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War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the US

Tensions in the Middle East are running very high as the Syrian crisis degenerates into civil war and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran draws evermore real.

Ed preface:
Highlighting and block quotes have been added to assist in quick identification of the main points; with graphics added as 'markers' in the document.
report by Stratfor
US Iran and IsraelFOR the past several months, the Israelis have been threatening to attack Iranian nuclear sites as the United States has pursued a complex policy of avoiding complete opposition to such strikes while making clear it doesn't feel such strikes are necessary.

At the same time, the United States has carried out maneouvers meant to demonstrate its ability to prevent the Iranian counter to an attack -- namely blocking the Strait of Hormuz.
While these maneouvers were under way, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said no "redline" exists that once crossed by Iran would compel an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The Israeli government has long contended that Tehran eventually will reach the point where it will be too costly for outsiders to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
The Israeli and American positions are intimately connected, but the precise nature of the connection is less clear. Israel publicly casts itself as eager to strike Iran but restrained by the United States, though unable to guarantee it will respect American wishes if Israel sees an existential threat emanating from Iran. The United States publicly decries Iran as a threat to Israel and to other countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, but expresses reservations about military action out of fears that Iran would respond to a strike by destabilizing the region and because it does not believe the Iranian nuclear program is as advanced as the Israelis say it is.

The Israelis and the Americans publicly hold the same view of Iran. But their public views on how to proceed diverge. The Israelis have less tolerance for risk than the Americans, who have less tolerance for the global consequences of an attack. Their disagreement on the issue pivots around the status of the Iranian nuclear program. All of this lies on the surface; let us now examine the deeper structure of the issue.
Behind the Rhetoric
AhmedinijadFrom the Iranian point of view, a nuclear program has been extremely valuable. Having one has brought Iran prestige in the Islamic world and has given it a level of useful global political credibility. As with North Korea, having a nuclear program has allowed Iran to sit as an equal with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, creating a psychological atmosphere in which Iran's willingness merely to talk to the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese and Germans represented a concession.
Though it has positioned the Iranians extremely well politically, the nuclear program also has triggered sanctions that have caused Iran substantial pain. But Iran has prepared for sanctions for years, building a range of corporate, banking and security mechanisms to evade their most devastating impact. Having countries like Russia and China unwilling to see Iran crushed has helped. Iran can survive sanctions.
While a nuclear program has given Iran political leverage, actually acquiring nuclear weapons would increase the risk of military action against Iran. A failed military action would benefit Iran, proving its power. By contrast, a successful attack that dramatically delayed or destroyed Iran's nuclear capability would be a serious reversal.
The Stuxnet episode, assuming it was an Israeli or U.S. attempt to undermine Iran's program using cyberwarfare, is instructive in this regard. Although the United States hailed Stuxnet as a major success, it hardly stopped the Iranian program, if the Israelis are to be believed. In that sense, it was a failure.
Using nuclear weapons against Israel would be catastrophic to Iran. The principle of mutual assured destruction, which stabilized the U.S.-Soviet balance in the Cold War, would govern Iran's use of nuclear weapons. If Iran struck Israel, the damage would be massive, forcing the Iranians to assume that the Israelis and their allies (specifically, the United States) would launch a massive counterattack on Iran, annihilating large parts of Iran's population.

Thus, the Iranians might well accept the annihilation of their country in order to destroy Israel

It is here that we get to the heart of the issue. While from a rational perspective the Iranians would be fools to launch such an attack, the Israeli position is that the Iranians are not rational actors and that their religious fanaticism makes any attempt to predict their actions pointless. Thus, the Iranians might well accept the annihilation of their country in order to destroy Israel in a sort of megasuicide bombing. The Israelis point to the Iranians' rhetoric as evidence of their fanaticism. Yet, as we know, political rhetoric is not always politically predictive. In addition, rhetoric aside, Iran has pursued a cautious foreign policy, pursuing its ends with covert rather than overt means. It has rarely taken reckless action, engaging instead in reckless rhetoric.

If the Israelis believe the Iranians are not deterred by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, then allowing them to develop nuclear weapons would be irrational. If they do see the Iranians as rational actors, then shaping the psychological environment in which Iran acquires nuclear weapons is a critical element of mutually assured destruction. Herein lies the root of the great Israeli debate that pits the Netanyahu government, which appears to regard Iran as irrational, against significant segments of the Israeli military and intelligence communities, which regard Iran as rational.

