As Jonathan noted, the New York Times seems determined to downplay Iran’s verbal threats against Israel, first eliminating them from its report on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech last week and then dismissing them as mere “posturing and saber-rattling.” And I can understand why: Israel is the only country to be openly weighing military action against Tehran’s nuclear program. So dismiss the validity of the threat Iran poses to Israel, and you’ve also seemingly dismissed any need for military action.
The only problem with this approach is that far from being the only country seriously threatened by Iran, Israel may well not even be at the top of the list. To understand why this is so, it suffices to recall Saddam Hussein. Saddam also threatened night and day to destroy Israel. Yet the country he actually tried to wipe off the map wasn’t Israel, but Kuwait.
Nor is this surprising: Saddam’s Iraq, like today’s Iran, aspired to dominate the region. And for that purpose, taking over neighboring Kuwait was far more useful than attacking Israel, both to acquire Kuwait’s bountiful oil fields and to undermine another contender for regional dominance, Kuwaiti ally Saudi Arabia.
Because Israel is isolated from the rest of the Middle East, it is completely irrelevant to the internal jockeying for supremacy among the region’s various Muslim powers. Hence, if Iran’s goal is regional hegemony, then attacking Israel would be a sideshow, just as it was for Saddam – who, while launching a full-scale invasion of Kuwait, made do with lobbing a token 40 Scuds at Israel. The most important targets would be Iran’s regional rivals, first and foremost Saudi Arabia and its allies.
That is why, as Wikileaks revealed two years ago, Arab countries have consistently demanded more forceful American action against Iran. Saudi Arabia, for instance, delivered “frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran,” demanding it “cut off the head of the snake.” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi warned that “[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” King Hamad of Bahrain said Iran’s nuclear program “must be stopped,” because “the danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” Lebanon’s Saad Hariri urged military action by saying, “Iraq was unnecessary. Iran is necessary.” A senior Jordanian official said even though bombing Iran would have “catastrophic” consequences, “he nonetheless thought preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would pay enough dividends to make it worth the risks.”
What all these countries know is that they, rather than Israel, might well be Iran’s first targets – but unlike Israel, they lack the military capability even to credibly threaten to attack Iran themselves. And because these countries include some of the world’s major oil producers, that should be of great concern to the West.
None of this means the Iranian threat to Israel isn’t real: Even if a nuclear Iran never attacked Israel directly, it could still wreak havoc via satellite groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But Israel is far from being the only country threatened by Iran. And it’s about time Western pundits and policymakers woke up to that fact.