Assessing the Purpose of Iran War Rumors

This piece in Foreign Policy is getting a lot of attention — Israel’s Secret Staging Ground. The story describes Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, and reports on speculation that Israel has secured rights to use Soviet-era Azeri air bases. The benefit is that:

Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as “a significant asset” to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel’s warplanes to their limits. “Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they’d be running on fumes,” Isenberg told me, “so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial.”

Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel’s calculations: “They save themselves 800 miles of fuel,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. “That doesn’t guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable.”

This is a major issue both because it limits the need for aerial refueling and also would allow Israeli strike platforms to carry more ordinance.

The story may be part simply the result of good reporting on Mark Perry’s part. Or, as it may reflect some sort of information campaign. But, if so, to what end? What is the goal of what has become a veritable drumbeat of Iran war talk?

The issue is paradoxical in a sense because if you believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and if you believe it is doing so having learned the lesson by comparing Iraq to North Korea that nuclear weapons are a state’s only guarantee against external intervention, then inducing additional insecurity in Iran is likely to be counter-productive. If Iran’s program is primarily a step toward reliable deterrence, then the best way to prevent it from coming to fruition is by providing assurances, not threats.

On the other hand, if the assumption is that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons because it is a controlled by a millennialist cult hell-bent on the physical destruction of Israel, then what is the point of the pressure? Certainly a committed genocidal regime would not be deterred or coerced by a bunch of newspaper articles and public statements. I mean, look at Nazi Germany in 1944. Even pressed in on all sides by the allies, they continued to divert significant resources to their genocidal project. If you see Iran as this sort of state, you have to accept the notion that its behavior is likely unchangeable, and as a result, this slow ratcheting of pressure merely gives Iran more time and warning to prepare for a strike.

So, regardless of whether one sees Iran as defensively-motivated or genocidal in orientation, the war talk makes little strategic sense. But clearly there is a concerted Israeli effort to raise the temperature, it is almost certainly purposeful.

So what is going on? Three possibilities come to mind:

(1) Israel wants military action against Iran, but doesn’t want to do it either because of lack of capacity or concern over the consequences, and instead wants to pressure the United States to attack Iran instead.

(2) Israel is trying to build leverage. Worried about U.S. pressure regarding the Palestinian issue, the Israelis are looking to transform the debate. And indeed, this has occurred. Instead of the United States pressuring Israel on settlements, much of the interaction over the past year has involved the United States offering reassurances and concessions to Israel on Iran. If the centerpiece of U.S.-Israeli relations is Palestine, then the Israel is in the position of fending off U.S. demands. When the issue is Iran, it is the U.S. on the defensive.

(3) Domestic politics. Either there or here. I don’t know. But look, I don’t think it is any huge secret that Natanyahu would love to see Obama lose this year. At a minimum, I think the Israelis are using the threat of war and disorder as a way to extract concessions when Obama is vulnerable. But, obviously, as we get into the fall campaign, I can almost guarantee that Romney is going to claim Obama was weak on Iran, and the Israelis are essentially building a foundation for that argument whether wittingly or unwittingly.

The only way this war talk makes strategic sense is if you believe Iran is primarily pursuing nukes for prestige reasons, in which case raising the costs and risks of this course my deter them from this path. But, as a general rule, this does not seem to be the main argument people make.

4 comments to Assessing the Purpose of Iran War Rumors

  • [...] Bernard Finel links this story and wonders why we’ve been hearing so much war talk lately: So what is going [...]

  • [...] Bernard Finel links this story and wonders why we’ve been hearing so much war talk lately: So what is going [...]

  • The only way this war talk makes strategic sense is if you believe Iran is primarily pursuing nukes for prestige reasons, in which case raising the costs and risks of this course my deter them from this path. But, as a general rule, this does not seem to be the main argument people make.

    I think one must question the fundamental assumption that Iran is pursing a nuclear deterrent now or intends to in the near future. I do think it’s quite likely Iran was pursuing nukes prior to 2003 in response to the very real threat posed by Iraq. But now that Iraq is no longer a threat, nukes make little strategic sense for Iran. I don’t think the comparison between Iran and North Korea is at all applicable here.

    The other problem is that attempting to achieve a deterrent is a sure way to guarantee external intervention, not prevent it. It doesn’t make any sense for Iran to try to get a deterrent in order to prevent a proposed military action that’s designed to prevent Iran from getting a deterrent. Attempting to get a deterrent will precipitate military action, not prevent it.

    Instead I would base the war drums on some different assumptions. First, regarding Iran:

    Iran probably doesn’t want to pursue a nuclear deterrent now, but it wants to keep its options open. In short, it’s hedging. Secondly, Iran (justifiably IMO) is fearful that hard evidence will come to light regarding pre-2003 weapons-related activities. Third, the parts of the nuclear program that aren’t directly nuclear weapons-related (ballistic missiles and enrichment) are prestige programs in Iran that do have public support. It would be very difficult for Iran to give either of those up.

    For Israel, the biggest issue is their outdated strategic doctrine which says that Israel cannot affect the intentions of its enemies, only their capabilities. As long as this doctrine continues guide Israeli strategic thinking, then Israel will take a narrow capabilities-based approach to perceived threats. Historically, Iran wasn’t considered much of a concern to Israel because Iran didn’t have the capability to threaten Israel beyond its support for proxy forces. Iran and Israel were even able to cooperate against Iraq in the 1980′s. For both countries, Iraq was the clear-and-present threat.

    For Israel that threat picture changes substantially once Iran possesses even the nascent the capability to actually harm Israel, which is exactly what nukes would do. Because of the nature of nuclear weapons, Israel cannot maintain a comparative advantage over Iran through quality or numbers like it does with its conventional forces. As a result, Israel is willing to seriously consider going to war to prevent Iran from getting even close to that capability because, since 1973, Israel believes it cannot allow any enemy to gain the capability to existentially threaten it. As long as Israeli doctrine only regards capabilities, then it sees only two options with regard to Iran – A political settlement that results in dismantling Iran’s capabilities or military action to destroy or attrite them.

    I’m not sure there’s a way out of this. There’s a lot of inertia behind both parties that ends in violent collision if things don’t change.

  • Yes, I think your point about Israel’s strategic assumptions/culture is an important one. Though clearly the current government has an extreme version of the position in mind.

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