Avoiding Attaining a Weapon

nuclear explosionAssuming the Iranians are rational actors, their optimal strategy lies not in acquiring nuclear weapons and certainly not in using them, but instead in having a credible weapons development program that permits them to be seen as significant international actors. Developing weapons without ever producing them gives Iran international political significance, albeit at the cost of sanctions of debatable impact. At the same time, it does not force anyone to act against them, thereby permitting outsiders to avoid incurring the uncertainties and risks of such action.

Up to this point, the Iranians have not even fielded a device for testing, let alone a deliverable weapon. For all their activity, either their technical limitations or a political decision has kept them from actually crossing the obvious redlines and left Israel trying to define some developmental redline.
Iran's approach has created a slowly unfolding crisis, reinforced by Israel's slowly rolling response. For its part, all of Israel's rhetoric -- and periodic threats of imminent attack -- has been going on for several years, but the Israelis have done little beyond some covert and cyberattacks to block the Iranian nuclear program. Just as the gap between Iranian rhetoric and action has been telling, so, too, has the gap between Israeli rhetoric and reality. Both want to appear more fearsome than either is actually willing to act.
The Iranian strategy has been to maintain ambiguity on the status of its program, while making it appear that the program is capable of sudden success -- without ever achieving that success. The Israeli strategy has been to appear constantly on the verge of attack without ever attacking and to use the United States as its reason for withholding attacks, along with the studied ambiguity of the Iranian program. The United States, for its part, has been content playing the role of holding Israel back from an attack that Israel doesn't seem to want to launch. The United States sees the crumbling of Iran's position in Syria as a major Iranian reversal and is content to see this play out alongside sanctions.

"a failed attack on Iran would be far worse than no attack".

Underlying Israel's hesitancy about whether it will attack has been the question of whether it can pull off an attack. This is not a political question, but a military and technical one. Iran, after all, has been preparing for an attack on its nuclear facilities since their inception. Some scoff at Iranian preparations for attack. These are the same people who are most alarmed by supposed Iranian acumen in developing nuclear weapons. If a country can develop nuclear weapons, there is no reason it can't develop hardened and dispersed sites and create enough ambiguity to deprive Israeli and U.S. intelligence of confidence in their ability to determine what is where.

I am reminded of the raid on Son Tay during the Vietnam War. The United States mounted an effort to rescue U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam only to discover that its intelligence on where the POWs were located was completely wrong. Any politician deciding whether to attack Iran would have Son Tay and a hundred other intelligence failures chasing around their brains, especially since a failed attack on Iran would be far worse than no attack.
Dispersed sites reduce Israel's ability to strike hard at a target and to acquire a battle damage assessment that would tell Israel three things: first, whether the target had been destroyed when it was buried under rock and concrete; second, whether the target contained what Israel thought it contained; and third, whether the strike had missed a backup site that replicated the one it destroyed. Assuming the Israelis figured out that another attack was needed, could their air force mount a second air campaign lasting days or weeks? They have a small air force and the distances involved are great.
Meanwhile, deploying special operations forces to so many targets so close to Tehran and so far from Iran's borders would be risky, to say the least. Some sort of exotic attack, for example one using nuclear weapons to generate electromagnetic pulses to paralyze the region, is conceivable -- but given the size of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa triangle, it is hard to imagine Israel wanting to set such a precedent. If the Israelis have managed to develop a new weapons technology unknown to anyone, all conventional analyses are off. But if the Israelis had an ultrasecret miracle weapon, postponing its use might compromise its secrecy. I suspect that if they had such a weapon, they would have used it by now.

