Going it Alone: Israel's Cold War with Iran

Netanyahu has failed to defeat Obama's deal with Iran, as was inevitable. To survive, Israel must radically change its foreign policy: stop viewing itself as American serf, recognize its status as a regional power - and fight fire with fire.

Ari Soffer,

OpEds Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer

It's painfully clear by now that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed in his mission to prevent a bad deal with Iran.

Even before Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski became the 34th Senator to endorse the deal last week, thus ensuring a presidential veto of a congressional vote against would stand, there was a sense of inevitability which Team Netanyahu alone did not share. Now, with the White House obtaining the 41 Senators needed to filibuster any vote altogether - with change to spare - that defeat for Netanyahu has turned into a rout. Adding insult to injury, the carefully stage-managed drip-drip of Democratic support for Team Obama demonstrated that there was never really any doubt of a White House victory - they were merely savoring the moment.

And a bad deal it most certainly is, in so many ways - if anyone needed reminding: The farcical 24-day warning period preceding any "surprise" check on nuclear sites; the fact that Iran can still continue enriching uranium, won't need to shut down its heavy water plants, and can continue research and development into faster, military-purpose centrifuges; the permission to continue its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program; that Iran isn't required to end its support for terrorism or vicious incitement to destroy Israel. All this, and more, while achieving an end to economic sanctions which will pour billions into Tehran's coffers and fuel its aggressive, imperialist foreign policy.

Now the Israeli foreign ministry is going into damage-control mode, insisting Israel never really committed to stopping the deal in Congress, and unconvincingly claiming a "victory" of sorts by virtue of there being a simple majority against in Congress and among the American public. No one is really buying it, of course. Even though Netanyahu never said so explicitly, the message was abundantly clear that stopping the deal was precisely what he was trying to do; and the fact remains that a simple majority against is not enough to stop the deal, and hence not a victory in any sense of the word.

Instead of trying to save face, policymakers in Jerusalem must now be asking two tough questions. First and foremost, why and how did Bibi fail? More specifically, how could successive Israeli governments fail to achieve an objective (preventing a bad deal) that they themselves framed as utterly existential?

Secondly, and most importantly, how can Israel move forward from here? What can Israel do now to offset the looming threat posed by the deal which Obama is determined to pass, and will pass, thereby empowering and emboldening an already hyper-aggressive Iran and all but ensuring that it will, at some point in the future, achieve nuclear breakout capacity?

A matter of strategy, not tactics

The answer to the first question is that Bibi never really stood a chance of stopping the deal in the first place. The power to pass or reject the agreement was never in his hands - if the leaders around the table in Vienna or Lausanne believed it was in their interests, financially or otherwise, to cut a deal, no third party would ever convince them otherwise.

His failure to recognize that fact was the reason he barged through Congress like a bull in a china shop, wreaking considerable damage to the bipartisan support for Israel there. It was not a "blunder" but a calculated risk, one which seems rational at first glance: losing some Democratic support is surely a price worth paying to stop Iran from clinching a deal which both paves its way to nuclear weapons and empowers it, via sanctions relief, to greatly escalate its support for deadly terrorism throughout the Middle East.

The only problem was that it wasn't a risk at all, just a failure waiting to happen.

That take-no-prisoners approach was not, as some left-wing commentators suggest, the reason Netanyahu "lost" congressional Democrats to the White House. The truth is he never had them; with all the lobbying, interviews and tough rhetoric, no matter how eloquently and clearly he details the gaping holes in the agreement, it's clear Netanyahu never stood a chance - whatever he did he was never going to succeed in persuading enough Democrats to take his side over their own president's. If he had only recognized that fact he would surely have reconsidered the costs of going all-in regardless of the long-term diplomatic consequences.

The real question, therefore, is not why Netanyahu failed to convince Congress to reject the deal, but why he could not see beyond that option - and what alternatives he had, and still has, at his disposal.

