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The Long Play

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I’m not terribly interested in the project of calling Jeffrey Goldberg out as a propagandist; he’s Jeffrey Goldberg, so of course he’s a propagandist. As I suggested yesterday, I don’t find the claims put forward in the article particularly new or revelatory. Essentially the same argument was put forth in a “major” article in the January 2007 New Republic by Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi. I’d rather read Oren directly than have Goldberg as a mediator, but whatever. What I’m more interested in is the Israeli strategic mindset that Goldberg depicts. The two article have the same central argument: Iranian nukes pose an indirect threat to the long term survival of Israel, and the United States should do something about that.

First on timelines. Goldberg writes:

I have been exploring the possibility that such a strike will eventually occur for more than seven years… The reasoning offered by Israeli decision makers was uncomplicated: Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability (often understood to be the capacity to assemble more than one missile-ready nuclear device within about three months of deciding to do so)

Allowing that Goldberg emphasizes the period since July 2009, I have to wonder how long Israelis have been telling him that Iran is 1-3 years away from a bomb. To put it as delicately as possible, Israel has a robust history of either a) being wrong, or b) lying about Iran’s progress on a nuclear weapon. Assuming that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (and I believe it does, even if I don’t believe it represents justification for war), it has progressed at a rate far slower than that predicted by the Israelis. Since I don’t believe that Israeli intelligence is really that bad, I have to conclude that the Israelis have consistently been lying about their estimates of Iranian nuclear capability. For example, the 2007 Oren and Halevi article asserted that “according to Israeli intelligence, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb as soon as 2009.” I’m not naive; this is the international system, and even friends lie. There’s no injunction, however, to believing those lies or failing to call them out. What the nature of these lies indicate, however, is that the key purpose of these articles is to convince the United States to do something.

One of the key points of both the Goldberg and the 2007 TNR articles is that while Israelis are happy to tell the rubes in the United States that Iran is planning to commit national suicide by lobbing a nuclear warhead at Tel Aviv, they don’t actually seem to believe it:

The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.

“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.

Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.

“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”

Three observations. First, I think it’s plausible that the Israeli strategic leadership really believes this. Although there’s good reason to believe that they’re exaggerating these claims in order to convince the United States to go to war, it’s hard to say something like this over and over again without coming to believe it. Second, by publicly making outsized claims regarding the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, they actually make the situation worse; if the problem is that people will believe the Iranians are insane and thus leave, then talking about how insane the Iranians are all the time doesn’t help the perceptual problem. Third, the belief that an Iranian nuclear weapon can destroy Israel by osmosis is palpably insane, regardless of how firmly Netanyahu believes it.

This last clearly bears elaboration. First, the actual mechanism of how the Iranian bomb is supposed to destroy Israel without being dropped are deeply suspect. I discussed the violence this argument did to reality back when the Halevi and Oren article came out, and nothing has changed since then. There isn’t the faintest reason to believe that any of the mechanisms that the Israelis discuss (more rockets, more terrorism, etc.) will actually be affected by the presence of an Iranian nuke.  The stability-instability paradox (the idea that high level nuclear stability produces low level conventional instability) is important, but doesn’t preclude response to conventional provocation by proxies.  The United States, after all, waged open war against several Soviet proxies during the Cold War.  I expect that the Israelis will promptly bomb the bejeezus out of Hamas and Hezbollah as soon as Iran goes nuclear, just to reinforce perceptions of “resolve” and “credibility.”

Second, an Israeli strike on Iran cannot solve the problem. If the issue is really a feeling of insecurity on the part of Israelis, then the very existence of an Islamic Republic of Iran with an interest in developing a nuclear weapon provides that insecurity, whether or not the weapon is ever developed. Israel could probably delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, but no one thinks that it can completely destroy the program. Barring either regime change or the annihilation of Iran (and even the former might not do the trick), the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon would do precisely the work that Israel’s leadership claims an actual warhead will do; create uncertainty. Nevertheless, Goldberg badly misrepresents the effects of the Osirak strike, suggesting that it ended Iraq’s nuclear program when in fact it appears to have accelerated that program. What ended that program was a major war in 1991 combined with a long campaign of sanctions and bombing, followed by another major war in 2003. This is beyond Israel’s capability, which is probably why the US is being so aggressively pushed towards war. Joshua Pollack details the nonsense of the idea that an Israeli bombing campaign could permanently prevent Iran from developing a nuke. The Israelis are proposing an extremely short-term solution to what they themselves assert is a problem that will play out on the scale of decades.

