Telling Scary Stories about Iran
Israel has a large, sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal, but Prime Minister Netanyahu told scary stories to a rapt U.S. Congress entranced by his warnings about the chance that Iran might consider building one bomb a decade from now, a double standard if there ever was one, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran’s nuclear program, with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber, is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime.
It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle, and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1.
As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.
The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it.
It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu’s motivations.
Cohen criticizes Netanyahu’s drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the “potential advantages” of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel’s interests a “reasonable compromise.” He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement “also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb, from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation.”
Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu’s scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:
“Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’Ãªtre has been taken away from him.”
Netanyahu’s narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel’s interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu’s music, need to realize that.
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.)