One reason for his error lies in the uniquely irrational bedrock of Israel's foreign policy: our total reliance on our "special relationship" with the United States. Putting aside the nature of that relationship (and the US is indeed our greatest ally), the notion that a sovereign state should rely on any other country to secure its own interests and security, no matter how lovey-dovey that relationship sounds or feels, is a fatal error. There are no "friendships" in international relations, and even "shared values" will only take you so far; the only currency of any enduring worth is cold, hard interests. And Obama's America, for better or for worse, right or wrong, believes this deal is in its interests.

That fallacy is a relic of the ghetto that our Jewish leadership has failed to completely shake off. To be a "free nation in our land," as our national anthem declares, Israel must first stop viewing itself as a humble, if beloved, serf of the United States, or of anyone else. That means that sometimes we will have to go it alone in a very real sense. To shake off that fallacy, the State of Israel must come of age politically - and recognize its true position as a regional power of no lesser caliber than its Iranian nemesis.

Nuclear weapons are not the problem

Another reason for Netanyahu's failure was his singular focus on preventing Iran obtaining nuclear weapons capability. That eventuality is not in Israel's hands. Only the collective will of the international community can prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation, and clearly that will has been rapidly eroded by a combination of sheer cowardice, the prospect of major trade deals (read: greed), and Obama's indomitable ego.

It is important at this point to recognize that the option of a direct Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is now out of the question. That ship sailed long ago. Not only would it be logistically and physically impossible without US support, but an attack at this late stage would at best set back Iran's nuclear program by a few years, while exacting a massive diplomatic cost on Israel for publicly slapping the face of every major world power that signed the deal. In short, even if it could be pulled off, the costs would far outweigh the benefits.
Yes, the Islamic Republic is ruled by extremist, fanatical, messianic, even genocidal theocrats - but they seek world domination, not suicide.

That said, and as surprising as this may sound, Iran's procurement of nuclear weapons per sa - now or in the future - is not the primary threat to Israel. The notion that Iran's leadership, unlike for example the Soviet Union, is utterly "irrational" and so fanatical that it would surely launch a nuclear war with Israel, even if it meant mutually-assured destruction, is another fallacy that has led the Netanyahu administration astray. The palaces, addiction to power and blatant empire-building of Tehran's ruling junta belies that assessment. Yes, the Islamic Republic is ruled by extremist, fanatical, messianic, even genocidal theocrats - but they seek world domination, not suicide.

In this context, as with the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are a powerful political tool rather than a military one. Iran will not use a nuclear weapon against Israel because Israel's second-strike capability is the (purposefully) worst-kept secret in the Middle East. Instead, Khamenei and co. aim to use those weapons - or at least the capability of building them - as the ultimate insurance policy to keep them entrenched and impervious to direct attack from anyone - even the US - no matter how brazenly Iran pursues its empire-building project.

So while Iran would represent a far greater threat with nuclear weapons than without, the actual threat itself comes not from nuclear warheads that will never leave their silos, but from Tehran's aggressive actions on the ground, steadily taking over one Arab capital after another via its array of vicious proxies in an attempt to attain total regional hegemony and encircle the "Zionist entity" - at which point, in its view, it won't need nuclear weapons to wipe Israel from the map.

Cold War: fighting fire with fire

What then can Israel do, with its Iran policy in tatters and no direct military option on the table?

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon last month hinted Israel could revive its covert operations program to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage the program itself. But that is no strategy.

For a start, even in its heyday Israel's covert ops campaign could only ever delay the Iranian nuclear program, not stop it, and certainly had little impact on Iran's wider aggression. More importantly, Israel's previous covert campaign was made possible only via close coordination with western intelligence agencies - and ended precisely because western states shelved their own operations in favor of pursuing detente with Tehran. What's more, one particularly troubling clause within the deal itself commits western powers to actively helping Iran to protect its nuclear sites against sabotage or other direct threats.

It should be abundantly clear by now that the solution to the Iranian threat does not lie in pursuing the same strategies which failed in the past. The answer, instead, is for a radical shakeup of Israel's foreign policy. Instead of maintaining an eternally defensive-reactive posture towards Iran's creeping encirclement of Israel's borders - via Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others - while praying someone else (America) solves the problem for them in the long run, Israel must take the fight to Tehran, by fighting fire with fire.

Our struggle with Iran is, in a sense, our very own "Cold War" - and we must begin waging it as such.

