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Why We Must Resist Netanyahu and the Hawks' Reckless Push for War on Iran
Now, just as diplomacy is yielding results, has never been a better time to ignore the lobbying of Israel's prime minister for war
"If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, this could presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind … the deadline for attaining this goal is getting extremely close."
The above quote – from a speech given by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to a joint session of the United States Congress – is notable not only for its sense of urgency and dire threat, but also for the date on which the speech was given: 10 July 1996. That was far from the first time Netanyahu had sounded the alarm for the need to take drastic action against a purportedly imminent Iranian nuclear weapon: in a 1992 address to the Israeli Knesset, he declared, "within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb" – an assertion he repeated without irony in 1995, when, in his book Fighting Terrorism, he again predicted full Iranian nuclear weapons capability within "three to five years".
This past Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his belief that ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations were futile and represented merely an effort by Iran to "buy time" to develop a nuclear weapon. Coming from an individual with nearly 20 years of public statements consistently citing the purported imminence of such a weapon, this is a questionable statement to say the least. But given the present atmosphere of heightened tension surrounding this issue, such comments are particularly dangerous and revealing.
The present round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran represent the only meaningful channel left to avoid another potentially disastrous war in the Middle East – and another conflict that would be likely to draw in the United States, as well. By many accounts, the latest round of talks between the two sides this past week in Kazakhstan represented the most significant mutual softening of positions since negotiations began; they were encouraging enough at the end to be described by participants as a "turning point" in a situation that, to date, has most often been characterized by bellicose rhetoric and shared distrust.
Coupled with the recent news that Iran had converted stockpiles of enriched uranium into reactor fuel – a significant step away from any possible weaponization of their program – the past several weeks would seem to indicate the most positive developments towards a peaceful resolution to the standoff in recent memory. The immediate response to this outcome, which would ordinarily be viewed by any rational actor as good news, is revealing for how it identifies the parties such as Netanyahu for whom the primary objective in shaping policy towards Iran is not to find a mutually acceptable resolution, but to engineer a war. For them, the nuclear issue simply provides a useful pretext. The prospect, therefore, of a negotiated settlement is an obstacle to be avoided and undermined at every opportunity.
The officially stated positions of leading figures in both the US and Israeli military and intelligence establishments, as well as of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are that Iran is not presently developing a nuclear weapons program and has not made a decision to pursue one in the future. Yet, Netanyahu and other prominent hawks on the issue have continued to claim that such a program is both imminent and threatening enough to require immediate military action, and that negotiations over the issue are inherently pointless or counterproductive.
When viewed in its broader context, Netanyahu's recent comments regarding the utility of continued negotiations can be seen as part of a longer-term effort to initiate a military conflict with Iran – independent of any legitimate concern about their pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In 2011, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan went public to say in his final intelligence summary that Iran is a long way from developing a nuclear weapon and that any military attack against the country could "spur Iran to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and pursue its program entirely free of UN inspections". Despite being supported in his assessment by leading figures in the Israeli intelligence establishment, as well as the chairman of the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee, Dagan was nonetheless excoriated by Netanyahu for undermining his single-minded effort to pursue a military confrontation with the country.
As described by Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet clandestine service, Netanyahu's warmongering rhetoric against Iran is driven by his own "messianic" impulse, which is leading him to deliberately mislead the public in order to engineer a new conflict. That is a damning assessment of the worldview of arguably the most significant public proponent of war with Iran, whose efforts at manipulation have also directly targeted the American public. It also reveals a stunning contradiction between Netanyahu's own positions and the assessments of the intelligence services actually tasked with monitoring Iran's nuclear program is notable.
In this light, Netanyahu's push for war is clearly counter to the views of his own military and intelligence communities. That exposes the risk of handing the most gravely consequential of geopolitical decisions over to the calculations of ideologically-driven political leaders.
Were the most serious ramifications of a potential war between Iran and Israel primarily limited to those two countries alone, the United States might retain the luxury of maintaining a largely hands-off policy, as it has in Syria. However, given the likelihood that any military strike would set off a larger regional confrontation and threaten broader American strategic interests, the potential of an Israeli war with Iran would be extremely consequential from a US standpoint. Besides the direct security threat to American interests throughout the region, high-profile figures such as former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski have gone public to say that a war would have economic consequences "potentially devastating for the average American". The current chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has gone on record to state his desire that the US "not be complicit" in any Israeli military strike against Iran, citing the harm it would entail to American strategic interests.
Despite this, recent developments have made it increasingly likely that any military confrontation would necessarily draw in the United States to a large degree. As well as a recent report explicitly making the claim that President Obama is gearing up for potential military strikes against Iran starting in June, a joint resolution supported by Aipac and due to be introduced to Congress by Senators Lindsey Graham (Republican) and Robert Menendez (Democrat) is set to give express American consent to any Israeli attack. That would set the stage for the decision on war to be effectively outsourced to a foreign country.
An additional crippling economic sanctions (pdf) is likely due to be approved by Congress before further rounds of talks can begin. That and other signs indicate that foreign policy hawks and lobby groups within the American political establishment are pursuing a policy geared at preventing a negotiated settlement and focusing instead exclusively on war as an outcome.
Just over a year ago, the US managed to extricate itself from the strategic and humanitarian catastrophe that was its war with Iraq – a conflict fought on the basis of that country's purported development of weapons of mass destruction, about which at the time Binyamin Netanyahu also told Congress there was "no question whatsoever". The recent public attempts by Netanyahu and others to undermine negotiations should be recognized as the dangerous and cynical attempts at manipulation which they are.
It has become increasingly clear that those parties for whom any outcome short of war or absolute capitulation is anathema will attempt to torpedo any peacefully negotiated settlement with Iran. The knee-jerk reaction of hawks such as Netanyahu – independent of any sincerely professed concern over nuclear weapons – to any indication that such a settlement may be developing is revealing. It speaks to the obstacles that those trying to avoid military confrontation presently face. Unless the Obama administration can pursue peace with the same zealous determination with which its hawkish counterparts are pursuing war, the latter may likely win the day. That would propel the United States once more into a tragic and avoidable war in the Middle East.
Given the immense political, humanitarian and economic disaster such a conflict with Iran would likely entail, it is imperative that those who seek a solution in good faith find ways to marginalize the rejectionists pushing for conflict as an outcome. Before it is too late.