Israel Gets Real on Iran

Guest Post: Trita Parsi The distinction between the apocalyptic rhetoric Israeli leaders use publicly in relation to Iran, and the more pragmatic view they hold among themselves on how to deal with Tehran and its nuclear program, has long been clear to anyone paying very close attention. In short, it’s clear that many of Israel’s key leaders don’t believe Iran is a suicidal ideologically-crazed regime that would risk destroying itself in order to destroy Israel, and therefore that even a nuclear-armed Iran would not be an “existential threat” to Israel, although clearly it would present a major strategic challenge by fundamentally reordering the balance of military force in the region. And of late, some of them have begun a gingerly but very clear retreat from the idea that Israel will have to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if no one else does — President Shimon Peres has said as much, publicly, and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has echoed that position. I asked Rootless Cosmopolitan’s favorite Iran expert, Dr. Trita Parsi, to weigh in on the basis of his extensive research and interviews with many of the key decision-makers on the Israeli and Iranian sides. Trita’s book Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the Israeli-Iranian relationship, and why there’s plenty of room for pragmatic coexistence.

Israel Gets Real on Iran

By Trita Parsi

On the eve of his departure from political life, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert delivered a stinging parting shot – putting under question not only the wisdom of holding on to Palestinian land, but also the feasibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“We have to make a decision, one that goes against all our instincts, against our collective memory,” he told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Recognizing that no other Israeli leader ever had uttered these words publicly, Olmert went on to declare that “Israel must withdraw from almost all, if not all” of the West Bank to achieve peace.

On Iran, Olmert argued that Israel had lost its “sense of proportion” when stating that it would deal with Iran militarily. “What we can do with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, we cannot do with the Iranians,” Olmert said, in stark contradiction to his own earlier warnings on Iran as well as the rhetoric of many of his hawkish cabinet members. “Let’s be more modest, and act within the bounds of our realistic capabilities,” he cautioned.

Olmert’s interview dashed the hopes of neoconservatives in Washington hoping for an Israeli post-November surprise through the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. With the U.S. facing a financial crisis and Israel’s lacking the “proportions” to take on Iran, the risk for military confrontation with Iran in the last months of the Bush Administration has decreased significantly, according to most analysts.

Olmert’s statement may signal a long-overdue shift towards Israel’s Plan B on Iran. Israel’s first preference had been to pressure the U.S. to exercise its own military option on Iran, and to prevent any diplomatic breakthrough that might cause Washington to accept some level of Iranian uranium-enrichment capability. In this regard, Israeli warnings of its readiness to attack Iran if the U.S. declined to do so served primarily to pressure Washington to launch a military strike. Talk about the Israeli military option was aimed at keeping the American military option on the table.

Since the mid-1990s, a key tenet of Israel’s foreign policy has been to sound alarm bells on Tehran. Originally, the aim was to prevent any thaw between the U.S. and Iran out of a fear that Israeli security interests would be sacrificed in a potential U.S.-Iran deal. Plan A was to nip this in the bud by undermining efforts to pursue diplomacy in the first place.

This policy did not lack critics, however. An internal Israeli Iran-committee in the early 1990s led by former commander of the Israeli air force, David Ivry, concluded that the aggressive Israeli rhetoric had prompted Iran to turn its focus towards Israel. Iran has enough problems in the region, the committee argued, there was no need to make Israel shine any brighter on Iran’s radar.

As Iran’s power grew in the region, Israeli concerns grew accordingly. The more Iran could present itself as an indispensible actor in the region, the greater the risk of a U.S.-Iran accommodation. Left with few good options, and an unwillingness to consider how a U.S.-Iran deal could change Iran’s behavior towards Israel, the inclination in Israel was to intensify the very policy its Iran-committee had warned against.

But while Israel’s Iran hawks argued against U.S.-Iran diplomacy, they had a hard time digesting the Bush Administration’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian diplomacy. The contradiction in the Israeli position was evident during AIPAC’s conference earlier this summer. Ephraim Sneh – a leading Iran hawk of Israel’s Labor Party – argued passionately against U.S.-Iran diplomacy while making an equally passionate case for diplomacy Syria. His justification was that in case of war, the Israeli public must know that every stone had been turned before their young men and women were sent to battle. On Iran, however, Sneh did not acknowledge the same justification.