The battlefield challenges posed by the Iranians are daunting

The battlefield challenges posed by the Iranians are daunting, and a strike becomes even less appealing considering that the Iranians have not yet detonated a device and are far from a weapon. The Americans emphasize these points, but they are happy to use the Israeli threats to build pressure on the Iranians. The United States wants to undermine Iranian credibility in the region by making Iran seem vulnerable. The twin forces of Israeli rhetoric and sanctions help make Iran look embattled. The reversal in Syria enhances this sense. Naval maneouvers in the Strait of Hormuz add to the sense that the United States is prepared to neutralize Iranian counters to an Israeli airstrike, making the threat Israel poses and the weakness of Iran appear larger.
When we step back and view the picture as a whole, we see Iran using its nuclear program for political reasons but being meticulous not to make itself appear unambiguously close to success. We see the Israelis talking as if they were threatened but acting as if they were in no rush to address the supposed threat. And we see the Americans acting as if they are restraining Israel, paradoxically appearing to be Iran's protector even though they are using the Israeli threat to increase Iranian insecurity. For their part, the Russians initially supported Iran in a bid to bog down the United States in another Middle East crisis.
But given Iran's reversal in Syria, the Russians are clearly reconsidering their Middle East strategy and even whether they actually have a strategy in the first place. Meanwhile, the Chinese want to continue buying Iranian oil unnoticed.
It is the U.S.-Israeli byplay that is most fascinating. On the surface, Israel is driving U.S. policy. On closer examination, the reverse is true. Israel has bluffed an attack for years and never acted. Perhaps now it will act, but the risks of failure are substantial. If Israel really wants to act, this is not obvious. Speeches by politicians do not constitute clear guidelines. If the Israelis want to get the United States to participate in the attack, rhetoric won't work. Washington wants to proceed by increasing pressure to isolate Iran. Simply getting rid of a nuclear program not clearly intended to produce a device is not U.S. policy. Containing Iran without being drawn into a war is. To this end, Israeli rhetoric is useful.

Rather than seeing Netanyahu as trying the force the United States into an attack, it is more useful to see Netanyahu's rhetoric as valuable to U.S. strategy. Israel and the United States remain geopolitically aligned. Israel's bellicosity is not meant to signal an imminent attack, but to support the U.S. agenda of isolating and maintaining pressure on Iran. That would indicate more speeches from Netanyahu and greater fear of war. But speeches and emotions aside, intensifying psychological pressure on Iran is more likely than war.

"War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the United States is republished with permission of Stratfor."


In the reading and analysis of the above, it is worth remembering a few things:

  • the source of this report is not a Christian one (and therefore takes no account of biblical prophesies)
  • even if it were, God will act as He chooses (often confounding man's projections)
  • a maxim in the security services states: "He who knows doesn't speak: he who speaks doesn't know". Perhaps it should be added to: "If he who knows speaks, he is probably bluffing; or maybe double-bluffing?"
  • Israel has been described as a 'one-bomb nation'. An overwhelming strike on Tel Aviv would render the country incapable of functioning at any substantial or even normal level
  • Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised not only many Westerners but also many Iranians when, during his first speech at the United Nations, he prayed for the hasty return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, Shi‘i Islam's messianic figure.
    Demonstrating his priorities, he repeated the prayer in December 2007 when addressing Arab leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Doha but did not object when they described the Persian Gulf as Arab, a diplomatic swipe at Iran's place in the region. Ahmadinejad's messianism is no ploy; it is very serious indeed. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council, credits Ahmadinejad with "being inspired by God."
    Ahmadinejad seeks an Islamic government in Iran that is free from democratic pretenses and devoid of modern concepts of human rights and the equality of the sexes; that seeks the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the elimination of Israel, the destruction of liberal democratic states and Western capitalism, and an end to the United States as a superpower, which is perceived as the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic's survival and the main obstacle to the accomplishment of its objectives. The achievement of these preconditions, Ahmadinejad believes, will enable Shi‘i domination and the establishment of a world government.


Stratfor, 11/09/2012

Editor 12/09/2012 09:42
MI6 chief made secret trip to meet Israeli PM to head off plans to bomb Iran's nuclear programme.

* British fears about imminent strike on Iranian nuclear facilities heightened by Israeli leader's failure to state country's intentions
* Sir John Sawers delivered message that Britain is opposed to action now
* Mission, two weeks ago, failed to cool Israeli rhetoric as Israeli PM condemns West for failing to act decisively

The head of MI6 has made an extraordinary secret visit to Israel to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to give the go-ahead to plans to bomb Iran, the Daily Mail can reveal.

In an indication that the Government believes a strike on Tehran’s nuclear programme could be imminent, Sir John Sawers is understood to have made a personal mission to deliver a clear message that Britain is opposed to action now.

It is unusual for the head of MI6, who is known in Whitehall as ‘C’, to make a foreign visit as an emissary of the Government, and still more so for details to leak.

David Cameron is understood to have become increasingly concerned at the rhetoric from the authorities in Israel, who have been threatening unilateral military action to halt Iran’s nuclear drive.

Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister Ehud Barak have been pushing London and Washington to take a tougher line against Iran amid growing concern about suspected nuclear sites.

