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Jonathan Schell: Netanyahu’s real objective is to influence the outcome of
the US elections

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

One might’ve expected in the U.S. presidential elections that Iran would be more of an issue than it is, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu saying that the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is imminent and the need for an attack on the Iranian nuclear sites, and then a pushback by the Obama administration and top American military leaders, saying, no, not now. In fact, some American military leaders have gone so far as to make it clear that the U.S. would not be involved if Israel launches a unilateral attack. One might have expected then Romney to get involved in all of this, talk about throwing Israel under the bus, and giving this as an example of more Obama apologies. But we haven’t quite heard that level of rhetoric.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Jonathan Schell. Jonathan’s a fellow at the Nation Institute, teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale University. He’s the author of many books, including most recently The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of the Nuclear Danger. Thanks for joining us, Jonathan.


JAY: I should add, Jonathan’s also on the board of The Real News Network, right from the beginning of the board. So, Jonathan, talk about where we’re at with this. There’s been this whole debate about red lines. The Obama red line and the Netanyahu red line seem not to be the same line. So what is this all about?

SCHELL: Well, you know, it’s very peculiar thing. I can think of really no historical precedent for it. It’s a case where depending on certain technical arrangements that are made in another country with regard to a weapons system, namely nuclear weapons, a decision will be made whether to have peace or war. Mind you, it’s short of their actually getting the bomb, because almost by definition the policy can’t be to wait till they have a bomb, because then they would deter you. And so everybody’s talking about red lines—in other words, some technical step that Iran would take that would precipitate a war, an attack either by Israel or the United States.

But the funny thing is that almost nobody—and I think I can say nobody—has actually defined what they would consider a red line to be. It’s a very curious situation. Let me read you something from—Netanyahu gives you the flavor of the discussion. Very curious. And he came closer than anyone else, really, to finally defining a red line that should supposedly serve as a trigger for an American attack. But here’s what he had to say:

“So I think that as they get closer and closer and closer to the achievement of the weapons-grade material—and they’re very close, they’re six months away from being about 90 percent of having the enriched uranium for an atom bomb—I think you have to place that red line before them.”

Now, what on earth does this mean, they’re six months away from being 90 percent of having the enriched uranium? And yet we know that we’re not here talking about weapon-grade uranium. At most we’re talking about some medium-enriched uranium. But nobody can really fathom what that 90 percent would be. And Obama, who’s really sort of steadfastly refused to fix a red line, is equally vague on this, hasn’t really said what would cause a war for the United States.

JAY: One of the things that Obama’s been and leading officials have been pretty clear on, and it coincides with the national intelligence estimate that was done during Bush’s years, which is that Iran has not taken the decision to build a nuclear bomb, where Netanyahu clearly says he thinks they have. And that seems to be quite a difference.

SCHELL: That is a very clear difference, not regarding red lines but regarding something different, which would be—you might call it a red line, but it’s really not something technical; it’s something political. And the question there becomes whether Iran has made a political determination, whether they sat down at a meeting and said, let’s make an atomic bomb. Actually, the last thing we heard about it from the U.S. was back, if memory serves, in 2007 the national intelligence estimate under George Bush said they had not—they were not acting under such guidance, but the—previously, up until 2003, they had decided to, and then decided against it. So it’s a very mysterious and—.

JAY: Well, that seems like the American position is the red line is when they decide to build a bomb. And there’s been lots of people that know this business of making bombs that said, if they’re actually going to make a decision and take those kinds of steps, that the intelligence agencies would know about it, the IAEA would know about it, they probably even have to stop the inspections of the IAEA altogether, and that if they were going to do something, there’d be time to do it. That seems to be the American position. And Netanyahu, you know, his rhetoric has been, no, we need to go now. But in Israel we know there’s been tremendous opposition to Netanyahu’s positions from top security and military leaders. And a lot of people have wondered if his, Netanyahu’s, militant position has other objectives than really about to launch an attack. And I wonder what you think of that. Does he really have some other agenda here?

SCHELL: Well, we’re all left going with our hunches here. But my hunch is that it’s all political and it’s American electoral political, that the objective of Netanyahu is neither to create conditions for launching an Israeli attack, nor even, I don’t think, trying to goad the United States into making an attack, although he would certainly like to have that. But I think he knows what I also suspect, which is that Obama has no such intention and—emphatically—not before the election.

