A month ago my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg joined me for two rounds of Q-and-A about the heated military rhetoric between Israel and Iran. My main question was whether Prime Minister Netanyahu could really be serious in his threats to bomb Iranian facilities if he thought that Iranian progress toward nuclear-weapon capability has passed a "point of no return" -- and that the United States wasn't going to attack on its own.
I phrased it that way -- could he really be serious? -- because the judgments I had heard from US and international military figures for nearly a decade had so consistently indicated that this was not a plausible plan. A spasm, yes; something that made either tactical or strategic sense, no. (I am aware of the main counterargument: the claim from strike advocates that, even if bombing Iran is a bad idea, Israel would have no choice about averting an "existential" threat.)
Therefore I thought that at some level this had to be bluff -- to force the U.S. toward a harder-line policy, to ramp up international pressure, generally to move the options and terms of argument in the direction Netanyahu preferred. You can read the previous rounds, and Jeff Goldberg's explanation of why he thinks Netanyahu has been in complete earnest, here: first, second, and third.
A lot has happened in this past month, and Jeff Goldberg has agreed that it's time to continue the discussion. So here goes.
Thanks for agreeing to further discussions on the state of relations among Israel, Iran, and the United States. And after the preamble above, I'll try to limit myself to one question: shouldn't we feel better about this whole situation than we did a month ago?
It's just one question, but naturally it will take me some space to set it up.
By "better" I mean that the chance of an Israeli strike in the foreseeable future has gone down. You and I agree that such a strike would have terrible military, economic, and diplomatic consequences. The question is whether the Netanyahu government will conclude that nonetheless it must go ahead -- and that Israel could sanely and prudently go ahead with a strike. "Prudently" in terms of the reaction from the United States, possible retaliation against Israel, ramifications for the world economy, and other effects.
That seems less likely and imminent now, for two reasons.
The minor reason is the upshot of the "P5 + 1" talks in Istanbul this month. To save you saying it: I realize that talks like this usually go nowhere. And I recognize that it's not easy to think of an agreement that will simultaneously satisfy
- the Iranians, who insist on the right to some uranium-enriching capacity within their borders, for "peaceful" purposes, as in principle they can do under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty;
- the United States (and a slew of other countries), who insist on for-real, intrusive inspections to make sure that the enrichment stays within those peaceful terms; and
- the Israeli government, which is so skeptical of any guarantees, commitments, or even inspections involving the Iranians that it believes it cannot safely live with any Iranian enrichment capacity at all.
But there are many recent reports suggesting that the talks were not an automatic and instant failure. Here are a few: from a LA Times reporter, another from the LAT, from the BBC, and from Bloomberg.
Maybe this is all a ruse and playing-for-time ploy by the Iranians. But maybe not. Negotiations on "impossible" issues do not always fail - Dayton, Northern Ireland, the Camp David talks of 1978, the Shanghai Communique of 1972. Conceivably this could be another for the list.
The major reason for the changed prospects is something else. In my view it is the recently widened international publicity about longstanding disputes within the Israeli security establishment over the apocalyptic, "never again!"-Holocaust framing that Prime Minister Netanyahu has brought to coping with Iran.
Last week it was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Benny Gantz, with his "let's slow down here" message. As you pointed out at the time, Israel's military leadership, like America's, is distinctly less enthusiastic than some politicians about launching an attack. (Although of course if politicians gave the order, military leaders would carry them out.)