Finally, this entire concept rests on the notion that Israel has enjoyed some fundamental level of existential security that will be lost if Iran finds a nuke is, to reiterate, mind-boggling insane. It’s ISRAEL, for crying out loud. The entire national myth is built around the idea of existential vulnerability, just as the myths of the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars are predicated on the notion that if something had gone wrong, the Arabs might have pushed the Jews into the sea. The conflict with the Palestinians is invariably depicted in existential terms; Hamas cannot be negotiated with because it threatens Israel’s existence. The idea that some nebulous concern about an event that even Israel’s leaders do not believe likely will drive Jews to resettle elsewhere is absurd on its face. If the Swedes suddenly faced an existential crisis, I’d be interested in thinking about how that might affect Swedish society, immigration patterns, etc.   Israel was built around the idea of permanent existential crisis.

It’s also more than a little irritating that both the Goldberg and the Halevi/Oren articles try to construct the Iran situation as a US problem.  We are simultaneously asked to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people, AND that it really, really poses a more serious threat to the United States.  The best I can say about this is that it’s incoherent; no one will be moving out of the United States because of a fear of Iranian nukes.

And this is where it would have been useful to have somebody that wasn’t Jeffrey Goldberg conduct the various interviews. While I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to the case for war could have gotten the access that Goldberg enjoyed, it nevertheless would have been nice if Goldberg had brought up these objections.  They aren’t particularly complicated or novel.   What he did manage to do was transmit Israeli propaganda to a US audience.   I preferred the propaganda when it came directly from Israeli officials.

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  • Malaclypse

    The reasoning offered by Israeli decision makers was uncomplicated: Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability

    I’ve always wondered something, and never seen it addressed: we always see how Country X is at most Y years away from a bomb, but we never see context. Einstein wrote his letter to FDR in 1939. The Manhattan Project did not get fully underway until 1942. The bomb was, obviously, built with technology available in the early 1940s.

    Given all that, it seems to me that any country that is not an economic/technological basket case is at most 3-6 years away, should they decide to pursue this.

    Am I missing something here? My apologies if this is a stupid question, but it seems almost anyone should be reasonably close to a bomb, should they wish one.

    • Robert Farley

      Not a stupid question. Not every country is six years away from a bomb; the United States in World War II was able to build a bomb from scratch by utilizing a tremendous percentage of the gross national product during wartime, when no one else knew what was going on. For lots of countries (say Syria or Myanmar) this is simply not an option; materials aren’t available, space isn’t available, and a wartime economy that can be easily converted into military production isn’t available. While some countries are very close to a bomb, should they want one (Japan, for example), and some countries could easily develop a bomb in 3-4 years (any major European country), for other countries six years would probably be way too optimistic.

      • Malaclypse

        Thank you. Myanmar is a good example of the sort of state I had assumed could not easily assemble a bomb, while it surprises me Syria could not.

    • BillCinSD

      Also, quite a few scientists were deployed to work more or less solely on the A-Bomb. Overall the US had 30 sites employing around 130,000 people and spent the equivalent of $22 billion dollars (if Wikipedia can be believed)

  • John F

    I’d be very wary of making too many assumptions about what other people believe to be true. You see all the time that so and so “has to know ____” or so and so “can’t possibly believe _____”.

    It is within the realm of possibility that what Mr. Farley says about the mindsets of the Israelis and the Iranians is true, it is also within the realm of possibility (despite Mr. Farley saying it isn’t) that what Mr. Goldberg says is true.

    It’s far more likely that neither is accurate enough to bet anyone’s life on it.

    My guess? In the coming years both Israel and Iran will be too consumed by internal matters (possibly to the point of civil war*) to really care about the other.

    *At some point the ultra orthodox haredim are just going to poke everyone else in the eye one time too often…

    • Robert Farley

      John F,

      Entirely reasonable, although in the case I do largely accept Goldberg’s characterization of Israeli beliefs. I think he’s probably right to say that they convinced themselves that Iran represents an existential threat, even as they’ve treated that threat as indirect rather than direct.

