Brinkmanship over Iran Tensions

Like a decade ago with Iraq, the Washington press corps today is hyping every dubious incident that raises tensions with Iran, such as shots fired at an unmanned U.S. drone off Iran’s coast. Downplayed are the endless Israeli threats to bomb Iran, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Recent reports that in 2010 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli military to increase its readiness level in anticipation of war with Iran appeared to leave some unanswered questions.

Since none of us who do not have Israeli military manuals on our shelves know exactly what level “P-plus” means, it is hard to adjudicate the reported disagreement between Israeli military chiefs, who resisted the order on grounds that it could precipitate a war, and Netanyahu and Barak, who reportedly assured them that it would not.

A Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, better known as a drone. (Photo credit: U.S. Defense Department)

A subsequent analysis by Israeli journalist Yossi Melman helps to clear matters up. Melman explains: “The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.”

The Israeli military’s chief of staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, warned Netanyahu and Barak that what they were ordering could “create uncontrollable facts on the ground” that would touch off an unwanted war. “If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music,” is the way Ashkenazi put it. The understandable worry among the generals was about a 1914-style situation in which the responses and fears engendered by mobilization measures lead to a war that nobody had specifically chosen in the first place.

Netanyahu surely is smart enough to understand these dangers. The incident highlights a game he is playing; to stoke tensions with Iran sufficiently that the United States may be ensnared in a war that it does not want, but in which once war breaks out, the United States would do Israel’s dirty work by inflicting more destruction on Iran than Israel could inflict on its own.

The timing of the incident underscores another purpose of Netanyahu’s tension-stoking brinksmanship: to divert attention from continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and inaction on the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He issued his order about the same time, in the late summer of 2010, that President Obama was making an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks restarted.

Netanyahu’s efforts to precipitate an unwanted war are made all the more worrisome by an incident a couple of weeks ago off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. Predator drone was met by two Iranian SU-25 fighters that fired some shots in the vicinity of the drone but did not hit it. According to the Pentagon, at the time of the encounter the drone was 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast, four more that the 12-mile territorial waters. An Iranian military spokesman confirmed that the incident occurred and said Iran would defend its territory.

It has not been established, and the Iranians did not explicitly say, whether the intent of the shots was to issue a warning or whether they were aimed at the drone but missed. The Pentagon sought to downplay the difference. Suffice it to note that in terms of the capabilities of the equipment the slow-flying Predator would be no match for SU-25s, even though the latter are designed primarily for ground-attack missions rather than air-to-air combat.

Any firing of live ammunition over international waters is serious business, but to understand the Iranian perspective do a little role reversal. Imagine that Iran was flying aircraft within 16 miles of the U.S. coast. Imagine the Iranians were doing this with aircraft that can be armed as well as perform reconnaissance, and that not long ago one of these aircraft came down on U.S. soil. And imagine that this was all happening amid endless talk in Iran about possibly launching an armed attack on the U.S. homeland.

The screams in Congress and elsewhere to do something about this threat are not at all hard to imagine. Given how much talk we hear about preemption, there would surely be demands to do something more forceful than just to fire warning shots, international waters or no international waters.

And yet the encounter off the Iranian coast is now being added to the litany of things cited to show that Iran supposedly is a dangerously aggressive regime that must be stopped. Such an interpretation evokes memories of another sequence of events leading to war in the past, this time not in 1914 but instead 50 years later, in 1964. Purported North Vietnamese aggressiveness against U.S. military assets in the Gulf of Tonkin was taken as a sign that the Vietnamese communists needed to be stopped.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was the trigger for a congressional resolution authorizing what became the Vietnam War, and the rest is history. As with the recent incident over the Persian Gulf, no shots hit any American assets in the encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the alleged attack that was the focus of the war resolution probably never occurred.

The difference between a 12-mile territorial limit and a flight path that is 16 miles from a coast is an awfully thin margin on which to rest the avoidance of war. To put that margin in perspective, an SU-25 flying nearly at top speed could traverse the four-mile difference in about 30 seconds. It is hard enough as it is to avoid accidentally stumbling into war under such conditions. It is harder still when the prime minister of Israel is doing what he can to help make accidents happen.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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3 comments for “Brinkmanship over Iran Tensions

  1. MajWilliamMartin
    November 13, 2012 at 4:58 am

    “Any firing of live ammunition over international waters is serious business.”

    I guess once again Israel is exempt from this “Serious Business” when they fired upon the Crew of the aid ship thus killing 9 or so and wounding 30. That is LIVE FIRE isn’t it? But rest assured, Israel would as always take control of the Investigation.

    Thankfully in Turkey… Someone has developed some Brass Balls and gone after those in charge of that raid. Yet when it comes down to the LAW the US will VETO any attempt to enforce that Law.

    I wonder how those in the US Congress feel as Puppets to have a hand up their Butt’s as their every move is controlled by the Puppet Masters?

    Still… These is Good News. The fact that Israel wont become the 51st State in America. Why? Because as a State they only get 2 Senators to control.

  2. Prof. Taheri
    November 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    The details of an Israeli attack on Iran are revealed in Jonathan Bloomfield’s award-winning book, “Palestine.”

  3. Hillary
    November 12, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Analysts have estimated that Israel is the fifth-largest nuclear power on the planet with much of its delivery systems technology funded by US taxpayers. ts, Israel, like Pakistan and India, has refused to sign the Nuclear
    Why would Iran attack Israel if it had a nuclear weapon ?

    Besides the horrific nuclear retaliation it would suffer, if Iran were to launch a nuclear strike on Israel, it would result in the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as well as Israeli Jews and given the radioactivity and prevailing winds, tens of thousands of Lebanese Shiite Muslims as well as Jordanians, etc., would perish. In short, for Iran to attack Israel with nuclear weapons would be self-defeating in the extreme.

    Iran has agreed with Saudi Arabia and declared the entire ME should be nuclear weapons free.

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