It’s no wonder that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly ordered his defence minister to shut up. Ehud Barak, after all, has a well-established habit of telling inconvenient truths – while running for prime minister in 1999, he was asked what he would do if he had been born Palestinian. He answered:”I would join a terror organisation.” That willingness to put himself at odds with Israel’s PR line was once again on display last week when Mr Barak was interviewed by the US TV talkshow host Charlie Rose.
“If you were Iran, wouldn’t you want a nuclear weapon?” Rose asked his guest.
“Probably, probably,” Mr Barak replied. “I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They have their history of 4,000 years. They look around and they see the Indians are nuclear. The Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan in nuclear as well as [North] Korea, not to mention the Russians.”
The problem that Mr Barak’s remarks present for the Israeli narrative is obvious: Iran’s rulers, we are typically told by Israeli officials, are fanatical religious extremists determined to destroy Israel at any cost, even if that meant national suicide. They are implacably committed to their pursuit of doomsday weapons, and will not be deterred by the logic of “mutually assured destruction” that prevented Cold War nuclear exchanges.
But if, as Mr Barak inadvertently suggested, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was a response to its perception of its threat environment, that is an entirely different proposition. Indeed, that is exactly what governments that reject the US-led effort to isolate and pressure Iran over its nuclear programme have been arguing. Turkey, for example, strongly opposes that its neighbour develop nuclear weapons, but believes Washington’s approach of piling on sanctions and threats of military action are more likely to ensure that Tehran goes nuclear. “It is important to put oneself in their shoes and see how they perceive threats,” Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul told the Guardian this week, referring to Israel’s undeclared nuclear capability.
The former US defence secretary Robert Gates, while still in the job last December, sought to pour cold water on the mounting campaign for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Air strikes, he warned, would at best delay the Iranians by a couple of years, but would all but ensure they went ahead with building the bomb. “The only long-term solution to avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability,” Mr Gates said, “is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest.”
But the path the Obama administration has chosen is through escalating sanctions, backed by a threat of military action. Despite the rhetoric, however, the US and its allies are essentially treading water. Western officials had promised that the recent IAEA report – which suggested that Iran may have in the past undertaken research work into warhead design – would be the bombshell that would oblige the likes of Russia, China and Turkey to support tough new sanctions. No such luck. So underwhelming were the report’s findings that the US and its allies couldn’t get support at the IAEA’s board for referring the matter back to the UN Security Council (where China and Russia had made clear they would veto any further escalation of sanctions, anyway).
The report has simply spurred a new round of business-as-usual: More unilateral US sanctions were announced on Monday targeting investment in Iran’s energy sector, but steering clear of even the measures advocated by France that would target Iran’s central bank. Other measures were announced by Britain and Canada.
Harsher measures might be deemed acts of war by Iran, and prompt retaliation, which could prove nasty in a moment where the world economy sits on the cusp of a slide into recession, and where oil prices last week reached $100 a barrel simply on the fear of a confrontation over Iran.
And then there’s the sabre rattling by Israel, constantly threatening to launch unilateral military action – Mr Barak last week also said Israel had just one year before Iran reached the point of no return – in the hope that the likes of China and Russia might be forced to support tougher sanctions as the lesser evil compared with the havoc that could be unleashed by a military confrontation. But so far, nobody’s buying it.
In an ominous new development 10 days ago, an explosion at an Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base that killed 17 men, including a top IRGC commander, was widely reported to have been a covert operation by Israel’s Mossad. If so, the Iranians were not taking the bait, denying the claim – and removing any pressure for retaliation.
But sanctions and covert operations don’t seem to be doing the trick, and military action cannot do more than delay Iran, but at a potentially catastrophic cost. The logic of Mr Barak’s admission is obvious: preventing Tehran from building nuclear weapons requires reordering and reducing its threat perception. And that can only be achieved through diplomatic engagement aimed at normalisation – or at least, conflict management.
Domestic politics in both Iran and the US may preclude the serious engagement required to bring that about for at least the next year, however. And that same domestic politics may propel the standoff towards confrontation – even if, as Mr Barak’s gaffe reveals, many of the key players on both sides clearly understand how that could be avoided.