  • BillCinSD

    Is it necessarily surprising that little new or revelatory material was included by Goldberg? This article seems more aimed at driving the discourse to put someone bombing Iran soon into the center of the discourse window. As such it seems to have succeeded rather well.

  • Sisi

    All the rhetoric is warmed over, from the circa 1997 “Parthia delenda est” mantra that gets rolled out every year at AIPAC conventions to Barak’s fantasy of making Israel a destination for Americans. I’m a Jew with ties to an old Yerushalmi family, and as far as I’m concerned, the Promised Land is the Upper West Side. Next year in Manhattan!

    Sweden did have an existential crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. One million Swedes had voted with their feet, mostly choosing America. The Swedish government wrote to as many of these expats as they could find, asking them why they left and what it would take to bring them back. They tabulated the responses, and began to implement the social changes that would eventually lead to (gulp!) socialism, and not only was the exodus halted, some people did in fact return to Sweden.

  • Simple Mind

    I would count Wolf Blitzer as Goldberg’s comrade-in-arms, and he has even more access via CNN.

  • Mojo

    Outstanding post.

  • “I’d rather read Oren directly than have Goldberg as a mediator, but whatever.”

    You do realize that Goldberg’s policy prescription contradicts what you say Oren advocates?

    Your argument against the Israeli argument Goldberg reports appears to rest on the assertion that “Iran is extraordinarily unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel”, which seems to beg the question. Also, what about the risks of a regional nuclear arms race?

    Re 1-3 years and 2009 etc., that’s appears internally consistent if Iran hasn’t been steadily working as hard as they could on acquiring a nuclear capability. It’s been my impression that Iran’s program has had varied impetus over the years, in part because of the IAEA, perhaps in part due to work hardening their facilities – is this unfounded?

    • Yes. It’s pure fear-mongering and lying by Israel and their apologists.

      To put the lies in context, Israel said that crap about Iraq and it wasn’t until AFTER Israel bombed them that Iraq got serious. And even then, their program was pathetic and not likely to result in operation weapons in any foreseeable period.

      Yet we were constantly hammered with the “bomb scare” lies. Many people, to this day, believe Saddam had an active, viable nuclear weapons program.

      Just as two-thirds of Americans now believe Iran has nuclear weapons. Which it does not have and is not capable of building.

      So we continue on with the lies. With the rankest and basest of propaganda that Iran, the new “Evil Muslim-Nazi” regime-target is been “just around the corner” from the bomb.

      A lie that has been asserted for thirty years. One that is readily believed by our ignorant populace and endorsed by our spineless, craven politicians.

      Which, of course, the hard-liners in Israel are perfectly aware. After all, why do you think Netanyahu said this back in 2001: “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in the way.”

  • I did some research on this issue years ago. Iran has been between 1 and 10 years away from “the bomb” since 1980.

    Here’s an opinion from 1995…:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/05/world/iran-may-be-able-build-atomic-bomb-5-years-us-israeli-officials-fear.html

    In this article, from 1995, Iran was “five years” away…

    There are more, but they’re pre-Internet and you’d need a specialized search service, like the Lexisnexis library search engine service, to find them.

  • Anonymous

    From the linked NYT article:

    “If the Iranians maintain this intensive effort to get everything they need […]”

    Have the Iranians been working hard all this time (say for a few years after 2003)? There are certainly some downsides to becoming a nuclear power, esp. for a poor country, and esp. for one with a neighbor threatening or bluffing an attack, or with a borderline (at least) insane govt in DC?

    More from the NYT:

    “A prominent specialist on Iran, Dr. Shahram Chubin of the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva, who is the author of a recent article on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, agrees that the Iranians could have nuclear weapons within five years.”

    Ok, is the IAEA credible as showing this is an issue of serious concern?

  • Nevertheless, Goldberg badly misrepresents the effects of the Osirak strike, suggesting that it ended Iraq’s nuclear program when in fact it appears to have accelerated that program.

    What’s even more fun about this: when it suited his purposes (cheerleading for the war in Iraq), Goldberg was more than happy to acknowledge that the Osirak bombing actually accelerated Iraq’s nuclear program. Now that it no longer suits his purposes, that fact has been discarded.

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