The most strenuous objection to an Iranian attack by Israel comes from recently retired Mossad head Meir Dagan, who called attacking Iran “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” His predecessor, Ephraim Halevy, seconded his assessment. Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, and former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Halutz both declared that Iran is “not an existential threat” to Israel.
And since it is unlikely that Israel could launch such an attack without U.S. approval, the opinions of American officials are equally important.
American concerns hinge on Iran’s nuclear program. Though there is widespread suspicion that Iran may have a nuclear weapons program, there is no evidence that such a program exists. The latest pronouncement came on January 31 from U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who stated in testimony before Congress: “We do not know . . . if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
His assessment echoes that of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that Iran is not building nuclear weapons at present.
Still, the threat that Israel might attack Iran this spring was renewed by Panetta, and has been the stuff of speculation for several weeks. Speaking to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Secretary Panetta said there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June, expressing concern about this turn of events and the opposition of the United States government to such a strike.
Israeli defense analysts also warn of the danger to Israel itself if the government does the unthinkable and launches a first strike against Iran. According to senior military analysts, more than 15,000 rockets could be launched against Israeli targets in retaliation.
Jerusalem Post military correspondents Yaakov Katz and Melanie Lidman write that every city in Israel could be attacked, including the Port of Haifa and Jerusalem itself — heretofore “immune” from attack because of its many Muslim religious sites. "The threat scenarios,” they add, “are compiled by the Home Front Command and are based on intelligence collected regarding the enemy's intentions as well as its capabilities."
The “Clean Break” Doctrine
So why is Israel continuing to pursue a clearly dangerous course opposed by so many?
The ostensible reason given by Israel is that Iran will be entering a “zone of immunity,” whereby progress on a nuclear weapon will be so extensive and their underground concealment so impregnable that further advances will be unstoppable should they decide to manufacture weapons.
This sounds plausible on the face of it, except for the fact that all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Every scrap of uranium both enriched and unenriched is under seal. The only underground facility in Iran -- the Fordow plant near the city of Qum -- was declared before any fissile material or equipment was introduced and like all other facilities is under constant inspection.
It is also noteworthy that the IAEA continues to report that Iran has not diverted any radioactive material for military purposes.
For an explanation concerning the continual drumbeat to attack, therefore, one must return to Netanyahu who, during his first term as prime minister in 1996, spoke of the “immediate danger facing Israel.” By “danger” he meant of course Iraq, for which he sought the advice of a group of American neoconservatives who presented a plan on safeguarding Israel’s security.
Titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the report was co-authored by a study group under the direction of former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. The group -- which included Douglas Feith, David and Meyrav Wurmser, James Colbert, Robert Loewenberg and Charles Fairbanks, Jr. – urged regime change throughout the Middle East, beginning with Saddam Hussein and later the governments of Syria and Iran.
The “Clean Break” doctrine was followed by the establishment of the Project for a New American Century, whose members -- including Feith, Perle, and Wurmser augmented by John Bolton, and Meyrav Wurmser -- pushed the agenda of regime change throughout the Middle East. Under George W. Bush these individuals began to set policy—including the first stage of their plan, the removal of Saddam Hussein.
The problem they faced was gaining public credibility and justification for an attack, the solution to which came in the form of “weapons of mass destruction,” which served as the pretext on which the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. It is the pretext with which Israel and its American supporters would attack Iran today.
Israel’s “Great Statesman”
Most of the neoconservatives who concocted this scenario are out of power. They continue to inhabit the think tanks of Washington, appearing ubiquitously in mainstream media. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu, for whom this plan was written, is most definitely in power, and he possesses the red button that could launch the Iranian attack. But would he?
Here one must look at Netanyahu’s temperament. A telling portrait of the Prime Minister was presented by Carlo Strenger in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on September 9, 2010.
“Netanyahu likes to think in large historical contexts,” Stengler writes, “and he likes to model himself along the lines of great statesmen. So far, Churchill has been his favorite, because Bibi thinks of himself as the Churchill that warns the world of Political Islam while the Chamberlains of this world are trying to appease it.”
For Netanyahu, it is a posture replete with hubris and grandiloquence. But he is joined by an equally remarkable partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose hero is Charles deGaulle—a leader who flew in the face of his own advisers.
Barak, noted Ha’aretz writer Aluf Benn on March 11, 2010, “is now exhorting Netanyahu to be a de Gaulle and not a Churchill, because the British leader merely said ‘no’ and refused to budge, while his counterpart in Paris settled on no less than changing the world.”
The specter of a Churchill and a de Gaulle at the helm in Israel, ignoring their own advisers and convinced they are right and the world is wrong is an extremely dangerous situation. Netanyahu has a 15 year mission to reshape the Middle East that he sees as his destiny—his “Churchill moment.” With Ehud Barak by his side, his politics constitute a perfect match of heedlessness and stubborn pride flying in the face of both facts and reason.
These two prideful men could set the world aflame and insist, as the destruction and mayhem rage after a needless attack on Iran, that their generals, advisers, as well as the world community were all unprincipled fools.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years. He is author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other