Olmert’s valedictory interview may be the first small steps towards a Plan B on Iran – one that takes as its point of departure the new regional realities: A balance of power that has shifted away from Israel, and an Iran that is unlikely to unlearn the technology of enriching uranium. Israel now needs a way out of the prison of its own rhetoric. Repeating statements that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” and using a rhetoric that creates an air of inevitability of war has left the Jewish State with no real options. A more nuanced rhetoric on Iran may have the down-side of reducing pressure on the U.S. to act – “If we don’t talk about Iran, the world will forget about Iran,” as Israeli Iran expert David Menashri put it – but has the up-side of enabling new options to emerge for the Jewish state.

Warning about being “boxed into the corner,” a recent Haaretz editorial offered a clear break from Israel’s Plan A: “The best chance of calming the atmosphere and reducing the threat lies in starting negotiations between the United States and Iran… [I]t is the only route not yet tried and is likely to help moderate Iranian policy. Israel must encourage an American rapprochement with Iran, with the understanding that this will serve the Israeli interest as well.” And in a video by the Jewish Council for Education and Research, several high-ranking Israeli generals throw their weight behind U.S.-Iran diplomacy as a path towards advancing Israeli security.

Still, in spite of the many rising voices against Israel’s losing approach on Iran, the Jewish state is a long way from discarding its Plan A.

Unlike Olmert who recognized the unfeasibility of Plan A while leaving office, Israel’s new Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, may enter office with Plan B in sight. She rejects the idea that Israel “will not be able to live” with a nuclear Iran and says Israel must deal with the challenges it faces. Though Livni won’t go as far as Barack Obama in promising direct diplomacy with Tehran, she may help Israel find a few more options on Iran.

Trita Parsi is the author of “Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.“, a Silver Medal Recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant award for a book on foreign affairs.

This entry was posted in Guest Columns, Situation Report and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to Israel Gets Real on Iran

  1. Rupa Shah says:

    Better late than never, i.e. the realization that WAR RHETORIC does not get anyone anywhere. No one wants another nuclear catastrophe. People in the middle east and everywhere else can breathe easy if cool heads and commonsense prevail.

  2. Alfred says:

    Very interesting. Parsi always seems to be a few steps ahead in predicting what lies in the future. Not sure if he is right this time though, but the integrity of his research and analysis is indisputable.

  3. Matthew says:

    The fact that the US and Israel are learning to live with the idea of a nuclear-capable Iran just shows how fraudulent the scare tactics have been.

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  5. Abs says:

    I approve this message
    WAR RHETORIC does not get anyone anywhere. No one wants another nuclear catastrophe. People in the middle east and everywhere else can breathe easy if cool heads and commonsense prevail.
    I approve this message.

  6. Sam says:

    So, what can or should be done to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons? Do you think Iran should be stopped at all?

  7. Tony says:

    Sam, I’ve written on this previously, here:

    The question is not how to stop Iran getting this or that weapons system, but how to resolve the conflict between the U.S./Israel and Iran. To focus our attention simply on how to stop Iran getting a particular weapons system in the context of an unresolved conflict is ultimately always going to be a losing proposition.

    Israel and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, yet they’re not in conflict. Obviously, we’d all prefer it no one had nuclear weapons, not Iran, not Pakistan, not Israel, India, the US, Russia, China, France or Britain. Absent that, our focus should be on how to resolve and avoid conflicts

  8. spyguy says:


    There is absolutely nothing anyone can do to prevent Iran from continuing to develop nuclear power technology.

    BUT, it is possible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapon technology. The problem is, to achieve than the US, the UK and the Israeli governments are going to have to eat a lot of crow to make it happen.

    This whole problem is almost 100 years in the making. First by the UK, then by the US then later abetted by Israel.

    The US and the UK will have to publicly apologize for forcing the Shah on the Iranian people. The current US government would have to make the US government in 1950 look like a bunch of crazy people (most are dead so only their families will care). Dead people make great scapegoats.

    The whole Islamic world domination theme will have to be shown to be a lie and dismissed by the US, UK and Israel.

    The US, UK and Israel will have to graciously accept the current government of Iran and sign a non-aggression treaty with it.

    Israel will have to allow full IAEA inspections and sign the NPT.

    Basically Iran wants better relations, but doesn’t trust the US, UK and Israel any farther than they could manually throw a tank. The US, UK and Israel will have to work hard to obliterate their past actions, before things can move on in a rational way.

    No matter what happens, Iran will be a regional power, so it is better to be tolerant acquaintances than major enemies.

  9. Bijan says:

    The truth of the matter is that the current regime in Iran can not survive without a controversy. Who better that US and Israel to have a conflict with! Dictatorships do need an outside enemy, real or madeup, in order to gather the support of their constituents. Iran has no fear of US and Israel, however, it portrays them as it’s enemies in order to sustain itself.

