Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagles fly over Auschwitz, 2003
The Point of No Return
The Atlantic, September 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
One day next spring, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may
order roughly 100 aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran.
When the Israelis begin to bomb the main sites of the Iranian nuclear
program, they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever, of
sparking lethal reprisals and even a regional war, of creating a crisis for
Barack Obama and rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, of
inadvertently solidifying the rule of the mullahs in Tehran, of causing the
price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, of placing communities across
the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, and of accelerating Israel's
conversion into a leper among nations.
If the strike succeeds, Israel
will have banished the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized,
theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism. It may also garner the
secret thanks of the Middle East's moderate Arab regimes. And it will have
succeeded in countering the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Since March 2009, I have interviewed roughly 40 Israeli decision makers
about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials. I
asked a question: what is the percentage chance that Israel will attack the
Iranian nuclear program in the near future? A consensus emerged that there
is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next
In our conversation before his swearing-in, Netanyahu would not
frame the issue in terms of nuclear parity. Israeli policy prohibits
acknowledging the existence of the country's nuclear arsenal, which consists
of more than 100 weapons. Instead, he framed the Iranian program as a threat
not only to Israel but to all of Western civilization.
Based on my
conversations, the period of forbearance will come to an end this December.
Robert Gates, the American defense secretary, said in June at a meeting of
NATO defense ministers that most intelligence estimates predict that Iran is
one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon. An Israeli policy
maker told me: "In Israel, we heard this as nine months from June — in other
words, March of 2011."
The Israelis argue that Iran demands the
urgent attention of the entire international community. This is the position
of many moderate Arab leaders as well. Several Arab leaders have suggested
that America's standing in the Middle East depends on its willingness to
confront Iran. They argue that an aerial attack on a handful of Iranian
facilities would not be as complicated or as messy as, say, invading Iraq.
Barack Obama has said any number of times that he would find a
nuclear Iran unacceptable. But the Israelis are doubtful that a man who
positioned himself as the antithesis of George W. Bush would launch a
preemptive attack on a Muslim nation. If they conclude that Obama will not
launch a strike on Iran, then the countdown will begin for a unilateral
Netanyahu understands this challenge. To understand
Benjamin Netanyahu, it is necessary to understand Ben-Zion Netanyahu, his
100-year-old father. Ben-Zion Netanyahu's most important work, The Origins
of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain, upended the scholarly consensus on
the roots of that bleak chapter in Jewish history. He argued that Spanish
hatred of Jews was spurred by the principle of purity of blood.
party marking Ben-Zion's 100th birthday, Benjamin credited his father with
forecasting the Shoah and, in the early 1990s, predicting that "Muslim
extremists would try to bring down the Twin Towers in New York." When
Ben-Zion rose to make valedictory remarks, his speech was succinct and
unambiguous: "From the Iranian side, we hear pledges that soon — in a matter
of days, even — the Zionist movement will be put to an end and there will be
no more Zionists in the world. ... The nation of Israel is showing the world
today how a state should behave when it stands before an existential threat:
by looking danger in the eye and calmly considering what should be done and
what can be done."
Benjamin Netanyahu frames the crisis in nearly the
same terms as his father: "Iran has threatened to annihilate a state. In
historical terms, this is an astounding thing. It's a monumental outrage."
He argued that a crucial lesson of history is that "bad things tend to get
worse if they're not challenged early."
In a speech in June,
Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, explained Middle East history this way:
"Sixty years ago, by means of an artificial and false pretext, and by
fabricating information and inventing stories, they gathered the filthiest,
most criminal people, who only appear to be human, from all corners of the
world. They organized and armed them, and provided them with media and
military backing. Thus, they occupied the Palestinian lands, and displaced
the Palestinian people." Ahmadinejad's efforts to deny the historical truth
of the Holocaust have the endorsement of high officialdom.
challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack.
Netanyahu told me: "Several bad results would emanate from this single
development. First, Iran's militant proxies would be able to fire rockets
and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella.
This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they'd force on Israel.
Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one.
Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on
many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that
this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph." Third, an Iran with
nuclear weapons would spark a regional nuclear-arms race.
Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran
will progressively undermine the country's ability to retain its most
creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me
that this is his great fear: "The real test for us is to make Israel such an
attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education,
culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people
want to come here." This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, he
Ephraim Sneh, a former general and former deputy defense
minister, is convinced that if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold, the very
idea of Israel would be endangered. If Israel is no longer understood by its
6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live
outside of Israel, to be a "natural safe haven," then its raison d'ętre will
have been subverted. He directed my attention to a framed photograph on his
wall of three Israeli air force F-15s flying over Auschwitz, in Poland. The
Israelis had been invited in 2003 by the Polish air force to make this
The Israeli national narrative, in shorthand, begins
with shoah, which is Hebrew for "calamity," and ends with tkumah, "rebirth."
Israel's nuclear arsenal symbolizes national rebirth. David Ben-Gurion,
Israel's first prime minister, was nearly obsessed with developing nuclear
weapons as the only guarantor against further slaughter.
Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, gathered several National Security
Council officials to explain why the Jewish state should trust the
non-Jewish president of the United States to stop Iran from crossing the
nuclear threshold. "The expression ‘All options are on the table' means that
all options are on the table," Emanuel told me. For more than a year, these
White House officials have parried the charge that their president is
unwilling to face the potential consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator who is currently a
senior National Security Council official, said during the meeting that he
believes the Israelis now understand that American-instigated measures have
slowed Iran's progress, and argued that the sanctions may work: "We're
pursuing a path right now that has some potential. It doesn't mean you don't
think about everything else, but we're on a path."
officials complained to me that the Obama administration has not
communicated its intentions to them. One Arab foreign minister told me that
he believes Iran is taking advantage of Obama's reasonableness: "Obama's
voters like it when the administration shows that it doesn't want to fight
Iran, but this is not a domestic political issue. Iran will continue on this
reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably."
Abner Mikva, the former congressman, federal judge, and mentor to Obama,
famously said in 2008, "I think when this is all over, people are going to
say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president." Obama has been
saturated with the work of Jewish writers, legal scholars, and thinkers. A
large number of his friends, supporters, and aides are Jewish. When I made
these points to one senior Israeli official, he said: "This is the problem.
If he is a J Street Jew, we are in trouble." J Street is the liberal
pro-Israel organization established to counter the influence of AIPAC and
Emanuel had one more message to deliver: for the most
practical of reasons, Israel should consider carefully whether a military
strike would be worth the trouble it would unleash. Former Israeli air-force
generals and strategists are cautious. An attack on Iran's nuclear sites
would be difficult for Israel. "Our time would be better spent lobbying
Barack Obama to do this, rather than trying this ourselves," one general
Successive Israeli prime ministers have ordered their
military tacticians to draw up plans for a strike on Iran. Israeli planes
would fly low over Saudi Arabia, bomb their targets in Iran, and return to
Israel by flying again over Saudi territory. These planes would have to
return home quickly. Israeli intelligence believes that Iran would
immediately order Hezbollah to fire rockets at Israeli cities, and Israeli
planes would be needed to hunt Hezbollah rocket teams.
Major General Gadi Eisenkot, the general in charge of Israel's Northern
Command, at his headquarters near the Lebanese border. Eisenkot contended
that the 2006 war was a setback for Hezbollah. But even if Israel's Northern
Command successfully combated Hezbollah rocket attacks in the wake of an
Israeli strike, political limitations would not allow Israel to make
repeated sorties over Iran.
America would look complicit in an
Israeli attack. What if American intelligence learns about Israeli
intentions hours before the scheduled launch of an attack? "It is a
nightmare for us," an official told me.
Israel will act against Iran
soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program.
AR I back Israel — bomb
the weapon-wielding theocratic eliminationists.
It's Not Just About Israel
Slate, August 16, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
My friend and colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wants his readers to be sure that
the government of Benjamin Netanyahu wants it to be understood that, in the
absence of an American decision to do so, Israel can and will mount such an
These are some of the prices to be paid for not
1 International law and the stewardship of the
United Nations will have been irretrievably ruined.
Revolutionary Guards are the guardians of the underground weapons program
and its success would enhance them.
3 The power of the guards to
project violence outside Iran's borders would likewise be increased.
4 The same strategic ambiguity would apply in the case of any Iranian move
on a neighboring Sunni Arab Gulf state.
5 There will never be a
settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute.
6 The concept of
nonproliferation will go straight into the history books along with the
League of Nations.