To understand what this entails, consider the actions of another state equally concerned about the nuclear deal: Saudi Arabia.

Along with its Sunni Arab neighbors, the Saudi Kingdom feels just as threatened by Iran, is just as opposed to the deal, and is just as bitter and alarmed at the way in which its interests have been shunted aside by its "allies" in Washington and other western capitals, as Israel is.


Our struggle with Iran is, in a sense, our very own "Cold War" - and we must begin fighting it as such.
And yet, while Saudi leaders have surely made their views known in conversations with their western counterparts, there was no shouting from the rooftops, no public, hysterical cajoling, urging, and, when that failed, virtually begging foreign leaders to reconsider selling them down the river.

Similarly, despite all the calls in Tehran to overthrown the "House of Saud," we see no endless appeals to western powers to "stop Iran's incitement" (a demand which is simultaneously futile and weak-sounding).

Instead, the Saudis - particularly under King Salman's rule - simply rolled up their sleeves and set about stopping Iran themselves wherever possible, by going go toe-to-toe with Tehran and frustrating its every imperialist move in the region - whether western leaders like it or not. 

In Yemen and Syria for example, robust Saudi support for Sunni forces has tipped the scales against Iran's proxies to Riyadh's north and south - the Assad regime and its allies, and the Houthi rebels, respectively. That support was delivered in spite of American opposition in Syria in particular, where the White House still wrings its hands and agonizes over which specific rebel faction it feels 100% comfortable backing, or indeed over whether it even wants the rebels to win at all. 

Saudi Arabia's efforts at heading off Iran's creeping expansionism do not end there. Riyadh's recent outreach to Hamas - much to Tehran's fury - is equally aimed at rolling back Iran's regional influence, by cleverly plucking a key ally from the Islamic Republic's orbit. At the same time, the united front formed by Saudi Arabia and its gulf neighbors appears to have swayed fence-sitters such as Kuwait to finally align themselves against Iran as well, providing the Saudis with a cohesive bulwark to their east.

It goes without saying that all of this is occurring while Saudi Arabia continues to massively invest in its own military - which includes both preparing contingencies to obtain "off the shelf" nuclear weapons in the future should Iran opt to "break out" (American disapproval be damned), while simultaneously demanding the US make good on its many "security guarantees" by substantially bolstering its conventional capabilities.

Such is the way of the Middle East. Might is not merely measured by one's military expenditure or by what you "could do," but by perceptions of strength, and the knowledge of what you will do. Sometimes, in a tough neighborhood, you need to throw your weight around to let your enemies know who's boss.

Israel as a regional power, not a victim

Israel, like Saudi Arabia, is a regional power. It may not have the vast oil wealth (or lack of democratic oversight) that enables Riyadh and Tehran alike to pour endless funds into the coffers of rebel groups or other proxies, but there is no question that Jerusalem still has considerable resources at its disposal to push back against Tehran with equal force.

Consider for a start - as Iran happily funds groups bent on Israel's destruction such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and others; and as it cozies up to the PLO and attempts to even set up terror cells in Judea and Samaria - that timeless adage about people living in glass houses. Indeed, within Iran - or rather, Iranian-occupied territory - there is no shortage of disaffected groups whose resentment at being occupied, colonized and forcibly assimilated by the Persian-Islamist elite bubbles and seethes just beneath the surface.

From the Kurds - who only yesterday engaged in bloody clashes with Iran's Revolutionary Guards - to the Baloch, to the Ahwazi Arabs, all of whom have mounted armed insurgencies against the Iranian state over the occupation of their lands and discrimination against their people, Iran's hypocrisy as it rants about "illegal occupations" is as glaring as its inherent vulnerability.

Efforts by Israel, possibly in coordination with its newfound Sunni Arab allies, to escalate, arm and train such insurgencies would be a fitting response to Iran's support for regional terrorism. It would simultaneously end Tehran's sense of invincibility and impunity (and nuclear weapons wouldn't help them either), while draining its resources (and cancel out any benefits from sanctions relief), forcing it to focus them domestically rather than on foreign policy adventures. 


