Why Nations Start Dumb Wars: Is Israel Setting the Stage for Tragedy?
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Wars are fought because some people decide it is in their interests to fight them. World War I was not started over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, nor was it triggered by the alliance system. An “incident” may set the stage for war, but no one keeps shooting unless they think it’s a good idea. The Great War started because the countries involved decided they would profit by it, delusional as that conclusion was.
It is useful to keep this idea in mind when trying to figure out whether the United States or Israel will go to war with Iran. In short, what are the interests of the protagonists, and are they important enough for those nations to take the fateful step into the chaos of battle?
Israel’s Political Problem
According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran is building nuclear weapons that pose an “existential” threat to Israel. But virtually no one believes this, including the bulk of Tel Aviv’s military and intelligence communities. As former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said recently, Iran “is not an existential” threat to Israel. There is no evidence that Iran is building a bomb, and all its facilities are currently under a 24-hour United Nations inspection regime.
So from a strictly security perspective, Israel has little reason to go to war with Iran. But Israel does have an interest in keeping the Middle East a fragmented place, riven by sectarian divisions and dominated by authoritarian governments and feudal monarchies. If there is one lesson Israel has learned from its former British overlords, it is “divide and conquer.” Among its closest allies were the former dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. It now finds itself on the same page as the reactionary monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.
Iran is not a military threat to Israel, but it is a political problem: Tel Aviv sees Tehran’s fierce nationalism and independence from the West as a wildcard. Iran is also allied to Israel’s major regional enemy, Syria—with which Israel is still officially at war—as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.
In the Netanyahu government’s analysis, beating up on Iran would weaken Israel’s local enemies at little cost. Tel Aviv’s scenario features a shock-and-awe attack followed by a UN-mandated ceasefire, with a maximum of 500 Israeli casualties. The Iranians have little capacity to strike back, and if they did attack Israeli civilian centers or tried to close the Strait of Hormuz, it would bring in the Americans.
Of course, that rose-colored scenario is little more than wishful thinking. Iran is not likely to agree to a rapid ceasefire; it fought for eight long years against Iraq, and war has a habit of derailing the best-laid plans. A war between Israel and Iran would be long and bloody and might well spread to the entire region.
Iran’s leaders dispense a lot of bombast about punishing Israel if it attacks, but in the short run there is not a lot they could do, particularly given the red linesWashington has drawn. The Iranian air force is obsolete, and the Israelis have the technology to blank out most of Tehran’s radar and anti-aircraft sites. Iran could do little to stop Tel Aviv’s mixture of air attacks, submarine-fired cruise missiles, and Jericho ballistic missiles.
The United States and Its Allies
For all its talk about how “all options are on the table,” the Obama administration appears to be trying to avoid a war. But with the 2012 elections looming, could Washington remain on the sidelines? Polls indicate that Americans would not look with favor on a new Middle East war, but a united front of Republicans, neoconservatives, and the American Israeli Political Action Committee is pressing for a confrontation with Iran.