So you have to wonder why he’s making such a tremendous fuss and throwing these temper tantrums. And really—and, again, and these are hunches, these are things you can’t know for sure, but it looks to me like he’s trying to intervene or has been trying to intervene in the American election by creating a circumstance that will make Obama look weak, like a poor supporter of Israel, as if he’s throwing Israel under the bus, as Romney keeps saying. So I think that’s what’s going on here.

But I [also think] there’s been a shift of the political tide. And, of course, what’s been very important there is Obama’s moving ahead a bit in the polls. And we’ve seen quite a change in the rhetoric of Netanyahu on this, and even on Romney as well. It’s quite interesting. And I wonder whether that’s coordinated.

JAY: And part of that might be with Dempsey speaking about this and other American military leaders suggesting that if a unilateral action by Israel wound up in the deaths of American soldiers—’cause one would think if Iran counterattacks, the obvious target would be American soldiers somewhere in the Middle East, and there’s lots of potential targets there—if some Americans start dying as a result of this, you know, we’re seeing that even some of the neocons are saying, you’d better be careful here, you could have a real shift in American public opinion, where Israel starts getting blamed for the deaths of U.S. soldiers.

SCHELL: I think that’s true. And I think Obama, almost for the first time in his presidency, has shown a certain readiness not to cater to the wishes of the Israeli government, not to cater to Netanyahu. And we saw him actually refusing to meet with Netanyahu now that the UN is meeting in New York. There was an opportunity for them to meet, and Obama said, really I don’t have time in my schedule for that, and it was considered to be a kind of snub. So he was actually willing to take a little bit of political heat of that type and to risk the perception of being seen as weak that Netanyahu was trying to create.

And then in an interview that Netanyahu did on Meet the Press on Sunday, he too backed off a little bit and refused to distinguish between the positions taken by Romney and Obama, and when asked if the U.S. was throwing Israel under the bus, as Romney had said, he wouldn’t endorse that. So he seemed to back off a little bit.

And, again, I think what’s changed is the political winds, both in Israel and in the United States. So it doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to paint Obama as weak. And then also, of course, he’s worried that now that Obama’s moving ahead in the polls a little bit, that he’s going to get stuck with Obama in the next term and will have offended him now and be stuck with him then and really have [incompr.]

JAY: But there’s another piece of this, which I don’t think gets talked about enough—I keep harping on this on The Real News, but I don’t see much of it anywhere else—which is, you know, it’s like a magician: you know, look at my hand waving around over here, and the real action’s in this hand, and you have Netanyahu, you know, screaming about war and potential unilateral attack, but over on this hand what’s really going on is that there is a war going on against Iran, and an economic war of very serious sanctions that’s causing a lot of hardship for ordinary Iranians.

SCHELL: And not only economic. It’s also military, low-level military, because after all, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed, have been assassinated, in all likelihood by Israel, which refuses to really clarify the matter. And also just this week we had two major explosions in electrical plants that feed the nuclear plants in Iran.

And then on top of that we have an incredibly serious departure, really, in the whole history of warfare, and that is the use of cyberwar to actually upset the technical arrangements and the centrifuges in the nuclear plants in Iran, really the first instance of that historically and something that’s full of consequence for the future, because we can expect other countries to get into that line of work as well, not just the United States, which has been doing this, and Israel.

JAY: And President Obama, as yet, never—I don’t think he ever gets asked by mainstream media, and he certainly never explained how is it that you’re involved with such serious sanctions against Iran when your intelligence agencies are telling you they have not—they don’t have a nuclear weapons program, that if they don’t have the nuclear weapons program, then what’s the justification for the sanctions.

SCHELL: Well, I think that there is an answer that could be given to that question, and that is—and this again goes to these clouds of fog that are rolling over the whole Iranian program and what would be a red line and what wouldn’t be, because one of the things that’s happened here that’s—is not sufficiently noticed is that Obama really took on board the Bush policy towards nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and he bought into it big-time with Iran just a couple of months ago when he said that he wasn’t going to have a policy of containment or deterrence, he was going to have a policy of prevention. So in other words, the policy that they both embraced—and this is, again, something new in the nuclear age—is one of preemptive war in order to prevent a country from going nuclear. And that is really something radically new. And once you put yourself in that box, it’s very difficult to get out of it again.

