Moshé Machover slams the hypocrisy of an Israeli aggressor state demanding sympathy as a victim state
At the time of writing, the outcome of the Vienna talks about restoring the Iran nuclear deal – the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapon capability – is hanging in the balance.
Should we believe persistent news reports of an ‘unbridgeable gulf’ between the positions of the US (which withdrew from the deal during the Trump presidency) and Iran? Perhaps.
But they could just reflect bargaining postures, as often happens in hard negotiations, which seem to be at the precipice of breakdown before a last-minute agreement.
One thing is sure: Israel, the kibitzer in this political poker game, is doing all it can to prevent any real rapprochement between its US patron and the Iranian bête noire.
What are Israel’s real concerns?
Israeli propaganda repeatedly claims that Iran is aiming to achieve capability to produce nuclear weapons, because it intends to annihilate Israel.
Here is a typical example, from an address by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 15 2015:
Just as the Nazis aspired to crush civilisation and to establish a ‘master race’ to replace it in controlling the world, while annihilating the Jewish people, so too does Iran strive to gain control over the region, from which it would spread further, with the explicit intent of obliterating the Jewish state.
Iran is advancing in two directions: the first is developing the ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons and accumulate a stockpile of ballistic missiles; and the second – exporting the Khomeinist revolution to many countries by heavily using terrorism and taking over large parts of the Middle East.
This is, of course, sheer nonsense. Iran has neither the intention nor the ability to ‘obliterate’ Israel.
Allegations to the contrary are figments of hasbarah, Israel’s efficient factory of falsehoods.
True, Iranian leaders have occasionally expressed the hope that the Zionist regime would collapse and disappear.
But this is wishful thinking rather than a threat that Iran was going to initiate military action to bring about the demise of Israel, as claimed by the Israel-friendly media.
The most notorious instance of this deliberate falsification involved a statement made on October 26 2005 by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He was quoting the Islamic Republic’s first leader’s expectation that “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”.
This was widely misrepresented as a threat to “wipe Israel off the map”.
Moreover, even if Iran achieves “the ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons”, it would pose no existential danger to Israel.
This was emphatically pointed out by Ephraim Halevy, a former chief of Mossad (Israel’s counterpart of the CIA and MI6).
Addressing a conference held in February 2008 in Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies,
Ephraim Halevy slammed Israeli political leaders for calling Iran’s nuclear threat ‘an existential threat’.
“There is something wrong with informing our enemy that they can bring about our demise,” Halevy said.
“It is also wrong that we inform the world that the moment the Iranians have a nuclear capability there is a countdown to the destruction of the state of Israel.
We are the superpower in the Middle East and it is time that we began behaving like [a] superpower,” he said.
Of course, Israel is not indifferent to the prospect of Iran achieving nuclear weapon capability.
But its concern is not fear of being ‘obliterated’; rather, it is worry about any erosion, however slight, of its position as hegemonic regional superpower.
This position depends, among other factors, on its being the only Middle Eastern state possessing a nuclear arsenal, as well as the only one that has refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
It is by far the most aggressive, expansionist state in the region, operating a prolific policy of assassinations; frequent, widely reported bombings in Syria and Lebanon; and attacks at sea on ships carrying Iranian oil.
This state-terroristic practice depends on its enemies and rivals having no effective means of deterrence, as that would tilt the military balance and diminish Israel’s overwhelming advantage.
Iranian nuclear capability could constitute such a deterrent, albeit not a very serious one.
In fact, a more credible deterrent is Iran’s development of conventional missiles that would exact an unacceptably high price in retaliation for an Israeli attack – which is why Israel is lobbying for inclusion of a ban on this development in any revived Iran nuclear deal.
By the way, the same logic applies to Israel’s evident concern about the rather advanced state of missile build-up by Iran’s Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah.
There is no real danger of Hezbollah initiating an aggressive military action against Israel; but its missiles are now a credible deterrent against a repeat of Israel’s extensive, aggressive incursions into Lebanon, or a massive strike against Hezbollah’s patron, the Islamic Republic.
However, from the perspective of preserving Israel’s absolute regional hegemony, the greatest concern is not the purely military one.
It is political. In his lecture, from which I have quoted above, Ephraim Halevy went on to say: “Iran’s real goal [is] to turn itself into a regional superpower and reach a ‘state of equality’ with the United States in their diplomatic dealings.”
This is a rather inept way of putting a valid point.
Of course, Iran can never reach a state of equality with the US in diplomatic dealings; but a détente between the global hegemon and the Islamic republic would certainly upgrade the latter’s regional position.
