US hawks belie Iran’s “existential threat” to Israel

1 July 2008

WASHINGTON (IPS) - New arguments by analysts close to Israeli thinking in favor of US strikes against Iran cite evidence of Iranian military weakness in relation to the US and Israel and even raise doubts that Iran is rushing to obtain such weapons at all.

The new arguments contradict Israel’s official argument that it faces an “existential threat” from an Islamic extremist Iranian regime determined to get nuclear weapons. They suggest that Israel, which already has as many as 200 nuclear weapons, views Iran from the position of the dominant power in the region rather than as the weaker state in the relationship.

The existence of a sharp imbalance of power in favor of Israel and the US is the main premise of a recent analysis by Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) suggesting that a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is feasible. Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs, has also urged war against Iran on such a power imbalance.

All three have close ties to the Israeli government. WINEP has long promoted policies favored by Israel, and its founding director, Martin Indyk, was previously research director of the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security adviser.

These analysts, all of whom are pushing for a US, rather than an Israeli attack, argue that Iran’s power to retaliate for a US attack on its nuclear facilities is quite limited. Equally significant, they also emphasize that Iran is a rational actor that would have to count the high costs of retaliation. That conclusion stands in sharp contrast to the official Israeli line that Iran cannot be deterred because of its alleged apocalyptic Islamic viewpoint on war with Israel.

Clawson summed up the argument for a US attack from Iranian weakness in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz last week. “My assessment,” he said, “is that contrary to the impression that has been formed, Iran’s options for responding are limited and weak.”

Freilich made a similar point in an article in The Jerusalem Post last week. “Instead of unwarranted, self-deterring risk aversion,” he wrote, “let us not forget who wields the incalculably greater ‘stick’: Iran certainly will not.”

A paper by Clawson and Eisenstadt published by WINEP earlier this month not only acknowledges but bases its argument for aggressive war on the fact that Israel holds a decisive edge over Iran militarily. “A nuclear-armed Iran could dangerously alter the strategic balance in the region,” write the WINEP authors, “handcuffing Israel’s room to maneuver on the Palestinian and Lebanese front …”

The WINEP co-authors thus highlight the degree to which Israel now has virtually complete freedom to use military force in the region as long as it does not attack Iran directly. Israel’s bombing and ground campaign against Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006 and its destruction of an unidentified target in Syria — an ally of Iran — last September, evidently to make the point that Israeli warplanes could also hit targets in Iran, demonstrate how Israel has been able to use airpower at will without fear of an Iranian military response.

Israel has been accustomed to such an extreme disparity in military power for decades. Ray Close, who was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia at the time, recalls that after the 1973 War, the Israeli Air Force frequently made very low-level runs over Saudi airbases in northern Saudi Arabia. The Israeli warplanes would drop empty fuel tanks on the runways near Saudi fighter plains to remind the Saudis that they could have been just as easily dropping 500-pound bombs on the Saudi planes, according to Close.

Clawson and Eisenstadt conclude that a military strike against Iran by the US could be successful, but they acknowledge that such a strike “might cause Iran’s leadership to conclude that the country needed nuclear weapons to deter and defend against the United States …”

The authors contradict the official Israeli position that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, observing that the Iranian nuclear program has not actually been pursued with the urgency that has been publicly attributed to it by Israel and the US. They write that Iran “has been engaged in less of a nuclear race than a nuclear saunter.”

Contrary to the explicit anti-Israel objective attributed to the Iranian nuclear program by the Israeli government, moreover, they assess the motive of the Iranians as being “the desire for prestige and influence” — aspirations that could be fulfilled without having nuclear weapons, as other analysts have observed.

Clawson and Eisenstadt argue that Iranian threats of retaliation against a naval blockade should not be taken at face value, because Iran has demonstrated great caution in response to past attacks on its own population by foreign states.

They cite the US shoot-down of an Iranian passenger airliner in 1988, when Iran threatened retaliation but agreed to a ceasefire with then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of fear of a US entry into the Iran-Iraq war.

The pro-Israel analysts further minimize the threat that Hizballah would unleash its thousands of rockets against cities in northern Israel, which has long been regarded by Israel as Iran’s single most important deterrent to a US attack on its nuclear program. In September 2006, after the Israeli war in Lebanon, Freilich wrote that Hizballah’s rocket arsenal had already “lost much of its deterrent value.” The Israeli population, Freilich observed, had already borne the brunt of a Hizballah rocket attack and had been “willing to pay the price.”

Clawson and Eisenstadt suggest that the US could reduce the likelihood of Hizballah rocket attacks on Israel in retaliation for an attack on its nuclear sites by “quietly indicating that, as in 2006, it would support a tough Israeli response to Hizballah rocket attacks.”

Clawson even contradicted the official Israeli and US line that Hizballah is simply a proxy of Iran, asserting in his interview with Haaretz that there is “no guarantee” Hizballah’s leaders would “react automatically” to a US strike against Iran. Instead, he suggested, they would act on their own interests “as they understand them.”

Hizballah is “very aware of Israel’s strength, and of the harsh reaction that may result if Hizballah attacks,” Clawson said.

As for the Iranian threat to attack US naval targets or otherwise use its navy to stop shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, Clawson and Eisenstadt express confidence that “the US response would almost certainly cripple or destroy Iran’s navy.” They clearly imply that Iran would have to weigh its options for such retaliation against that loss.

Their argument that Iran is too militarily weak to mount a significant retaliation reflects expert opinion within Israel. In a paper for the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University last February, Ephraim Kam, widely regarded as the leading Israeli academic specialist on Iran, wrote, “Iran’s retaliatory capability against Israel is yet limited.”

In basing the case for aggressive war against Iran on the weakness of the target state rather than the threat of its military power and aggressiveness, the pro-Israeli analysts are following a familiar pattern in dominant power policy-making toward war on weaker states. The main argument made by advocates of US air attacks against North Vietnam within the US government in 1964 was that both North Vietnam and its socialist ally China were too weak to credibly threaten an aggressive military response.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.

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