Israel Cries Wolf – By Roger Cohen – American Jewish NYT Columnist

New York Times
Op-Ed Columnist

Israel Cries Wolf

Published: April 8, 2009

ISTANBUL — “Iran is the center of terrorism, fundamentalism and subversion and is in my view more dangerous than Nazism, because Hitler did not possess a nuclear bomb, whereas the Iranians are trying to perfect a nuclear option.”

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Roger Cohen

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

Benjamin Netanyahu 2009? Try again. These words were in fact uttered by another Israeli prime minister (and now Israeli president), Shimon Peres, in 1996. Four years earlier, in 1992, he’d predicted that Iran would have a nuclear bomb by 1999.

You can’t accuse the Israelis of not crying wolf. Ehud Barak, now defense minister, said in 1996 that Iran would be producing nuclear weapons by 2004.

Now here comes Netanyahu, in an interview with his faithful stenographer Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, spinning the latest iteration of Israel’s attempt to frame Iran as some Nazi-like incarnation of evil:

“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”

I must say when I read those words about “the wide-eyed believer” my mind wandered to a recently departed “decider.” But I’m not going there.

The issue today is Iran and, more precisely, what President Barack Obama will make of Netanyahu’s prescription that, the economy aside, Obama’s great mission is “preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons” — an eventuality newly  inscribed on Israeli calendars as “months” away.

I’ll return to the ever shifting nuclear doomsday in a moment, but first that Netanyahu interview.

This “messianic apocalyptic cult” in Tehran is, of course, the very same one with which Israel did business during the 1980’s, when its interest was in weakening Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That business — including sales of weapons and technology — was an extension of Israeli policy toward Iran under the shah.

It’s also the same “messianic apocalyptic cult” that has survived 30 years, ushered the country from the penury of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, shrewdly extended its power and influence, cooperated with America on Afghanistan before being consigned to “the axis of evil,” and kept its country at peace in the 21st century while bloody mayhem engulfed neighbors to east and west and Israel fought two wars.

I don’t buy the view that, as Netanyahu told Goldberg, Iran is “a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest.” Every scrap of evidence suggests that, on the contrary, self-interest and survival drive the mullahs.

Yet Netanyahu insists (too much) that Iran is “a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.” Huh?

On that ocular theme again, Netanyahu says Iran’s “composite leadership” has “elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist in any other would-be nuclear power in the world.” No, they exist in an actual nuclear power, Pakistan.

Israel’s nuclear warheads, whose function is presumably deterrence of precisely powers like Iran, go unmentioned, of course.

Netanyahu also makes the grotesque claim that the terrible loss of life in the Iran-Iraq war (started by Iraq) “didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness.” It did just that, which is why Iran’s younger generation seeks reform but not upheaval; and why the country as a whole prizes stability over military adventure.

Arab states, Netanyahu suggests, “fervently hope” that America will, if necessary, use “military power” to stop Iran going nuclear. My recent conversations, including with senior Saudi officials, suggest that’s wrong and the longstanding Israeli attempt to convince Arab states that Iran, not Israel, is their true enemy will fail again.

What’s going on here? Israel, as it has for nearly two decades, is trying to lock in American support and avoid any disadvantageous change in the Middle Eastern balance of power, now overwhelmingly tilted in Jerusalem’s favor, by portraying Iran as a monstrous pariah state bent on imminent nuclear war.

A semblance of power balance is often the precondition for peace. Iran was left out of the Madrid and Oslo processes, with disastrous results. But that’s a discussion for another day.

What’s critical right now is that Obama view Netanyahu’s fear-mongering with an appropriate skepticism, rein him in, and pursue his regime-recognizing opening toward Tehran, as he did Wednesday by saying America would join nuclear talks for the first time. The president should read Trita Parsi’s excellent “Treacherous Alliance” as preparation.

The core strategic shift of Obama’s presidency has been away from the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric of the war on terror toward a rapprochement with the Muslim world as the basis for isolating terrorists.

That’s unsustainable if America or Israel find themselves at war with Muslim Persians as well as Muslim Arabs, and if Netanyahu’s intense-eyed attempt to suck America into a perpetuation of war-on-terror thinking prevails.

