The current drive to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal reflects two important and interrelated changes. From Israel’s perspective, these changes are to be welcomed, though its government must remain cautious about the country’s own role.
The first change is the escalation of efforts by the US and its Western allies to abort the Iranian regime’s nuclear quest. This was instigated in part by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s finding in November last year that Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapon and that it is getting perilously close to crossing the “red line” — the point beyond which its progress could no longer be stopped.
Moreover, the US and its allies understand that failure to take serious action might prompt Israel to launch its own unilateral military offensive.
The second change is the perception that Iran’s nuclear capacity would threaten not only Israel. In a speech to the Union for Reform Judaism in December last year, US President Barack Obama said that “another threat to the security of Israel, the US and the world is Iran’s nuclear program.”
However, by this month, Obama was saying of Iran that “my No. 1 priority continues to be the security of the US, but also the security of Israel and we continue to work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this.”
That choice of words was no accident; rather, it was a sign that the US is changing tack when it comes to Iran. For more than a decade, the question: “Whose issue is it?” has been part of the policy debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon used to caution his colleagues against “rushing to the head of the line” on Iran.
Sharon said that if Israel were to take the lead in sounding the alarm on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the issue would be perceived as yet another “Israeli problem.”
Indeed, some said this was another case of the tail wagging the dog — that Israel and its lobby in the US were trying to push Washington into serving Israel’s interests rather than its own.
For example, political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote in a paper published prior to the release of their book The Israel Lobby: “Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose an existential threat to the US. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China and even a nuclear North Korea, then it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the [Israel] lobby must keep constant pressure on US politicians to confront Tehran.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been less worried than Sharon was about Israel’s perceived role. He is too busy being directly engaged in the attempt to eliminate the deadly threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.
Prior to the 2009 election that brought him to power, Netanyahu campaigned on the Iranian danger and his government made the issue its cardinal concern. Together with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading Obama and the rest of the world that Israel was preparing a military attack as a last resort, should the US and its allies fail to stop the Iranian program in time.
That policy has been effective, but it has also drawn attention to Israel’s influence on the Iran question. Curiously, this has not been held against Israel, at least not so far, partly because Obama and other leaders now regard Iran as a more serious threat and therefore feel the need to take appropriate action.