This would imply some erosion of Israel’s regional hegemony, because it is unlikely that as part of the US-Iran deal the latter would acquiesce in Israel’s leading regional dominance (as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have done).
I have repeatedly pointed out that in this respect Israeli interest may diverge from American ones. For example, a year ago I wrote:
I have my own view on the possibility of an arrangement of some sort between the United States and Iran.
Of course, it would depend on many contingencies, but, as the nuclear deal struck by Barack Obama proved, there are circumstances where it is possible for these two states to come to an agreement. In my opinion, Israeli hostility to Iran is more far-reaching than that of the USA. It would be acceptable for the Americans under certain circumstances to strike such an agreement – provided Iran behaved like an obedient client state. That would involve giving Iran some kind of respect as a major power in the Middle East. But Israel would oppose such an arrangement, because Iran is regarded as an obstacle to its own regional hegemony.
This explains Netanyahu’s vehement efforts to dissuade the US Congress under the Obama administration from signing the 2015 nuclear deal, and his encouragement to Trump to withdraw from the deal (not that Trump needed much encouragement). As several Israeli military commentators pointed out, the US withdrawal left Iran free since 2017 to enrich uranium to a higher concentration, thus coming closer to nuclear weapon capability than while the deal held. Netanyahu’s anti-deal advocacy would indeed have been irrational if his main concern was Iran’s nuclear capability. But it was quite rational, given that his priority was to exacerbate US-Iran relations.
The same logic applies to the Vienna talks. As the well-informed Iranian-American scholar, Trita Parsi, has recently pointed out,
It’s not the nuclear deal that’s the problem for Tel Aviv, but the very idea that Washington and Tehran would reach any detente at all …
[T]he details of the deal are not the real problem. It’s rather the very idea of Washington and Tehran reaching any agreement that not only prevents Iran from developing a bomb, but also reduces US-Iran tensions and lifts sanctions that have prevented Iran from enhancing its regional power …
There is a curious passage in the [New York] Times piece [published on December 10]: “American officials believe that so long as Iran has not moved to develop a bomb it does not have a nuclear military program, since it suspended the existing one after 2003. Israeli officials, on the other hand, believe that Iran has continued a clandestine effort to build a bomb since 2003.” If true, has Israel shared that intelligence with Washington?
If so, it has failed to persuade the CIA and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
If it hasn’t been shared, why not? And why did the Times choose to publish this rather inflammatory allegation without investigating these very basic – not to say critical – questions?
The moral of the story is this: US and Israeli interests on Iran diplomacy are irreconcilable.
Biden’s efforts to square the circle have predictably failed. Biden must choose whether he will pursue America’s interest or Israel. This should not be a difficult choice.
Whatever political differences we may have with Parsi, his diagnosis of Israel’s main concerns is correct.
Israel is doing its damnedest to prevent any agreement in Vienna. It resorts to various provocations, including barely veiled threats of taking major unilateral military action.
In my opinion, the probability of such action – an all-out Israeli attack on Iran – is thankfully not high.
There are no signs in Israel of serious military preparations for this scenario, or of fortifying civilian population centres against expected Iranian and Hezbollah retaliation.
However, escalation of the relatively low-level raids and assassinations that have become routine is most probable; and these can get out of control and lead to an unintended major conflagration.
Meantime, as Akiva Eldar, a senior Israeli political commentator, has recently remarked, what could deflate Israel’s puffed-up bullying posture is a serious proposal for a nuclear demilitarisation of the Middle East. In an article entitled ‘The Iranian threat: no nukes for us – or Israel’, he writes:
Over the years we have learned that when a politician or a general declares that “all options are on the table” he is actually referring to a single option – the military option. Supposedly that’s the only option that will remain to Israel if the negotiations with Iran don’t produce a nuclear agreement that satisfies the political leadership in Jerusalem.
… Has anyone read or heard about preparations for the possibility that Iran will announce that it accepts all the restrictions that the United States wants to impose on it; that in addition, it will allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its nuclear installations without advance warning, and will even agree to extend the treaty by another 15 years – all that, on one condition: that Israel signs exactly the same document?
… As far as is known, the decision-makers in Jerusalem, those who declaim that “all options are on the table”, did not consider the possibility that Iran would pull out the doomsday weapon: an overall agreement for nuclear demilitarisation of the Middle East – including Israel – and acceptance of all the demands. It’s much sexier on television to show helmeted pilots talking about preparations for war.
Akiva Eldar has his tongue firmly in his cheek when warning against this “doomsday weapon”. But the point he is making is serious. We should call for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Israel will, of course, reject the very idea – as it has done in the past – but it will serve to expose its hypocritical stance of an aggressor demanding sympathy as a victim.