The only way to stop Iran going nuclear, and encourage reform of a repressive regime, is to get to the negotiating table. There’s time. Those “months” are still a couple of years. What Iran has accumulated is low-enriched uranium. You need highly-enriched uranium for a bomb. That’s a leap.

Israeli hegemony is proving a kind of slavery. Passage to the Promised Land involves rethinking the Middle East, starting in Iran.  


EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 7:56 amLink
It’s very welcome to see this kind of analysis coming from from The New York Times, but if we dare to see the Iranian state as something other than a nation of monsters, I wonder then if we aren’t missing a larger point.

Should the goal really be to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

What if the current Iranian regime was in power back in the late 1960’s, and what if they had nukes back then? Would Israel have felt empowered to begin its policy of settlement in the West Bank? Would their every reaction to an attack on their people be so hugely disproportionate?

I think the real threat that the bomb poses to Israel isn’t in Iran acquiring one, but rather, in Israel’s being the only power in the region possessing one. What kind of nuclear policy is governing the use of these weapons? It certainly isn’t Mutual Assured Destruction, and yet that is the only policy the world has any experience with (and successful experience at that).

No, what Israel is doing is something else entirely, and it isn’t too difficult to see how this translates to how extremist politicians continue to retain power in its government. While in sole possession of the bomb, no military excursion can  really ever fail, because the bomb is there as last resort. So without any check on the use of military force, politicians are free to engage in ever escalating shows of force as a way of differentiating themselves from the rest of the pack.

The results should have been predictable.

If we can manage to distance ourselves from the suicide-bomber stereotype some have attempted to assign to Iran, as Roger Cohen seems to suggest, then we should take the extra step and consider that perhaps the best way to peace is to solve Israel’s problem of being the only nuclear power in the region. And that’s called, a nuclear Iran.

Where would the Middle East be today if Iran were nuclear back in the late 1960’s? Probably in the same place the rest of the world is today, despite the bitter rivalry then between the United State and the Soviet Union. Time heals these wounds, but only if you don’t continually work to open them anew. Neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. engaged in policies analogous to occupation and settlement, because they were afraid of what the consequences might be.

I would suggest that there would have been no policy of occupation or settlement by Israel starting in the early 1970’s with a nuclear Iran, for fear of what the consequences might be, and that this parity then would have led to some kind of relative peace today.

I am of course loathe to see a new nuclear trigger added to the world state, but you know, sometimes the best approach in putting out a fire is by starting a new one.

— nokilli, HI

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 8:40 amLink
Yonkers, New York
09 April 2009

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is what many characterize as a “super-hawk.”

Only recently, before he got the position of prime minister, he vowed that he would “smash” Hamas. That would mean Israeli forces going full-blast into Gaza and killing all member of Hamas, in the process slaying thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians as “collateral damage.”

Netanyahu would thus reduce Gaza into a charnel house.

Now that he is prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu is making all those provocative statements which, obviously, lay the ground for an Israeli preemptive and unilateral attack against Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and elsewhere. He compares Khamenei’s Iran to Hitler’s Nazi Germany; impliedly, Iran deserves “regime change.”

There is probably no way the United States can rein in Benjamin Netanyahu. The U.S. has always considered Israel its best ally in the Middle East–which is true. This assurance could very well be Mr. Netanyahu’s license to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But does Mr. Netanyahu know the unintended consequences if such an Israeli attack should take place?

That is the question which I suggest he ponder long and hard.

Mariano Patalinjug

— Mariano Patalinjug, Yonkers, New York

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 10:29 amLink
Dear Richard,

Another excellent column on this subject. Thanks so much. Gwynn Dyer, in his excellent series of books on the US in the Middle East, makes these same points about Iran always being accused of being just around the corner from a bomb – these charges have been made for the past 20 years. Dyer points out that the Iranian nuclear program has proceeded in fits and starts, usually in response to external threats. Iran had a nuclear program way back in the 80s and 90s (not to mention under the Shah), but largely in response to Iraq’s efforts to acquire NWs. When Saddam’s military was destroyed in the first Gulf War, Iran mothballed its program until the late 1990s, when Pakistan acquired a bomb. And now, according to US intelligence, Iran has mothballed its nuclear program again, at least since 2003.