Such is the way of the Middle East... In a tough neighborhood, you need to throw your weight around to let your enemies know who's boss.
Israel has engaged in proxy warfare of this kind in the past, most notably in south Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan - the latter of which still remembers with fondness Israel's support against Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. The time has now come to approach this strategy not as a one-off adventure (part of the reason Israel failed in Lebanon) but as a long-term struggle - Israel's own "axis of resistance," if you will - one which will not only stem Iran's imperialist march, but build new alliances for the future. (All that is besides for the fact that identifying with and supporting indigenous minorities struggling for independence against Arab-Islamist imperialism is an inherently Jewish, Zionist imperative.)

Israel should similarly join in efforts to deny Iran the allies it needs to maintain its grip on surrounding countries. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, as many of Iran's ostensible "allies" are begrudging ones at best, entering into the Iranian orbit only due to lack of better alternatives. 

In southern Syria for example, where Hezbollah is attempting to make inroads, the Druze minority is growing increasingly disgruntled with the pro-Iranian Assad regime. Despite the growing threat from Sunni Islamist rebels, Druze support for Damascus is slipping amid a sense of abandonment on the one hand - as the regime pulls back to its western strongholds - coupled with endless demands for fresh recruits for Syrian forces in a war that appears increasingly futile and costly. The desperate regime appears to be responding by killing Druze dissidents - a strategy that will only further alienate the community.

Israel has already vowed to protect the Druze from encroaching jihadists, and can and should go further still by offering them additional support, both military and humanitarian, thereby prizing them from the grasp of Iranian influence altogether. Together with Israel's covert support for moderate Syrian rebels in the south (a more complicated project given the presence of less "moderate" forces as well), this approach would create a valuable buffer to Israel's north.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan are two other places where Iran is attempting to make headway, in an effort to establish a contiguous pro-Iranian belt extending to Lebanon. But Tehran's simultaneous support for the Assad regime and brutal Shia Islamist Arab militias - neither of whom are viewed favorably by the Kurds to say the least - in addition to its oppression of its own Kurdish minority, offer an opening to Israel and its allies to exploit. The Kurds have no love for Iran - there is no ideological solidarity there as there is vis-a-vis Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad - but they are in a desperate situation and have been largely abandoned by other potential allies. Israel could both offer its own direct support, while lobbying for and coordinating western and Arab support at the same time, thereby pulling them too from Iran's orbit. 

At the same time, Israel should continue to boost security ties with its Egyptian and Jordanian neighbors to establish a cohesive bloc against Iran (and ISIS).

Such a strategy would totally undercut Iran in its march westward, and contain it to a flagging Assad regime in Syria, an overstretched and increasingly isolated Hezbollah, and a motley band of Arab Shia Islamists in Iraq.

There is no question that such a radical and ambitious shakeup of Israeli foreign policy requires far more thought, and caution, than can be encapsulated in a single essay. But there is, equally, no question that sitting still and doing nothing, or pursuing the same futile strategies of the past, are not viable options, and never were.

To succeed, Israel must shed its self-image as an eternal victim and realize its true status as a regional power - a position well-earned, by the Grace of God, through the blood, sweat and tears of its people. In this struggle, Israel will have the upper hand; Iran's arrogance and aggression has earned it no shortage of enemies, and much of its regional alliance or "axis" is standing on increasingly shaky foundations.

It is also worth considering that the Iranian regime's own stability relies on its momentum abroad, as it denies its people basic rights and fritters away their taxes on foreign adventurism. While the regime still has momentum and is able to claim one "victory" after another, it is easier for it to quash domestic political opposition and draw attention away from its miserable domestic record. How would that change were the tables to turn, and Iran's influence in the region to be steadily rolled back?

How would the Iranian people - particularly its educated middle-class - respond to continued investment in a failed empire-building project at their own expense? Unlike in Israel, the Iranian people have no true democratic outlet to demand change. Would the regime collapse from within, as the USSR did before it?

Whatever the answers to those questions, it is clear that with the passage of the Iranian nuclear deal Israel is entering into a new phase in its struggle against an Iranian regime sworn to its destruction. Our reliance on western patronage and largess failed, as we should have predicted - now it's time to go it alone.




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