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Israel Is Bluffing: Constant War Threats Against Iran Are Empty, But Still Dangerous

Israel does not have the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran's nuclear program. But its threats are strangling diplomatic alternatives.

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed to have told President Barack Obama that either America stops Iran or Israel will. Not surprisingly, the interview sparked quite a controversy and only a day later, General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "the Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it."

So once again, in spite of President Obama's best efforts, the military option was put back on the table and the atmosphere for dealing with Iran was turned into "Do as we say -- or else..." Even if the president wants to give diplomacy a chance, disbelievers have been quick to limit Obama's options by seeking to set arbitrary deadlines for negotiations -- or by threatening Israeli military action if America doesn't act with its military might.

Reality is, however, that talk of an Israeli military option is more of a bluff than a threat -- but it is a bluff that never seems to stop giving.

Israel does not have the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran's nuclear program. Even the most successful bombing campaign would only set back the known program for a few years -- without affecting any potential clandestine program. This is not classified information. Military experts are well aware of Israel's capabilities -- and its limits.

Yet, the threat of military action, or rather the bluff, serves a purpose: Threats of military action militarizes the atmosphere. It creates an environment that renders diplomacy less likely to succeed -- it may even prevent diplomacy from being pursued in the first place.

In the Iranian case, Netanyahu's tough talk undermines the Obama administration's prospects for diplomacy in the following ways.

Getting to the negotiating table has proven an arduous task for the US and Iran. Both sides are currently testing each other's intentions, asking themselves if the other side is serious about diplomacy or if the perceived desire for talks is merely a tactical maneuver to either buy time or build greater international support for more confrontational policies down the road. From Tehran's perspective, uncertainty about Washington's intentions during the Bush administration was partly fueled by the insistence of the military option remaining on the table. Tehran seemed to fear entering negotiations that could have been designed to fail, since that could strengthen the case for military action against Iran.

Today, talk of Israeli strikes has similar effects. Tehran has repeatedly failed to appreciate the policy differences between Washington and Tel Aviv, oftentimes seeing them as either a perfectly coordinated team or as a single entity. Consequently, explicit or implicit threats of Israeli military action reduce Tehran's confidence in Washington's intentions.

Furthermore, Iran's sense of a threat from the US (and in extension Israel) is believed to be one of the driving forces of Iran's nuclear program. Whether Iran seeks a weapon or a civilian program that provides Iran with a weapons capability, the program's existence provides Tehran with a level of deterrence against the perceived US threat. The Obama administration's approach seems to have been to reduce Iran's sense of threat in order to kick-start negotiations. The threat of Israeli military action does the opposite -- it fuels Iranian insecurity and closes the window for diplomacy.

Moreover, Israel uses this threat to pressure Washington and the EU to act tough. This has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy towards Iran since the mid-1990s. Even though Israel is reluctant to put itself on the frontline against Iran, fearing that this would counter its message that Iran is the world's and not just Israel's problem, it also fears that the absence of Israeli pressure would cause the West to go soft on Iran. Hence, Israel keeps the pressure on the West -- by threatening military action - in order for the West to keep pressuring Iran. However, under the current circumstances, Israeli pressure may compel the Obama administration to adopt a confrontational approach that is incompatible with the diplomatic strategy President Obama seems to prefer.

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