Is Netanyahu Bluffing?
Gareth Porter: Netanyahu is telling the Israeli people an attack on Iran will not cost much, but is the real objective to destroy the Iranian economy through sanctions?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist. He’s on a trip throughout the Middle East, following, mostly, the story about the tensions between Iran, Israel, and the United States. He’s now in Doha, and he joins us from there. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Hello again, Paul.
JAY: So on the course of this trip, you spent some time in Israel. What’s the mood there vis-Ã -vis the issues with Iran?
PORTER: I think the mood is very interesting. This is theâ€”the reason that I was interested in visiting Israel at this point is really to see how serious the preparation for war with Iran really is in Israel. And what I found from a key set of interviews that I did is that whatâ€”the mood of the public in Israel is rather calm about the whole idea of war with Iran. And it’s not because they totally dismiss the idea that there will be a war. The public seems to be inured to the idea that there might well be a war with Iran. But what seems to be at the root of the relative lack of anxiety about a possible war with Iran is that they have gotten the impression from Israeli government officials, over the last year in particular, that a war with Iran would be something of a cakewalk, that Iran is really not able to threaten the safety of Israelis in a way that they should really be worried about, that there will be relatively few casualties. The defense minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, has said that there would not even be 500 Israeli casualties in a war with Iran. And I think that that has been the tone and tenor of the presentation of this to the Israeli people. And from what I’ve picked up, there seems to be a broad acceptance on the part of most Israelis of that picture of what a war with Iran would be like.
JAY: What is the Israeli intelligence and military community expert saying?
PORTER: The main interview that I had with a real military expert on the Iranian missile program was with Uzi Ruben, who was the head of the Israeli antimissile program, the missile-defense program, for nearly ten years, from 1991 to 1999. And what Uzi Ruben told me is really very significant, because what he believes is that the Iranians have made enormous progress in their missile program not merely in creating a intermediate-range missile that can reach all of Israelâ€”’cause that was very well known already. What is not so well known and what Uzi Ruben, I think, was able to detail to me is that the Iranians have improved the accuracy of their missiles to a remarkable degree over the last couple of years, and that they’re now able to hit targets with a degree of accuracy that the Israelis were never expecting them to be able to achieve.
And what that means is that if the Israeli antimissile system allows even 20 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent of the missiles to get through (and that would be a very successful operation of that missile system, I think, for most Israeli experts on it), that would mean that hundreds of missiles would get through, and that a very high proportion of those missiles would be highly accurate and that they would be able to hit not only population targets, whole neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and other major cities, but that they would be able to hit economic infrastructure targets and administrative targets as well. They could do great damage to Israeli society. They could create chaos, in effect. And I think this puts a new frame, a new context for this statement by former Mossad director Meir Dagan that a war with Iran could be the end of Israel. I think that Uzi Ruben would agree with that. I didn’t ask him specifically if he agreed with Meir Dagan’sâ€”.
JAY: Well, then what is the calculation being made by Netanyahu? Either he thinks Iran wouldn’t counterattack this way for fear it would be the same thing in the other directionâ€”as much as this might, quote-unquote, be the end of Israel, it could also have devastating effects in an all-out aerial war between Israel and Iran. I assume Israel must have a lot of missiles too, not the least of which could be nuclear. So, I mean, they either think the Iranians aren’t really going to attack in that way, or what?
PORTER: Well, this is one of the themes that the Israelis have increasingly been sounding in their statements and in their background briefings for journalists. For example, Jeffrey Goldberg, who just again talked to leading Israeli officials, then wrote in Bloomberg, I think it was March 20, saying that top Israeli officials told him that they did not believe that the Iranians were likely to declare all-out war on Israel in response to an attack on Iran but would merely dump a few missiles, a few bombs on Tel Aviv as a kind of "angry gesture", as he called it.
So this is really one of the ways they’re calming the nerves of the Israeli population, by saying that they don’t think the Iranians are really serious about responding with an all-out attack. And, of course, we don’t know what Iran’s response would be, but certainly I think that it’s a fair statement that the Iranians would feel they have to keep their credibility, and that that would mean more than a sort of token response, that they would need to do real damage to Israeli society in order to say to the Israelis, you can’t do this without suffering serious consequences, because after all, the Israelis have been saying that if the first round of attack on Iran did not succeed in stopping the Iranian program, that they would have to do it again in the future, and so the Iranians have to, obviously, attack in a way that would persuade the Israelis that that’s not really a good idea.
