Bibi: Be Wary, But Don’t Ignore

In light of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in front of congress and the subsequent foolhardy letter sent to Iran by the Republicans, the future of the Middle East has been questioned by many, and with reason. Netanyahu has turned increasingly bold, if rash, to appeal to his base (with much success) and the Republicans have been stubborn in their quest to erode Obama’s bargaining power. In spite of this, predictions of an impending war between Israel and Iran are greatly exaggerated.

Possibly the most alarmist, José Ignacio Torreblanca, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Madrid office, has a message quite radical and presumptive– that the likelihood of war between Israel and Iran will increase “exponentially” if the Republicans win the presidency, especially since Netanyahu was reelected.

The most perplexing aspect of Torreblanca’s article was that he considers Iran to be more rational than Israel. While it’s true that Netanyahu’s words can be considered fearmongering, trying to scare the world about a nuclear Iran, the manner in which Torreblanca presents his arguments is simplistic. Yes, Israel “[keeps its] nuclear arsenal estimated at 60 to 80 warheads and fissile materials out of public debate” but this is not a reason to call the worries of Netanyahu a “bramo” (literally translating to shouting or noise a savage animal), as if Netanyahu was a child (on the contrary, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations used the word “theatre” to describe the speech). Granted, this is not to say that Netanyahu doesn’t at times act childish, but his logic is logical. Iran wants increased hegemony, and that its nuclear inspections are as strict as they are implies that they aren’t trusted. The rationale that Bibi shouldn’t talk because Israel has nuclear weapons doesn’t mean anything; with this thinking NATO and the US can’t talk either.

This isn’t to say that Israel is a perfect ally, but despite softened rhetoric from new president Rouhani (in comparison with Ahmadinejad), the United States still trusts Israel more than Iran. If the rhetoric of Ayatollah Khamenei (like calling the U.S. the “arrogants”) and the dangerous financing of Shia militias continue, there will be distrust. And, more than anything, Israel is an official Major non-NATO ally, which is not going to change soon.

It’s possible that Torreblanca is correct in saying “without US support, Israel would not be an island of development and democracy in the Middle East”, but the reality is that Israel has the support, has had the support, and will continue to have the support, for better or for worse. He can say that the U.S. is the “main supporter” of Israel, but Israel is one of few friends that the U.S. has in the Middle East (and the only one with military power). Moreover, without context, his fact that “more than 3,000 million dollars that US contributors (including Obama voters) transfer annually for military assistance” seems like a lot. Bear in mind though that the U.S. gives 4,500 million USD to the combination of Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan (and this was before the rise of ISIS); 3,000 billion USD to have a strong ally doesn’t appear like much. Additionally, says Lisa Goldman of Foreign Affairs “it seems unlikely that the White House will cut back on military aid or stop vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the UN”. And although there were 27 democrats that declared that they’d skip Netanyahu’s speech, 58 declared the opposite.

Ultimately, I can’t agree with Torreblanca’s idea “it is evident that if Netanyahu is re-elected and the Republicans win the 2016 presidential elections, the chances of a war with Iran will increase exponentially”. Republicans can rarely unite on foreign policy (the recent letter was more of a unification against Obama than anything) and the probable candidate of the democrats, Hillary Clinton, is known as a hawk. Was the republican letter to Iran idiotic? Yes. But Rouhani is smart enough to know that it was nothing more than part of the republican’s political game.

Furthermore, how would Iran fight against Israel? With what coalition? Lebanon? Syria? Hamas? In reality, Iran has more enemies in the region than friends. Saudi Arabia and Egypt (especially with the return of military governance), the two other countries in the region with the most power, are closer to Israel. They don’t want Iran to augment its hegemony just as much as Israel does. And this is beside the point that Israel could annihilate Iran faster than Bibi can say “Nazis”. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan know this all too well. So, saying that the possibility of war being “exponential” is extreme and improbable.

At the same time, Iran has good reason to want to develop nuclear power. As one of the largest exporters of petrol in the world, it would be prudent use nuclear energy domestically in order to export the maximum amount of oil. And yet, it is easy to see where Bibi gets his doubts. Despite a deal apparently (at one point) being reached between presidents Obama and Rouhani, Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed shortly after that “no unconventional inspection that’d place Iran under special monitoring is acceptable. He continued by saying,”all sanctions should be removed just when the deal is reached. If sanctions removal depends on another process then why [have] we started to talk?“ Considering that many of the sanctions involve the buying and selling of arms (of which Iran has sold many to Syria and Hezbollah, in spite of sanctions), Netanyah’s doubts, as hardline as they may be, may have some truth.

Without a doubt though, Netanyahu has to do more than generalize his wants. As Haass notes “What might be a less than vast (and potentially acceptable) nuclear infrastructure was never spelled out” by Netanyahu, and he forgot (more than anything for convenience) to explain how to solve problems like inspections and how an agreement should be written. He has alienated many. But to say that there will be a war? Fearmongering at its best.

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