By Itamar Rabinovich, Project Syndicate, Feb 16 2012
TEL AVIV – The current drive to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal reflects two important, and interrelated, changes. From Israel’s perspective, these changes are to be welcomed, though its government must remain cautious about the country’s own role.
The first change is the escalation of efforts by the United States and its Western allies to abort the Iranian regime’s nuclear quest. This was instigated in part by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s finding in November 2011 that Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapon, and that it is getting perilously close to crossing the “red line” – the point beyond which its progress could no longer be stopped. Moreover, the US and its allies understand that failure to take serious action might prompt Israel to launch its own unilateral military offensive.
The second change is the perception that Iran’s nuclear capacity would threaten not only Israel. In a speech to the Union for Reform Judaism in December, US President Barack Obama stated that “another threat to the security of Israel, the US, and the world is Iran’s nuclear program.” But, by this February, Obama was saying of Iran that “my number-one priority continues to be the security of the US, but also the security of Israel, and we continue to work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this…”
That choice of words was no accident; rather, it was a sign that the US is changing tack when it comes to Iran. For more than a decade, the question “Whose issue is it?” has been part of the policy debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, used to caution his colleagues against “rushing to the head of the line” on Iran. He argued that if Israel were to take the lead in sounding the alarm on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the issue would be perceived as yet another “Israeli problem.”
Indeed, Israel’s critics were already arguing that this was another case of the tail wagging the dog – that Israel and its American lobby were trying to push the US into serving Israel’s interests rather than its own. The most egregious examples of this view were statements made by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In a paper published prior to the release of their much-debated book The Israel Lobby, they argued:
“… Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose an existential threat to the US. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China, and even a nuclear North Korea, then it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the [Israel] Lobby must keep constant pressure on US politicians to confront Tehran.”
Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been less worried than Sharon was about Israel’s perceived role. He is too busy being directly engaged in the attempt to eliminate the deadly threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.
Prior to the 2009 election that brought him to power, Netanyahu campaigned on the Iranian danger, and his government made the issue its cardinal concern. Together with his defense minister, Ehud Barak, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading Obama and the rest of the world that Israel was preparing a military attack as a last resort, should the US and its allies fail to stop the Iranian program in time.
That policy has been effective, but it has also drawn attention to Israel’s influence on the Iran question. Curiously, this has not been held against Israel, at least not so far, partly because Obama and other leaders now regard Iran as a more serious threat, and therefore feel the need to take appropriate action.
The international community must underscore that its members are acting in the service of their national interests, and not simply for Israel’s sake. But their willingness to engage could wane, particularly if sanctions exact a high financial price or military action causes a large number of casualties.
Israel would therefore be wise to remember Sharon’s cautionary words, and reinforce its pressure on the US administration with a broader diplomatic campaign. Like it or not, Israel must urge the world to remember that Iran is everyone’s problem.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador of Israel to the United States (1993-1996), is currently based at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the Brookings Institution.