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Beware of Conventional Wisdom About Iran

As Israelis and their government continue to debate the merits of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the contempt for American foreign policy realists for the idea the Jewish state might decide to act in its own defense is considerable. Contempt for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be the primary motivation for the latest missive for James Traub, one of the realists leading writers, that appeared in Foreign Policy on Friday. Rather the focus on the “zone of immunity” that many Israelis and others worried about the nuclear threat believe Iran may be entering as its stockpiles get larger and are stored in invulnerable bunkers, Traub is more interested in what he calls, as the title of the piece puts it, the “zone of insanity.” As far as he is concerned Netanyahu and Barak are nuts to even think about acting without the permission of the United States.

But the answer to Traub’s points comes in his own column. Even the Obama administration now understands diplomacy and sanctions have failed. The only possible diplomatic solution is to agree to a compromise lauded by Traub that would leave Iran’s nuclear project intact. Under these circumstances, it is fair to ask who’s insane: The foreign policy realists who have been wrong about just about everything about the Middle East for decades and who now expect Israel to wait patiently for Iran to go nuclear or Netanyahu, who understands all too well that the Israel-hating ayatollahs mean what they say about eliminating Israel. If these purveyors of conventional wisdom are now counseling further inaction or more feckless diplomacy, that’s good reason for Israelis to think hard and long about attacking Iran soon.

Traub believes, not without reason, that the recent flurry of leaks and open talk of an Israeli attack are motivated by a desire in Jerusalem to force the hand of the Obama administration. The president’s current strategy about Iran is to kick the can down the road until after the November election. If re-elected, he may then have the “flexibility” to back down from his pledges not to accept or “contain” a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu may hope the threat of an Israeli attack may motivate the president to obligate the United States to use force sooner rather than later as attempts to talk Iran off the ledge continue to fail.

Realists oppose such red lines. They also dispute the veracity of recent reports of a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate revising previous erroneous rulings about Iran giving up the quest for nuclear weapons. But if they claim supporters of a tougher policy on Iran endorse such a conclusion because they want to raise the pressure on Tehran, those who oppose action are arguing the new NIE is non-existent because that suits their pre-existing notions about what should be done. But even Jeffrey Lewis, another realist, wrote in Foreign Policy two days earlier specifically to cast doubt about the intelligence about Iran, concedes that there is no doubt the Iranians have already done work towards nuclear weaponization but claims it’s merely old news and nothing to get excited about.

Traub, almost in passing, also mocks those who have written about the depth of the anti-Semitism of the Iranian regime and chortles about Netanyahu’s endorsement of such columns. But the day Traub’s piece was published, Iran held its annual Al Quds day in which millions were turned out to chant “death to Israel” and the country’s leaders competed with each other as to who would make the most extreme statements about the elimination of the Jewish state. Iran’s government, media and religious institutions (all of which are under the thrall of the ayatollahs) are drenched in Jew-hatred and routinely spew hateful rhetoric. Iran also is the major sponsor of terror groups that kill Jews and Israelis whenever they can. Yet realists seem to think talk about such topics is irrelevant to the question of allowing Iran to go nuclear or the urgency of acting before it is too late.

The dangers that an attack on Iran would present to Israel and the world are real. But having been as wrong about the Palestinians’ desire for peace as they are about Iran’s willingness to back away from the nuclear abyss, the realists have no credibility to bring into this argument. Israelis do well to worry about the implications of acting on their own but Traub’s efforts to minimize the risks of doing nothing ring hollow in the ears of those tasked with defending the existence of the Jewish state.

If they are serious about persuading Israel to stand down, realists like Traub would do better to pressure President Obama to start acting like he means business about Iran rather than obviously signaling that he doesn’t. Neither the Iranians nor the Israelis believe the president wants to do anything but avoid making a decision on this most dangerous foreign policy dilemma.  But until their minds are changed, Traub’s jibes at Netanyahu will continue to ring hollow.


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