Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently took to the Sunday morning political talk shows to dodge accusations that he has been meddling in America’s presidential election. “We’re supported by Democrats and Republicans alike,” he insisted. That’s true. Netanyahu’s remark is a reminder that a rational discussion about Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s security is consistently undermined by the pusillanimous groveling of both parties to the security demands of Netanyahu and his right-wing Israeli allies.

The media generally attributes the Democrats’ support for Netanyahu’s government to the party’s need for Jewish votes and campaign contributions. As for the GOP, the media attributes its support to the influence of evangelical Christians, who value Israel for the role it is supposed to play in the end times. Apart from these partisan considerations, there is long-standing support for Israel on the part of most Americans, who admire Israel’s courage, acknowledge its legitimate security needs, and view it in the context of the centuries of persecution that culminated in the Holocaust. The question Netanyahu has usefully raised is whether his own definition of Israel’s security needs is in the interest of the United States—or, indeed, of Israel. It seems fair to ask whether the prime minister isn’t playing chicken with his own country’s security. Not only is he undermining the current sanctions against Iran; he also seems to be blackmailing the White House, signaling that, unless the U.S. government commits itself to attacking Iran if it crosses a “red line,” Israel might launch its own attack on Iran, thus putting itself at risk and forcing Washington to go to war in Israel’s defense.

Netanyahu claims that the Iranians are within six or seven months of having 90 percent of the enriched uranium they would need to make a bomb. Nobody else speaks with such assurance about this—not his own intelligence services and certainly not the U.S. military or intelligence agencies. To the contrary, U.S. officials say it is not yet clear that Iran is now planning to build a nuclear weapon, that there’s still time to act if it does, and that the sanctions regime already in place should be allowed to work. With a UN resolution in hand, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have pulled together a large coalition to enforce stringent sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and international financial transactions. As a result, the country’s oil exports are down by 44 percent, while the value of its currency has plummeted (the rial is now 12,700 to the dollar). The aim of these sanctions is to force Iran to curtail its nuclear-enrichment program and turn over materials that exceed those needed for peaceful uses. So far, Iran has stalled, refusing to surrender what it claims are legal amounts of enriched uranium.

There is no guarantee that the sanctions will work. But there is no guarantee that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would work either. Experts say that even if Israel bombs, Iran’s nuclear program could be back on track in two years—four years if the United States does the bombing. Meanwhile, the Iranian government continues to claim that it does not have a nuclear bomb and has no plans to build one. If the country were attacked, though, its plans might change—so an attack on Iran could lead to the very outcome it was meant to prevent.

These scenarios and others are spelled out in a new report from a group of retired U.S. national-security officials, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Leslie Gelb, Sam Nunn, Daniel Kurtzer, and Anthony Zinni (“Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” [.pdf]). Their analysis takes the Iranian threat to Israel and the rest of the region very seriously. Yet in weighing the consequences of an attack against Iran, the report points to potential outcomes that are often overlooked. Some of those who favor bombing Iran also favor overturning its government. The new report suggests that this would require a full-scale invasion and a decades-long occupation far exceeding the material and human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the attacks were confined to nuclear facilities, the report considers it probable that Iran would respond by attacking Israel and, if the United States were involved, by attacking U.S. facilities in the Middle East and closing the Strait of Hormuz. The authors say Iran’s retaliation would likely involve both conventional warfare and covert operations.

In view of these risks, the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts deserve robust support, and Netanyahu’s untimely ultimatum should alarm his allies in Congress. As it has already alarmed many Israelis.

Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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