Do Israeli Leaders Really Think Iran Is an Existential Threat?

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine will feature a big piece, already available online, by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman called "Will Israel Attack Iran?" The first paragraph sets a dramatic scene featuring Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak. As Sabbath eve approached two weeks ago, and Barak "gazed out at the lights of Tel Aviv," he said to Bergman, "This is not about some abstract concept, but a genuine concern. The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map."

Actually, the Iranians aren't a nation whose leaders have set themselves that "strategic goal." They are a nation with a crackpot president who (a) isn't the country's supreme leader and doesn't have the power to order an attack on Israel; (b) did say "the occupying regime must be wiped off the map" (or "vanish from the page of time"--the translation is disputed); but (c) later said he was referring to eliminating the Zionist form of government, not the people living under it; and (d) said the way to achieve this was to give Palestinians the vote--and that if they opted for a two-state solution rather than a single non-Zionist state, that would be fine, too; (e) also said that Iran would never initiate military hostilities with Israel.

In sum, whatever you think about President Ahmadinejad (and I think he's pretty horrible), or about what he said or about the sincerity of his subsequent qualifications of what he said, for Barak to say Iran's "strategic goal" is Israel's annihilation is a bit misleading.

But let's leave aside the facts of the case. Could Barak really think that, even if Iranian leaders had said they would launch a first strike, they'd actually do such a thing? To believe that, you would have to believe that the Iranian regime is literally suicidal, since Israel's nuclear retaliatory capacity is very robust (not to mention the fact that the event wouldn't exactly go unnoticed by America). Does Barak really believe the Iranian leadership is crazy?

Here's something he said in 2010 that didn't make it into the Times Magazine piece: "I don't think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, (would) drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality."

It's enough to make you think that maybe as Barak "gazed out at the lights of Tel Aviv" he was thinking to himself, "Hmmm, this guy says he's writing a story for a major American media outlet. Maybe if I sound sufficiently terrified, he'll report that Israel is determined to launch a military strike before too long, thus scaring America into either ratcheting up sanctions to even higher levels or going ahead and bombing Iran."

Of course, maybe Barak didn't think that. But if he did, then Ronen Bergman has made him a very happy man. The piece's final paragraph begins, "After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012. Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all..."

Barak isn't as alarmist as some. He concedes in the Times Magazine piece that "Iran has other reasons for developing nuclear bombs, apart from its desire to destroy Israel." For example: "An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West." Got that? Two of the reasons the Iranian regime wants the bomb are (1) to launch an attack that would be literally suicidal; and (2) to ensure its survival. (No wonder Israelis think the Iranians are crazy!)

Notwithstanding my doubts about Barak's agenda, Bergman's piece is well worth reading--richer and more nuanced than my selective summary might suggest. Meanwhile, if you want another view of what Israeli government officials are thinking, Trita Parsi, who just published a book called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, has this appraisal:

[Edit note, 1/27 8:30 a.m. EST: In the 6th paragraph I changed "ratcheting up sanctions to regime-change levels" to "ratcheting up sanctions to even higher levels."]