The Middle East Channel

Freeing Israel from its Iran bluff

One of the great bluffs in the foreign policy community in the previous decade was that Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran's nuclear facilities unless Washington stepped up and took military action first. With predictable frequency since the mid-1990s, reports emerged claiming that Israel was months, if not weeks, away from bombing Iran. And every time a new dire warning was issued, a new rationale was presented to convince the world that the latest Israeli warning was more serious than the previous one. The Israeli threats, however, were bluffs all along. Israel did not have the capacity to take out Iran's nuclear facilities. But the huffing and puffing ensured that the American military option remained on the table; that Washington would not deviate from the Israeli red line of rejecting uranium enrichment on Iranian soil; and that the Iranian nuclear program was kept at the top of the international community's agenda. 

But the persistent bluffing also carried a price. The Israeli narrative on Iran has grown increasingly alarmist, desperate, and existential over the past 15 years. Inflating the Iranian threat served several purposes domestically. It provided Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres a rationale to push for peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s, while more recently Benjamin Netanyahu has used it to resist pressure from Washington to do just that. But the domestic benefits came at the price of limiting Israel's options and flexibility vis-à-vis Iran. As Israeli politicians built up the Iranian threat and established a near-consensus that Tehran constituted an existential threat, it became increasingly difficult for any Israeli politician to walk back the threat depiction without losing critical political capital at home. As a result, there was a steady escalation of the threat depiction from Iran and no clear ways to de-escalate.

I wrote about this in the Forward in late 2007, pointing out that Israel was suffering from strategic paralysis due to its inability to adjust to the region's new realities and walk back its alarmist position on Iran. Today, Israel's strategic position in the region is at even greater risk. In the past few years, for instance, tensions have steadily increased between Israel and Turkey with the friction reaching a boiling point after the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010. As a result, the strategic alliance with Turkey seems to be lost for the foreseeable future. Now, with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, Israel has lost its most important Arab ally. Thus, the cost of the strategic paralysis is greater today than it was even a few years ago.

Against this backdrop, statements by both Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan in the past few days have stirred the political pot in Israel and made headlines worldwide. Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Dagan said that bombing Iran's nuclear installations would be "a stupid idea," adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war. Numerous Israeli officials have derided him for undercutting the pressure on Iran.

Yet, Dagan is not the first Israeli to contradict the official Israeli line shortly after leaving office. His predecessor at the Mossad, Efrahim Halevi, challenged a related Israeli talking point on Iran after having retired -- the idea that the Iranians are irrational and as a result neither containment nor diplomacy can be pursued. "I don't think they are irrational, I think they are very rational. To label them as irrational is escaping from reality, and it gives you kind of an escape clause," he told me in 2006.

Similarly, on the eve of his departure from political life, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a stinging parting shot in 2008 questioning the feasibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Olmert told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth 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. "Let's be more modest, and act within the bounds of our realistic capabilities," he cautioned.

One of the few Israeli leaders who has consistently cautioned against Israel's alarmist line on Iran is current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Earlier this week, he warned against hysteria on the Iranian threat and argued that Iran is unlikely to attack Israel with a nuclear bomb. "I don't think in terms of panic," he said. "What about Pakistan, some political meltdown happens there and four bombs wind up in Iran. So what? So you head for the airport? You close down the country? Just because they got a shortcut? No. We are still the most powerful in the Middle East." Barak's position on this matter is not new. He warned against making Israel a target of Iran by inflating the Iranian threat as far back as 1993. "We should, therefore, not create a climate of hysteria by setting ourselves up as Iran's main target," Barak said according to Agence France Presse.

Dagan's challenge to the official Israeli line may have been calculated to do exactly what no sitting Israeli Prime Minister seems capable of doing -- breaking the strategic paralysis, and to stop painting Israel in a corner where pressure on the U.S. to attack Iran chips away from Israel's credibility due to its repeated inability to fulfill its threats.

If so, Dagan's move may not just enable Israel to more effectively adjust itself to the new regional realities, it may also enable Washington to address the broader set of challenges presented by Iran that have been neglected -- which include Iran's regional policies, its human rights abuses, and the repression of the Iranian people's struggle for democracy. Dagan's injection of realism, by reducing the nuclear hysteria that has inhibited America's maneuverability, may free Washington to paint itself out of its own nuclear corner and begin working to address the totality of the Iranian challenge.

Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.

AFP/Getty images

Marc Lynch

The What Cooperation Council?