Beyond this, I should point out that even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, that is a long way from it being a real threat to anyone. Indeed, it is completely illogical to assume that Iran would ever attack any other country first, since that would mean national suicide. Israel’s efforts to convince Americans that the Iranians are, indeed, inherently irrational and suicidal is meant to counter this obvious logical problem. In fact, Iran would probably use a nuclear weapon to deter Israel and the US and to provide itself with a way to balance the scales of power in the region and be taken seriously as a party that needs to be treated with respect. All of this being said, I don’t think Iran wants a nuclear bomb – it can get all of the above if it can just demonstrate that it has the capacity to go nuclear if it needs to.

This is the real problem for Israel. The Israelis are used to having the dominant military in the region. But an Iran with a credible nuclear potential means that Israel’s overwhelming advantage is offset. Israel would no longer be able to use its military with impunity. That is why convincing Americans to attack Iran has become so important.

As you indicate, Israel’s hegemony in the region has actually proven to be a curse. Because it has not needed to really make peace with its much weaker neighbours, Israel has refused to make the difficult choices and decisions necessary for peace. If the playing field was more even, the diplomatic situation might actually change for the better.

As a final note, I should point out that back during the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran (weapons built with the help of the West). At the time, Iran had the option of building its own CW and retaliating in kind. It chose not to, apparently for religious and moral reasons – the Iranians honestly believed that CW were too terrible to use and that their use would violate the principles of Islam. I would not trust the West to act with the same kind of restraint. I certainly would not trust Israel to act with that kind of self-control. So, based on this precedent, I think that we need to be more circumspect about how Iran may behave.

— Shaun Narine, Fredericton, Canada

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 11:12 amLink
The iron fist of Israel prefers confrontation to negotiation – that has been repeatedly shown since independence, and resentment, discord and hostilities only grow. It’s time to take a different stance. Can Israel lay down their guns?

— David, Hartford

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 11:52 amLink
Dear Mr. Cohen,
Having followed events in Iran for the last 30 years, I can only agree with you that Iran is not governed by fanatical, (suicidal?) Islamic fanatics. Any intention to develop a nuclear weapons capability is meant not to “wipe Israel off the map”, but rather to deter a U.S. invasion, a fear prompted, no doubt, by Iran’s inclusion in an “Axis of Evil” by President George W. Bush.

— Gary Peschell, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 11:52 amLink
Great column. Now comes the hard part: finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question. President Obama — in this respect a hardliner — says publicly that Iran must stop enriching uranium even for nuclear power. Iranians — including Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate for president — say they won’t agree to depend on imported reactor fuel. Obama has proposed an international fuel bank. How to bridge these positions?

Former Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering has proposed that an international consortium enrich uranium in Iran, under strict inspection. It’s still an international fuel bank, as in the Obama proposal. After all, such a facility must be somewhere. Making it international reduces the risk of diversion to make highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Putting it in Iran speaks to Iranian national pride — and their legitimate fear that imported fuel might be withheld to force concessions on other issues.

— David Keppel, Bloomington, Indiana

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 11:52 amLink
The question before us, it seems to me, is: Is Iran building nuclear weapons, and how close are they to succeeding at their effort?

Are the Israelis really a bunch of bullying, irrational, uncomprehending dolts who nevertheless control American foreign policy (as some commentators here have suggested)?

Or, perhaps, living in the region and listening to what Ahmadinajad and others say, and watching what they do, Israeli  politicians from all over the political spectrum and not just from Likud (as one writer suggests)have something legitimate to fear.

That the timetable for the Iranina acquisition of the bomb has been improperly predicted in the past, as Cohen begins his article by telling us, does not mean that they are close now. That Iran is filled with young people so to speak dancing in the streets does not mean that they have much say in the development of policy.

In any event, it seems to me that Mr. Cohen pepretrates a central error throughout his series of articles in which he attemps to paint a picture of a rational, pragmatic Iran over and against the stereotype of the mad mullahs.

