeli or American attack. “It is reasonable to assume that Iran would react with missiles and terrorism,” he said. “We’ve already seen this. People should always remember what price we will have to pay if we don’t attack and if we don’t have nuclear weapons. There’s also the possibility that they won’t do anything and not respond at all.”
Still, Inbar does add a caveat. “On the other hand, I believe that the regime in Iran, in the event that it knows it will one day no longer be in power, is capable of fomenting destruction, and it would want to exit the stage and go down in history as the one who did damage to Israel,” he said. “That is why we mustn’t allow them to reach the stage [of getting a nuclear weapon].”
Professor Eytan Gilboa, who also teaches at Bar-Ilan University and whose area of expertise is U.S. policy in the Middle East as well as international diplomacy, believes the U.S. cannot afford to allow Iran to gain a nuclear bomb. “If Iran goes nuclear, the U.S. would for all intents and purposes lose its position in the Middle East and its hegemony on a global level,” he said. “The Americans are aware of this possibility, and that is why they are constantly declaring they won’t allow it to happen.”
“A nuclear Iran would mean that from now on, Iran is the actor that wields the most influence on governments in the Middle East, not the U.S.,” he said. “Obviously this would give a boost to all of the extremists in the region, which would result in damage to the global economy, the world’s energy markets, and the ability of states to monitor the spread of atomic weapons by way of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.”
To boost his argument, Gilboa also cites America’s guiding principles. “The administration vows that it won’t allow Iran to go nuclear,” he said. “Here we are dealing with the credibility of the U.S. government. They say they will employ whatever means they have at their disposal. To me, this sounds more like an empty slogan. Many within the administration as well as those outside it say that it is impossible to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon. They say the price of a non-nuclear Iran would be higher than that of a nuclear Iran.”
“In the event that Iran does go nuclear, there are two choices: Either halting the program and bolstering deterrence, or containment and deterrence,” he said. “On the surface, the Americans say that containment is not an option. But in the next breath they talk out of both sides of their mouth and begin leaking stories about how they won’t allow an attack on Israel and don’t support it. Officials in Washington don’t want to reach a fork in the road where they’ll have to decide between a nuclear Iran or a military operation.”
“At this stage, the Americans want to exhaust the option of negotiating with the Iranians, and the Iranians, for their part, are not ruling out talks,” Gilboa said. “The question remains: What do you base the negotiations on? The Iranians want talks so that they can move forward with their nuclear program. The Americans want negotiations so that they can stop the nuclear program. And then you have people in Israel and abroad who say, ‘Give negotiations a chance.’ But why? Germany, the U.K., and France held talks with Iran for five years that went nowhere, and eventually they came to the conclusion that Iran was being deceptive in order to continue with its plans. So any attempt by the West to hold talks is playing into Iranian hands.”
“The sanctions and negotiations could work only if the threat of military action was hovering over the Iranians’ heads,” he said. “Since the Americans aren’t wielding this threat, the Iranians understand that while life may be a bit tougher with sanctions, that’s it. They could still move forward with their nuclear program.”
The U.S. has lost its way
Professor Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, is less optimistic. In his view, the Americans and the Israelis are both a long way away from understanding the reality in the Middle East. “Since 2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq, the Saudis have gradually lost faith in their most important ally, the U.S. The results of American policy in the Gulf have all proven detrimental to the Saudis,” he said. “The situation has gotten so bad in the wake of the Arab Spring that Saudi Arabia finds itself considerably weakened. Riyadh has understandably asked itself, ‘Is this how the U.S. supports its allies in the region? This is how Washington supports Hosni Mubarak? This is how it supports [deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali?”
“The Saudis are worried about the Iranian nuclear issue, but they understand that the current administration in power in the U.S. is very limited in its capabilities,” he said. “One of the results of the failed U.S. policies in the region was the Shiite uprising in Bahrain that was staged by just 12 percent of the population that lives near a wealthy, oil-producing region. Saudi Arabia views Bahrain as a kind of protectorate, so the massive Iranian presence there is akin to deploying Soviet missiles in Cuba.”