  10. Dara says:

    As a fellow Iranian-American, I disagree with you Bijan. While it’s true that Iran’s government uses controversies and external threats as a way to justify and explain its policies, I don’t see any evidence that they would to continue this status forever.

    While I don’t believe there is going to be another ‘revolution’ in Iran, the mullahs realize fully that the current isolated situation of the country is more likely to lead to economic strife and at least some level of internal unrest, which threatens them. They have every reason to want to calm the waters, if nothing else, it enables them to survive, even if they end up having to give up some of their total control and allow a more democratic environment to develop.

  11. Jayme Riveria says:

    Well it seems finally that reality is finally sinking in (although I won’t hold my breath, the day is still young)that any military conflict with Iran (which isn’t defanged like Iraq was)is going to have a terrible effect on life in the Middle East, Israel will likely be flattened thus retarding the advancement of their civilization and the contribution to humankind…please no war it is not necessary, Israel will be OK, Iran is not a mad country, they just don’t like being kicked around like the Latin American countries have been for centuries.

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  13. Joe the Plumber says:

    All of this hysteria rests on the ASSumption that Iran wants nuclear weapons, even though the NIE reports there is no such program.

    Are Israel’s nuclear weapons an existential threat to the region?

  14. us-commander in iraq says:

    Let me just point out that a nuclear iran will be unstable for the entire region, but, do not underestimate irans power. I am currently on vacation but while in iraq i have seen alot of iran, and a side which isnt revealed in media. Let me put it this way, if they are attacked, us troops will face severe losses and the navy will last longest, but they also will eventually suffer huge losses, and unfortunately tel aviv and other major parts of israel will be destroyed by the ballistic capabilities of iran.

    An airstrike on iranian soil is possible, but while some will be shot down by iranian tor-m1 and possible (not revealed yet) s300 missile system, the consequences will be far worse!

    lets hope there wont be another war because iran is definetely not iraq.

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  18. DE Teodoru says:

    In 2002 I came to suspect that the Bush Administration– through Sec. State Powell– came to a quid-pro-quo with Iran over Iraq, suggested by the presence of Dr. Jafari of the Da’awa Party at the London Conference of Iraqi expatriates and Ayatollah Khoie, both Iranian front men. The US would remove Saddam and Iran could come to dominate the Northeast of Iraq through the Shias and the North through the Kurds. But what intel blind neocons underestimated is Iraqi nationalism, both Shia and Sunni. The Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis, it was assumed would absorb the Sunnis as if they had no sense of Iraq as a nation. Iran would then drop out from the “axis of evil” by signing a more intrusive version of the non-proliferation treaty, abandon nuclear arms development so that Wash DC and Tehran could normalize relations. This notion was reinforced by Hakim’s SCIRI and the Badr Corps moving into US occupied Baghdad and Basra.

    Things, however, do not seem to have worked out as expected. The Iranians double-crossed Bush, the Kuwaitis and Saudis supported a Ba’athist/Sunni Revolt because they feared the US-Israel alliance with Iran. And Sadr’s nationalist Shia Movement proved to be the strongest force in Iraq.

    Given the inadequacy of the US force and the seeming defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran felt that US forces in Iraq, much as in South Korea, were sitting ducks and so the US would never turn on Iran for fear of devastating retaliation against the relatively small US force in Iraq. That North Korea check-mate of the American threat with Chinese connivance by holding US forces on the North-South border under their guns convinced Iran that it could do the same to US forces in Iraq with Russian cooperation, dominating both Southeast Iraq while developing nuclear arms.

    Once again, though bound to the Arabs by need for their oil, the US was drawn into a pact with Iran by the Israelis. Israel had never ceased to workout deals of convenience with Iran in the hope that it might accept Israeli domination of Lebanon, as so well accounted in Parisi’s study:

    The neocons on behalf of the Likud leadership drew the US into a pact with Iran for the dismemberment of Iraq. Though Reagan heeded Amb. Habib’s view of Gen. Sharon as a “murderer” and a “liar,” GW Bush failed to heed the same lessons from the past. Out of his league, Bush was duped by both Sharon and the Ayatollahs and cleaned the neocons out of his administration much too late. To avoid exposure of his failure, he “doubled down” on his show of force policy when Iran broke its deal. That is why Bush is stuck in Irag– because should he pull out, Iran wins in all aspects. The “surge”– much like the flotilla in the Gulf– is a bluff, for Iran can clearly read the American military and political limitations, much as can North Korea. The sole purpose of the surge is to have a US military presence in force, just in case the Sunni “Awakening” decides to move against the Maliki Govt in coalition with the Mahdi Army. But thanks to American efforts to eliminate
    the Sadr Movement, Sadr has now become a creature of Tehran and the Sunnis have nowhere else to go for an Iraqi nationalist coalition but to the Maliki Govt. For his part, Maliki, like all the Middle East Arabs and the Gulf states, wants the US out, preferring to work out an “entre nous Irakains” deal along with the states in the region. Step one in the minds of all governments in the region of any rapprochement between them all is US out of Iraq. Yet, GW Bush is obsessed about his legacy and fears that his neocon-led deal with Iran may devastate his legacy, especially if things collapse on his watch. As a result, because he refuses to submit his forces to Iraqi sovereignty, Bush has obtained no SOFA accord and only wants to dump the whole mess onto the lap of his successor.