The Gulf Cooperation Council surprised virtually everyone yesterday by announcing that it would begin membership talks with Jordan and Morocco.  While actual membership is likely a long way off, the announcement signals a new alliance in the region which conspicuously omits Egyp, along with more obvious candidates for GCC membership such as Yemen and Iraq.  This expanded GCC would of course no longer really be an organization of states in the Gulf. Nor would it be a club for small, rich oil producing states. Instead, it seems to be evolving into a club for Sunni Arab monarchs -- the institutional home of the counter-revolution, directed against not only Iran but also against the forces for change in the region.  Where the United States fits in that new conception remains distinctly unclear.

There has been widespread disbelief and a lot of jokes since the news broke of the invitations to Jordan and Morocco. It isn't only that Jordan and Morocco are rather conspicuously not in the Gulf.  It's also that they don't fit the profile of rich petro-states which has defined the identity of the GCC. If they actually do become members  -- which is far from a certainty, given the wide gap between an invitation to apply and acceptance -- it would profoundly change the character of the organization.  Jordan and Morocco have virtually nothing in common economically, culturally, or (of course) geographically with the GCC states.  They have different security challenges, different demographics, and different domestic problems.  Their inclusion would significantly erode the major commonalities which kept the GCC together over the years. 

The two things which Jordan and Morocco do have in common with the GCC states, of course, are a Sunni monarchy and a pro-Western alignment. The creation of a Sunni King's club would bring the region back even more viscerally than before into the classical Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960, when conservative monarchies faced off against pan-Arabist republics.  Neither Jordan nor Morocco really faces the same sectarian Sunni-Shi'a issues as do most of the Gulf states, however, despite King Abdullah of Jordan's "Shi'a Crescent" ramblings of the mid-2000s and his enthusiasm to be part of any pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian alliance available.  Iran simply doesn't loom as large for Morocco as it does for, say, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.  The real point here would seem to be a promise of GCC, or more specifically Saudi, assistance to those non-Gulf monarchies in order to prevent them from going too far in meeting popular demands for reform.  Such a Sunni King's Club would be a counter-revolutionary institution, one which would work directly against hopes for change in the Arab world.  

The exclusions are in many ways more important than the inclusions.  Yemen has been left standing at the doorstep of the GCC for many years, despite the advantage of actually being a Gulf state. The GCC initiative to transition Ali Abdullah Saleh from power has stalled, and most Yemenis seem to be pretty suspicious of Saudi intentions in that regard anyway.  It isn't clear whether a post-Saleh Yemen would be considered for an expanded GCC, but it doesn't seem likely. 

The two more important exclusions are Iraq and Egypt.  Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been mooted as a possible candidate for inclusion in the GCC.  It's a wealthy oil producer in the Gulf region, so there is a surface plausibility.  GCC membership, by this argument, might embed Iraq in an institutional structure which firmly rooted it in a pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian camp, while dramatically increasing the size and power of the GCC alliance.  But its exclusion from this round isn't that surprising.  The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, remain deeply hostile towards and suspicious of the Shi'a dominated Iraqi government in general and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki specifically.  They have never been comfortable with its new democratic forms.  And an Iraq inside the GCC would pose a real challenge to Saudi expectations of dominating the alliance.  So the GCC not inviting Iraq to apply is hardly a surprise -- but not inviting it while inviting other, less plausible, candidates will only further drive a wedge between Baghdad and the Arab Gulf states with potentially dangerous results.

And then there's Egypt. Saudi anger at the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been palpable. It has clearly been furious over the new Egypt's softer line on Iran, and high-level Saudis were conspicuously absent from the Hamas-Fatah signing ceremony in Cairo.  Obviously, there is no rational economic or cultural reason to invite Egypt to join the GCC.... but neither is there any such logic to inviting Jordan and Morocco.  The exclusion feels pointed and direct: the new revolutionary Egypt is not part of the Sunni King's Club, while the expanded GCC will directly compete with the Arab League even if it gets a new Egyptian Secretary-General. This is a dangerous message at a time when Egypt's foreign policy orientation is very much a work in progress.  The new Egypt is likely to be far more responsive to public opinion, as has already been evident in its decisions to open the border with Gaza and broker Palestinian reconicilation.  If it comes to identify Saudi Arabia as an adversary, rather than as a slightly less close ally, then this will have major repercussions for regional politics and for the U.S. alliance structure. 

It is far too soon to expect anything tangible to emerge from this proposed GCC expansion. It may very well go the way of other short-lived alliances -- remember the Damascus Declaration?  And it is hard to see how Jordan or Morocco would fit into any kind of economic integration schemes such as those the GCC has intermittently discussed.  But as a signal of emerging trends in regional politics, even the declaration of intent is quite significant.  It could push Iraq and Egypt in other directions. It could intensify the lines of regional conflict both between revolution and counter-revolution, and between Sunni and Shi'a, while inhibiting serious efforts at reform which might ameliorate either.  And it could put the new GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, into ever more open conflict with the United States over the future of Arab reforms and priorities.