And so I think what we see is that they’re trying everything short of war in order not to either have to make good on that promise, or as I suspect would really happen sometime after the election would be to back out of it, because I actually don’t think that Obama would go to war with Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon. I don’t—that would be have such a high cost attached to it that I just don’t think he would be willing to do it. He’s had enough trouble backing the U.S. out of the two futile wars that we were already in—two of the many, that is, the one in Iran and the one in Afghanistan. I don’t think that he’s going to want to get in a third. But that’s for the future; that’s not for the present.

JAY: And there’s no reason he’s even going to have to face that decision. I mean, all the evidence points to the fact that Iran simply isn’t going to make that decision to move towards an actual weapon. And that’s not me saying it, ’cause I don’t know that much about these things; it’s top Israeli intelligence officials are saying that, that it’s just—that Iran is a rational actor, they act in their own interests, and it would be crazy of them to create some kind of program that all it would do is make them a target for an attack. And so it’s really very difficult to imagine Obama would ever have to make such a decision.

SCHELL: Yeah. Well, I agree with that, too. I went on out on a limb and said, I don’t think Obama is going to attack Iran. That would be crazy. It would make the Iraq War and the Afghan War look like a picnic, to go to war with Iran. Imagine that. And Obama, whatever else he is, he’s not a crazy person. He’s—I think he’s a pretty sane person. He’s not crazy. And that would be crazy.

And so I’ll go out on another limb and agree with you there and say that I think that Iran knows well that it would pay a very, very heavy price if it were actually go ahead and test an atomic bomb. For one thing, they’d simply have to tear up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is something that really has almost universal support all over the world. So that would be a very, very serious political act. I imagine that it would have serious domestic consequences within Iran, and they would have to violate, you know, about 700 promises they made that they were not going to go into the nuclear weapon business [crosstalk]

JAY: I mean, the real issue here—and we’ve talked about this before on The Real News, and you and I have talked about this before—is what Israel really objects to and why they’re threatening Iran is they don’t like Iran’s influence and power in the region, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas, and they would love to see regime change in Iran. But the idea that Iran would give them a reason to get the Americans to attack because they actually are building a bomb, it’s kind of preposterous, actually.

SCHELL: Yeah. Well, what you do understand and gather is that what they are really afraid of is that if Iran has the bomb, it will embolden them to deputize Hamas and Hezbollah and who knows who else to be a little bolder and more aggressive in their conventional policies vis-à-vis Israel.

My own personal take on that is that countries are not emboldened when they have nuclear weapons; rather, it makes them more cautious. If you want an example of that, look back at China in 1964. Mao Zedong talked a very tough line about having the nuclear weapons, very belligerent, very reckless-sounding. And the second he got the bomb, he turned all cautious, and you hardly heard of it again, and it made them very cautious.

So I think the Israelis are wrong on that point, but there is good evidence that they believe it.

JAY: Alright. Okay. Thanks for joining us, Jonathan.

SCHELL: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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We deeply regret the passing of Jonathan Schell. We will do
everything possible to keep his life long mission for peace and
disarmament a central part of TRNN coverage.

Jonathan joined the board of TRNN in 2005, he was at our very
first board meeting, smiling ear to ear. Since that day he never
missed an opportunity to stress the importance of our work.

As a journalist and anti-war activist he condemned conflicts
from Vietnam to Iraq and warned of a nuclear holocaust in
terrifying detail in his prize-winning book, The Fate of the
Earth (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).

He was a writer and journalist, Peace and Disarmament
Correspondent for The Nation magazine, a fellow at the Nation
Institute, visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, and a staff
writer at The New Yorker magazine from 1967 to 1987. He was a
native of NY.

Schell's companion, Irena Gross, reported that Schell died of
cancer on Tuesday at their home in New York City.

Here is a link to his work with TRNN:
The Real News

The Nation Magazine:
The Nation