    With the US crippled and stalemated by Iran and in exit-mode by Maliki’s demand, Israel fears facing an Arab-Persian Accord, leaving it exposed as never before.

    I left out all the factors that drove me to stringing out this sketch. I would much rather hear what think others on this august list. Perhaps if we get a good debate going I might bring to bear all the suggestive evidence. But let me repeat, none of what I write is “THIS IS IT,” it is all presumptive looking through the Bush fog. Still, it does, I think, deserve discussion.

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  20. American says:

    “”Since the mid-1990s, a key tenet of Israel’s foreign policy has been to sound alarm bells on Tehran. Originally, the aim was to prevent any thaw between the U.S. and Iran out of a fear that Israeli security interests would be sacrificed in a potential U.S.-Iran deal. Plan A was to nip this in the bud by undermining efforts to pursue diplomacy in the first place.”"”

    True story.
    A long time ago I knew a man who had rescued a monkey that had been abused from a traveling animal show.
    The man took the monkey everwhere with him. The monkey was allowed into shops and resturants and places that normally wouldn’t allow pets because everyone knew the pitiful story of the little monkey and they were entranced by it and the cuteness of the monkey so exceptions were made.
    The monkey had his own room in the man’s house and all he had to do was chatter and point to whatever he wanted and the man would get it for him.
    One day a friend remarked to me that he thought the man had spoiled the monkey too much and the monkey was becoming dangerous. The man had brought the monkey into his office and the monkey jumped on the people in the office and was uncontrollable by the man.
    Sometime later I learned that the man and his wife were both in the hospital. The man had taught the monkey to get drinks for them and one day sent the monkey to fetch some cokes from the fridge. The monkey came back with two cokes but didn’t want to give one over to the man, he wanted to keep both. The man tried to take one of the coke bottles from the monkey and the monkey attacked him. When his wife heard the screeching she ran to help and the monkey attacked her. The man almost lost an eye and he and his wife both had to have stitches for the bites and cuts. I never did learn what had happened to the monkey I think he was either put down or given back to some zoo.

    The point of this story about the man and the monkey is it is the story of the US and Israeli relationship.

    So, is it too late to put ‘conditions’ on the monkey’s behavior or will the monkey some day have to be put down?

    We’ll see.

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  23. Kathryn Speranza says:

    How about we just stop sending weapons and funding for weapon to Israel. I am really angry that my tax dollars are being used to kill innocent Palestinians.


  24. …iran can never aquire these weapons……they will be destroyed by israel…..

  25. Hunter Watson says:

    Paranoia lies in Israel’s insistence on defining a nuclear-power-capable Iran as if it necessarily entailed the building of nuclear weapons, i.e., in declaring the former to be an existential threat to Israeli survival when even the latter isn’t.

    Paranoia also lies in the belief that unlike all other nuclear powers the Iranians are nuts and therefore can not be deterred by Israel’s 250 or 300 nuclear weapons. This is a retread of Israel’s portrayal of the Palestinians as nuts to the extent that they can’t be trusted with their own country.

    The first situation provides the obvious opening for American diplomacy to solve the problem on the basis of flooding the country with international inspectors so that weapons grade enrichment and actual nuclear bomb engineering research does not take place.

    The second is mere racism tricked out to frighten Americans.

    Israel’s political maturity and emotional stability in management of her own foreign policy are really what’s in question. What she needs is an objective and experienced tough-love nanny in the form of an American or European Viceroy to run her affairs at least until she matures enough to live as if she were just another country, nothing special at all. Given the last 30 years of semi-hysteria that’s the solution, something like a “time out” for a nine year old, but I admit it’s hard to imaging a normal Israel.

    The Viceroy’s first decree will be to the effect that Israeli politicians will play no political role in the U.S. whatever, none. There will not even be telephone or computer links. This will be on penalty of exile to the Negev to live in tents the rest of their lives.

  26. and while going through yoru post i completely lost track of what i was doing. nice post.

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