“The U.S. conduct there led them to the conclusion that they need to be more independent,” he said.
A lack of understanding
According to Prof. Ze’ev Maghen, an expert on Islam and modern Iran who currently sits as the chair of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Bar-Ilan University, the West is suffering from a terrible case of ignorance on everything taking place in Iran as well as its relationship with the West and Israel. He was irked by President Shimon Peres’ speech in Washington last month, during which he called on the Iranian people to return to their illustrious past and abandon Islamization.
“The ignorance is also evident in the intelligence assessments in the West as well as the attempt to search for a bomb,” he said. From his standpoint, one can clearly reach the conclusion that the Iranians are building a bomb just by listening to what they are saying.
“They have every reason in the world to build an atomic bomb,” he said. “If I were the president of Iran, I would also make sure my country would have a nuclear weapon. Iran is surrounded by traditional enemies, like Russia and the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are using Israel to try to unite the Muslim world under its leadership.”
“Since Mecca, which belongs to the anti-Sunni Wahhabi movement, cannot be the focal point of the Muslim world, there is one place that can unite all the aspirations of various sects in Islam, and that place is Jerusalem,” he said. “That explains [the Muslim] desire to conquer it. We are speaking in completely different languages and our worldviews are also totally different. It is hard for us to understand what a theocracy really is. The West doesn’t understand this reality, one in which a country’s population views the Quran and holy scripture as the last word.”
“Here in Israel, people are always looking for the hidden meaning behind statements,” he said. “They ask, ‘Okay, but what is really happening? Is this a political issue? An economic issue?’ This is where we make the same mistake time and again. The same goes for our attempts to understand the process taking place in Egypt. Here there were those who interpreted the events in Egypt as an oppressed population that rose up to demand its rights. There are obviously masses of people there who want their rights protected, but what they really want is the deeper meaning of life that is predicated on Islam. This is the significance of what is taking place, and it is obvious, but people here can’t quite manage to understand this.”
“From Egyptians’ standpoint, we in Israel have for a while now missed the gist,” he said. “There was a time when they referred to us as the ‘Zionist entity.’ Now they are calling us the ‘shopping mall entity.’ In other words, their reason for being is to take a trip to the shopping mall. They look at us and say, ‘They’ve lost it.’”
Professor Hillel Frisch is a political scientist and expert in Middle Eastern politics who teaches at Bar-Ilan University. He is a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the author of a book on security relations between Israel and the Palestinians. His main line of thinking is that over the last 20 years the violent struggle between Israelis and Palestinians has been replaced by an Arab cold war.
There is an ongoing struggle between the camp comprising Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, and the camp of moderate Arab states. “There is one dimension that is gaining steam all the time, and that is the Sunnis being pitted against the non-Sunnis,” he said.
According to Frisch’s theory, the Americans have adopted the view that empires fall at precisely the moment they have the upper hand, which means that they collapse from within. The sun never set on the British Empire, but the British Empire grew dark from within.
According to Frisch, the Americans are preoccupied with battling another empire – China. Still, he notes: “We have the Iranian problem, which threatens to change the reality in the cold war between Sunnis and Shiites. The Americans know there is a tremendous gap between the economic might of the Saudis and their allies and their military capabilities. So they will continue to preserve their superiority.”
Frisch diverges from his colleagues on this issue. “The Americans have an obligation,” he said. “People think that the U.S. is on the decline from the standpoint of being ready to act, but still they have the ability to do this.”
“The U.S. in the era following its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a country with significant power,” he said. “I believe that the U.S. will take care of the Iranian threat if necessary, and it wouldn’t be a difficult battle for the Americans. In my view, the Iranians understand the balance of power perfectly. Unfortunately for us, they are smart enough to get the U.S. not to attack.