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.
Tel Aviv, Israel; and Istanbul, Turkey
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.”Skip to next paragraph
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“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.
“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.”
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.