Why Iran vs. Israel rhetoric could escalate into war

Iran and Israel traded verbal barbs this week, with a former Israeli intelligence chief calling for a preemptive military strike against Iran. Analysts worry that both sides could get carried away and find themselves at war.

By , Staff writer

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    US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (2nd r.) walks with Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak (c.) through an honor cordon at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday.
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The Israeli drumbeat for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program grew louder this week as former intelligence chief Shabtai Shavit said the Jewish state must not “sit idly and wait until the enemy comes to attack you.”

“Since there is an ongoing war, since the threat is permanent, since the intention of the enemy in this case is to annihilate you, the right doctrine is one of preemption and not of retaliation,” Mr. Shavit told a conference at the hawkish Bar Ilan University on Monday.

Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran have long been arch-foes. But these enemies have grown in their ignorance, misperceptions, and demonization of each other – and have thereby dangerously raised the risk of escalation to direct conflict, analysts say. That has raised jitters in Washington, with Israel’s closest ally warning against a unilateral attack that would inevitably draw in US forces already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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“The real fear is that someone will get carried away by his own rhetoric and fear-mongering,” says Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “But if you are going to get anything out of this, you have to make the impression that this [first-strike] is not impossible. You can’t take the option off the table. Why should you?”

'The rhetoric .. can just become reality'

Israel’s overall political shift to the right means comments such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recent statement that Iran currently “does not pose an existential threat” are increasingly rare.

“When you have that kind of political environment, you are leaving yourself no space to find another solution,” says Trita Parsi, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “You may very well end up in a situation where you are propelled to act, even though you understand it is an unwise action, but [do so] for political reasons.”

Haggai Ram, an Iran specialist at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, agrees.

“Being a historian, I know how things get out of control, how all of a sudden there is a dynamic you can’t control and you find yourself in a war,” says Dr. Ram. “The rhetoric from both sides, because it is so intensive, and involves so many emotions ... can just become reality.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

A number of Israeli experts on Iran reckon the actual threat from Tehran is limited – even non-existent – “but nobody ever listens to them; you don’t see them in the headlines,” says Dr. Van Creveld. “Most Israelis – because they are really afraid, or as a matter of policy – reinforce each others’ fears.”

Those fears have been near the top of Israel’s strategic calculations for many years, and often rank higher than ongoing conflict with Palestinians, and the Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Top Israeli officials say that Iran’s nuclear program – which Tehran says is for peaceful energy production – presents an “existential” threat.

The result is skewed calculations, analysts say, that could inadvertently lead to war.

“Since the mid-1990s, there has been a policy of seeking to portray Iran as a very significant threat to the region and the world, partly to motivate the West – particularly the US – to take a hard line against Iran,” says Dr. Parsi.

“A lot of people in Israel who had dealings with Iran in the 1980s, and obviously extensively in the 1970s, who know the country quite well, are less and less in the bureaucracy,” says Parsi, author of The Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. “That distance between actual understanding, and the [Iran-threat] talking points that were used externally ... creates a very dangerous situation for Israel, because it turns the threat from Iran into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But Ram points out that the hard-line rhetoric goes in both directions.

“It’s two-dimensional: one side always provokes the other side, and vice versa; it’s a dialogue,” says the historian, author of Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession. “So when [Iran's President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad says he would wish the death of the ‘Zionist occupying regime,’ it is in essence not different from when [Israeli President Shimon] Peres or another Israeli functionary says that we should bring an end to the Iranian regime.”

One approach: Let Iran know missiles = Israeli strike

The outcome of Iran-Israel sparring, then, may depend on how Israel interprets Iranian rhetoric and possible actions and reactions.

Reuven Pedatzur, head of a strategic dialogue center at Netanya Academic College, analyzed seven options for Israel at an Iran seminar last week. “Most of them are bad, and one which is less bad – and eventually we will have to adopt it – is open nuclear deterrence,” says Mr. Pedatzur, a long-time critic of missile defense, saying it is “irrelevant” in the case of a nuclear attack.

Israel should declare its own nuclear arsenal, and spell out the “rules of the game” to Iran, says Pedatzur. “The main rule would be ... ‘You should know what will happen if we detect one missile going westward from Iran. We are not going to wait to see whether it’s [nuclear], automatically we are going to launch our missiles and destroy Qom, Tehran, Tabriz, Esfahan, and so on.’”

If that were clear, Pedatzur believes Tehran would be deterred.

“I don’t see any Iranian national interest that justifies destroying Iran, just for killing 200,000 Zionists,” he says.

Olmert asked: Have we taken this too far?

Van Creveld has also argued for such nuclear deterrence. In 1997, he told the Monitor that “when Mao and Stalin acquired nuclear weapons, they calmed down,” and that if Iran were to ever acquire nuclear weapons “the effect will be the same” because “war ceases to be fun. It becomes suicide.”

The historian believes that deterrence can work in a country where some have argued that Iran is irrational, and can't be deterred. He says former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked him whether “we [Israelis] had not taken this too far, to the point where it was doing more harm than good,” by “frightening ourselves.”

Nuclear deterrence “has worked elsewhere in every single place around the world,” says Van Creveld. “So why not in the Middle East?”

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