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Deciphering the Iran Chatter

How much of the bluster is just rhetoric?

Marc Tracy
January 31, 2012
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak.(Israeli Defence Ministry via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak.(Israeli Defence Ministry via Getty Images)

Ever since Ronen Bergman’s New York Times Magazine cover story on Israel vs. Iran, published online last week, chatter has been afoot. Will it or won’t it? And when? The consensus seems to be that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, the two crucial Israeli actors, genuinely believe that in being able to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent in an underground, heavily fortified bunker, Iran has already crossed a red line, but all the same would probably prefer that military action be undertaken with U.S. backing or even by the United States itself. It’s the “hold me back” strategy: “Israel is trying to send a message like this to the United States and Europe,” Bergman said in a subsequent interview: “do something to Iran otherwise we will do it.” To that end—and although Bergman denies it, asserting that he initiated the reporting on his story and that Barak was initially reluctant to cooperate—his piece can probably be read in part as Israel sending the “hold me back” message to the United States. (Which means, if past is prologue, we should expect a response from the Obama administration any day now.) This is also the message of another Times piece, which reported that Israel believes threats of Iranian retaliation for a military strike are overstated. Whether or not Israel truly plans to attack Iran, it is in its interests for the rest of the world to think it’s going to.

The administration has already begun to respond via Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has offered Israel a balm with the words, “If they proceed and we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it,” along with the pushback that the U.S. believes Iran is at least a year away from developing a nuclear weapon (and would then require an additional year or two to make it deliverable); that it hasn’t necessarily decided whether to build one; and the caution
that the U.S. doesn’t have bombs strong enough to fully stop the program. It’s disputed whether or not this is actually true; what isn’t disputed is that the administration wants Israel and the world to think of an attack as an extremely undesirable (albeit not off-the-table) option, and this helps that.

For now, it’s sabotage and sanctions, including an oil embargo that the European Union and even Turkey have agreed to begin implementing. The big prize is China: after much U.S. and Saudi diplomacy earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Beijing this week to urge them to import less Iranian crude. China seems somewhat game, although last week it criticized the embargo.

It’s been said before (including by contributing editor Jeff Goldberg earlier this month), but now, after Iran has been squeezed but before the covert warfare has gotten completely out of hand, is the time to try to strike a deal. “[President Obama] doesn’t have to withdraw any sanctions or any ‘red lines,’” argues Leslie Gelb. “Just cut the usual diplomatic and political baloney, and try. With so much pressure now being applied on Iran, it might work. In the midst of a barrage of economic and military pressures, it is not a sign of weakness or lack of resolve to offer peace. It is classic negotiating from strength.” The threats, the sanctions, the embargos, the assassinations, the sabotage: here, these become leverage, things you can pull back in exchange for concessions. Israel’s and the West’s seriousness of purpose make substantive negotiations more, not less, likely.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.