JAY: You mentioned Dagan, the former head of Mossad. He called Netanyahu reckless and, you know, gives the sense that Netanyahu’s not actually a rational actor (a term people like to use these days). On the other hand, you hear some suggestion from Netanyahu that it’s a bit of good cop, bad cop going on here, that if Israel isn’t there threatening war, then there won’t be any leverage in negotiations and sanctions, and so this helps get everybody on board for very serious rounds of sanctions against Iran, because Israel says, oh, if you don’t do that, the only alternative is war. I mean, what do you make of whatâ€”the real seriousness of the Israeli military, security, and political elite about this?
PORTER: Well, let me cut to the chase, Paul, because I think that you’ve touched on the primary issue that I was interested in of course trying to analyze after my interviews in Israel. And what I have concluded based on those interviews, and particularly the interview with Uzi Ruben, is thatâ€”I do in fact believe it’s most likely that Netanyahu is bluffing.
One of the interesting things that Rubin said to me, apart from his assessment of the Iranian missile program and of the status of the antimissile program of Israel, is that a lot of people in Israel who believe that it’s a very bad idea for Israel to attack Iran are remaining silent. They’re not speaking up. And he said the reason that they are not speaking up is that they figure that Netanyahu is in fact playing what he called a game of poker, a poker game, and that they feel that it would not be a good idea to speak up against an attack on Iran, because that would in fact interrupt or disrupt the strategy that they think Netanyahu is following. So I think that that represents a very widespread view among intelligence and military national security specialists in Israel, who understand that it’s a terrible idea to talk about attacking Iran [crosstalk]
JAY: Right. I mean, it seems like the real strategy hereâ€”and if you read between the lines of some of the interviews and statements of Netanyahu and Obama, I mean, the real strategy seems to be: create a humanitarian catastrophe in Iran by undermining the Iranian economy as much as possible, in the hopes that somehow that gives rise to popular uprising and regime change in Iran, and that’s really what the objective is is weaken Iran, somehow you get regime change, and you take care of your regional adversary. I mean, is that your sense of it?
PORTER: Well, there are definitely people within the Israeli government who have been talking about the objective of regime change for a very long time. I’m not convinced that Netanyahu and Ehud Barak actually believe that regime change is likely. I do think that they believe that this pressure that they’re bringing to bear that involves the threat of an attack on Iran is the only way that you have a chance to push through the kinds of sanctions that would persuade the Iranians to change their policy. I think that’s what they’re hoping for; they’re hoping for a policy change without having to carry out an attack on Iran.
JAY: Yeah, but one wonders whether the policy change is really about nuclear weapons or if it’s more about Hezbollah and some of the other issues.
PORTER: No, I think that nuclear weapons is the issue that they do want to change Iranian policy about, because they believe that even an Iran that is nuclear capable, that is capable of making nuclear weapons, is going to have much greater traction in the region, and thatâ€”more importantly, that Israel will lose its traction, that it will lose its ability to coerce, to intimidate the rest of the region, the other partners of Iran, in what is called the resistance coalition. And I think that that’s what is really bothering the Israelis more than anything else. So they’re really eager to push Iran as hard as possible to cease its enrichment program.
And that’s why I think that there is a very important disconnect here between the likely negotiating stance of the Obama administration going into these talks and the position of Israel. In fact, I spoke with an Israeli official, who would not be named, but who is certainly familiar with the position of the Israeli government, who said that their position is that it’s a bad idea even to negotiate with Iran, but that if they do negotiate with Iran, that the objective must be to force Iran to stop all enrichment, to ship out all enriched uranium, not just 20 percent, but all the rest of the enriched uranium that Iran now has accumulated out of the country. Now, that’s obviously a nonstarter, but that is indeed what the official position of the Israeli government is at this point.
JAY: The United States hasn’t gone that far, have they?
PORTER: No, they have not gone that far. They’re not going to go that far, clearly.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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