Why Not to Bomb Iran
By Robert Wright
The New York Times, August 17, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The Atlantic cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg says that Israel is likely to
bomb Iran within a year. Netanyahu comes off in Goldberg's article as so
psychologically enslaved by his father as to be incapable of making
autonomous policy decisions. When the subject turns from Netanyahu's
psychology to Israel's psychology, the inclination to bomb Iran still looks
none too cerebral. The trauma of the Shoah helps explain the political
pressure to bomb Iran, but it's not a sound strategic reason to do so.
Although many Israelis take seriously the prospect of Iran trying to
annihilate them, Israel's policy elites by and large don't. They realize
that Iranian leaders aren't suicidal and so wouldn't launch a nuclear strike
against a country with at least 100 nukes. There's no way Iran's having a
nuclear weapon would keep Israel from taking out Hezbollah missile sites in
Lebanon as missiles from them rained down on Tel Aviv. If the Holocaust has
left Israelis with an exaggerated fear of Iran's intentions, it has also
left them with an absolute refusal to be cowed.
the blowback from an attack on Iran. An American-backed attack would feed
the war-on-Islam narrative that is already starting to fuel home-grown
terrorism in America. And he leaves you thinking that Israel will attack
Iran very soon unless America does the honors. And this is the way Israel's
hawks want the debate framed. That way either they get their wish and
America does the bombing, or, worst case, they inure Americans to the
prospect of a bombing and thus mute the outrage that might ensue after a
surprise Israeli attack. But even from Israel's point of view, there's no
sound rationale for bombing Iran.
AR I agree with Wright — the
Iranians are not yet proven to be weapon-wielding theocratic eliminationists.
Going to Tehran
The New York Review of Books, June 6, 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are unusual among former staffers of the
CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council in their deep
affection for the Islamic Republic of Iran. They find that Iran embraces,
"more fully and openly than Turkey, the project of building a state that is
simultaneously Islamic and democratic".
The Leveretts' whitewash is
so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust and September 11
are presented as adroit challenges to "the foundational premises" and
"reigning narratives" of Washington and Israel. The Leveretts allude only
vaguely to the execution of “a number” of opponents of the Islamic Republic.
As apologists they undercut a case that needs to be made: US policy
toward Iran has been a history of persistent demonization of the mullahs,
lost opportunities, an urge to punish the Islamic Republic, incomprehension
of Iranians who recall US support for Saddam Hussein in the past and Western
intrusion going back to 1953, and threats that "all options are on the
table" to pulverize the country's nuclear program.
The Leveretts: "In
American popular culture and opinion, Iran remains the embodiment of an
extremist Islam that is no more rational than, and functionally
indistinguishable from, the Salafi extremism of Al-Qa'ida and the Taliban."
Their portrayal of the Islamic Republic as a prudent power in its
foreign policy decisions is a needed antidote to wild comparisons of Iran to
Nazi Germany and unpersuasive characterizations of Iran's leaders as
apocalyptic madmen. Compared to its neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has
been a relatively stable country, and the Islamic Republic has survived
because its leaders are shrewd and tough.
The Leveretts contend that
Iran has a soft-power edge in the region based on the regime's popular
anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. They say Iran is using this advantage "to
encourage neighboring states to better represent their populations". In fact
the Islamic Republic is working hard to defend Syrian dictator Bashar
al-Assad in a brutal war. The Leveretts say Iran will win new allies like
The Leveretts: "For most Egyptians and other Middle
Easterners, the 'main division in the world' is not between democracies and
dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated
to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in
President Obama will go to war rather than allow Iran
to obtain a nuclear weapon, a development he now says is more than a year
away. Western powers point to several indications that the Iranians are
acquiring the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons. But
intelligence agencies have not detected an Iranian decision to go for a
The Leveretts grasp the political centrality of the the nuclear
program within a revolutionary system that values independence from the
Western powers. They argue that Iran's intent is to achieve a nuclear
threshold similar to Japan's as a form of strategic leverage and a
demonstration of technological prowess. They oppose a war: "American
decision makers need to acknowledge that the United States has to come to
terms with the Islamic Republic."
Their proposal for a new initiative
by Obama comparable to Nixon's going to China seems utterly fanciful at this
AR Perhaps we can get by without bombing after
all — the regime is halfway rational.