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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.

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

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“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?”