Read more:

John Miller 13/09/2012 16:47
British and U.S. positions on Iran's ambitions for nuclear military power and Islamic regional domination have been greatly weakened by lacklustre support for Israel on the one hand and a contrasting support for a Palestinian state with entitlement to a share of Jerusalem.

President Obama has clearly shifted his position on this matter and David Cameron is very weak on the issue as on many others. Both Obama and Cameron are fearful of upsetting Islamic opinion, the former because of his own cultural background and the latter because of naked political pragmatism coupled with unprincipled fear and timidity.

If western powers grasped even in small measure the threat that Islam poses to western civilisation they would radically revise many of their policies, but this is very unlikely under present leadership. The notion that Islam is a religion of peace is flatly contradicted by the written doctrine of the Koran.

At the root of this evil is satanic hatred of God's earthly people, Israel and Christianity which teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Satan knows his days are numbered. He can read the Bible. He knows that Christ is risen, ascended and seated at His Father's right hand. Islam is his most powerful weapon as far as force is concerned. The apathy of the west in general and the professing church in particular is his greatest ally. They complement each other.

The Christian's comfort is that God is in control and Satan's power is limited to what God allows. Our weapons are more powerful (2 Cor.10:4).

As I write this the centres of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Bangladesh, Iraq are in an uproar, taken over by violent Islamic protests. Pakistan and Afghanistan will undoubtedly follow and who can tell how it will affect Syria. The cause? - A stupid clip on U-tube made in a crude and unprofessional way by an incompetent film-maker whose identity is unknown.

Violence, bloodshed and force is the inevitable consequence of this ungodly religion and today's events prove it. Your article claims that Cameron is increasingly concerned at the rhetoric from Israely authorities. His concern should be directed at the utter intransigence and the readiness to resort to violence of those who wield real power in Islamic states.
jim (Guest) 13/09/2012 20:40
Why is this blog so obsessed with Israel?
Brian Ross 13/09/2012 21:35
Jim (Guest). As a blogger ( I can assure you that this is NOT a blog, but a fully developed website. There is a big difference! Perhaps you meant to refer to this article!?

The website is NOT "obsessed with Israel" (although the article is specifically concerned with that nation. So, you question might better have been "Why are some Christians so interested in Israel?"

A full answer to that question is much too long, and involved, for a comment response. However, I would suggest that the nation of Israel is central to the history of mankind, as it is in the Bible. It was the Jewish people whom God chose to be His own special people (see, e.g., Deut.7:6ff). It was from the Jews that, after the flesh, Messiah (Jesus - God the Son) was born. They are still "the apple of His eye" (Zech.2:8). The days will come when He will establish a new covenant with them (Heb.8:8; Jer.31:31).

I trust that the above, scant 'though it is, will help you you understand the position you appear to be criticising!
Editor 14/09/2012 09:22
Thanks Brian; and hope you find that helpful Jim.If you wish any further help I'm sure Brian, myself or others will supply.

In terms of 'obsessed', the focus of this web site is on the Word of God and the purposes of God. And Israel is central to that. But the real focus (for all of us) should be on the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.

The question he puts to us all is the same one he asked of his first disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" (Matt 16:16).

Thanks again Brian.

Editor 19/09/2012 12:37
If the nuclear arms race were a game of poker, Iran, Israel and the United States would be the bluffers of the table. The three may appear to be on the brink of war, but that's only because their poker faces mask their true intentions.

All three nations must play the cards they've been dealt -- and perhaps appear more fearsome than they are actually willing to be.

Israel threatens to attack Iran with or without the U.S., but would be operating under severe military constraints.

Iran threatens the energy-vital Strait of Hormuz, but knows that triggering this threat will invite the United States into a costly war.

The United States wants to contain Iran regionally, but has no appetite for a military engagement.

Ed note: The above is a concise comment from Stratfor summarising the situation. And to employ the old cliché it's 'Who will blink first?'

Iran can afford to wait (and the passing of time takes the country further along the road on its nuclear arms development programme. But both the US and Israel know that dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran is an althogether more difficult and highly-dangerous prospect than taking action now. But of course if Israel and/or the US do fire the first shot, Iran then has all the justification it would need to strike back.

NOTICE: - The 'Response' facility on some articles may be restricted to CT site members. In these circumstances comments/questions from non-site members should be sent to the Editor by e-mail: editor<atsign>

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