That error is that we are dealing with a country many of whose foreign policy actions are covert. We do not see the destruction of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center as an Iranian activity. We do not see the dollars flowing to Hisbullah and Hamas (who Mr. Cohen would also wish normalized relations). We are not privy to the discussions as to what use the bomb will be put once ten to twelve of them are built. And we are fairly certain a bomb will be built and relatively soon.

And finally, as rational Westerners, we cannot see the possibility that Iran would risk severe retaliation for one bomb successfully launched at Tel Aviv, because in the end they think pragmatically.

But Westerners in France, Italy, and America (some of the homes of Mr. Cohen’s commentators) do not have to take that risk. Israelis do. Further, Israelis recognize the larger threat posed by Iran as one of the homes of Islamism, as many Westerners, Mr. Cohen apparently among them, do not.

— Philip Cohen, Greensboro, NC

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 11:52 amLink
Mr. Cohen’s column about the position and rhetoric of Benjamin Netenyahu reminded me of the following story, reported in the New York Times in 1998:

“Netanyahu, in U.S., Woos Conservatives”, by Steven Erlanger, Published: Tuesday, January 20, 1998…

Here is an excerpt from that story:

“A meeting with Mr. (Jerry) Falwell was added to Mr. Netanyahu’s schedule at the last minute, officials said, before he met the Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Mr. Netanyahu will also meet with conservative Republican legislators including Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and will give interviews to conservative groups and commentators like Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network and Cal Thomas of The Washington Times.

His voice hoarse from a cold, Mr. Netanyahu said at the rally that the Jewish people ”are being vilified and scorned and misrepresented.””

Then, as now, the parallels in the tactics of victimization, obstructionism, and belligerent fear-mongering, with an undertone of religious fundamentalism, employed by the right wing in both Israel and the U.S. – by Netenyahu and the Republican Party, respectively – are too close for comfort. This is and has been, figuratively and literally, an unholy alliance that seems to have been designed to, among other things, deliberately thwart peace efforts in the Middle East year after year after year.

— Larry M, Minnesota

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 1:29 pmLink
Anyone who has followed the heartbreaking stories coming from Gaza knows this is not the road to peace. It is time to move beyond the rhetoric and force Israel to, first, act in a more humane manner to their neighbors and, second, accept a two-state solution. That being said, there are enemies in the region. While some may say, don’t even bother to talk, talk implies mutual respect and a true desire for peace. Iranian leaders may rant, but the Iranian public is far more aware.

— Elaine Bergstrom, Milwaukee

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 1:43 pmLink
Netanyahu’s statements are propaganda. Even though Iran is following policies that run counter to U.S. interests, Iran is behaving rationally, considering recent history in the mideast, so one should assume Iran’s leaders are rational. If the U.S. wants to be effective, it should ignore Netanyahu and craft a policy that addresses U.S. interests in this region. That policy should include negotiations with Iran.

— big bill, okemos

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 1:43 pmLink
Thanks to the New York Times and Roger Cohen for this series of forthright columns regarding Israel and the Middle East. Any reasonable observer would conclude how wrong we have been following an aggressive Israel-centric foreign policy that is no longer about the safety of Israel, but for the greater Israel, all on the back of a silent and mostly unaware American public. If this blind support continues to go unchecked with the likes of Netanyahu and Lieberman in charge of the Israeli war machine, it will surely end with a wider war in the Middle East. Mr. Obama will need all the support he can get to apply a good measure of tough love to the new government leaders in Israel

— Ted V, Houston, TX

EDITORS’ SELECTIONS (what’s this?)
April 09, 2009 4:01 pmLink
Kudos for a gutsy column with the proper amount of indignation. It should be read closely by Israel’s many friends in Congress — beginning with Sen. Lieberman. Iran’s belligerence, annoying as it is, has to be set against undisputed facts known to every Iranian but to few Americans: e.g. in 1952 the U.S. deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader for his temerity in demanding a bigger cut of his country’s oil, replaced him with a puppet autocrat whose vicious regime we slavishly supported, sided with Iraq in its decade-long war against Iran, mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner in the first Gulf war, killing all aboard — to say nothing of meekly bowing to Israel’s illegal territorial policies and quartering huge armies on Iran’s borders. Seen in this light, both Iran’s and Israel’s official utterances become clearer. LP

— luke, washington, dc

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