Israel, Iran and the ‘Prince Charles question’

Prince Charles: While nations must maintain defences against hostile states, they must avoid... stimulating aggression by them. Op-ed.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky ,

Prince Charles HRH Prince of Wales
Prince Charles HRH Prince of Wales
Clarence House

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Prince of Wales’s visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, and Washington DC at the end of April 1981, shortly before his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer. On one of his two evenings in the city, he was the guest of President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn were among the others who attended an untypically intimate and informal White House dinner. On his other night in the American capital, Prince Charles was guest of honour at the annual Oxford and Cambridge reunion dinner. I was lucky enough to attend one of these events.

Through the mists of time, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of my recollections and would not wish unintentionally to misrepresent our future Monarch. However, I can say, probably more accurately than the great Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, “I remember it well.”

His Royal Highness started his speech to the Oxbridge alumni very much in Student Prince mode, evidently making the most of his final bachelor days. Facing recent Cambridge buddies, he threw missiles at them made of crumpled balls of paper. Then, he became more serious and spoke of a lesson about international affairs he had learned as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whether he was mirroring the controversial views of the then head of the College, the former Conservative politician [Lord] RA Butler, I do not know. While nations must maintain their defences against hostile states — I have an idea Prince Charles was referring to the Soviet Union — they must avoid provoking paranoia and thereby stimulating aggression by the enemy.


We are faced by at least three fundamental matters: the rise of Chinese power, an increasingly assertive Russia, and the long-lasting dangers of nuclear conflict in the Middle East.
This thought is more relevant than it has been since the late 1980s in this plague year of 2021. It is arguable that the dangers to a stable world order have significantly intensified. The list of problems is long, varied and potentially grave. In ordinary times, the threats of climate change, carnage in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, the toxic mix of famine and insurgency in parts of Africa, and the danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea would be more than enough.

But we are faced by at least three fundamental matters: the rise of Chinese power, an increasingly assertive Russia, and the long-lasting dangers of nuclear conflict in the Middle East. Moreover, new technologies are, not for the first time, creating novel forms of mischief. Cyber warfare is bound to transform the battlefields of the future, as the head of Britain’s GCHQ has recently warned. The development of social media has created opportunities, it is now widely alleged, for interference by states in elections in foreign countries. Within recent weeks, Nato conducted an important meeting to debate this threat. My email inbox is crammed with reports from leading NGOs and think-tanks in the UK and abroad, warning of the development of strategic “misinformation”. This was the subject of recent reports by the Intelligence Committee of the House of Commons, of a heavily redacted one by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the US House of Representatives, and by Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (Stratcom). These and similar reports are vague because they are based largely on secret and not yet declassified materials.

To divert for a moment from the main objective of this article, foreign interference in electoral and political processes is the only strategic topic on which I have any knowledge. It is based solely on open sources (including declassified documents from past times), conducted over many years including a time during the collapse of the Soviet empire as a consultant in Washington and Bonn to the Policy Planning Staff of what was then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Briefly, my conclusion was that foreign electoral interference was nearly as old as the hills; that great powers frequently used smaller, less exposed allies to do their dirty work; that it was a game played equally effectively by small countries; that covert funding of political parties and elections was by no means the only or the most important channel of influence; that foreign influence projects often had not worked and that covert interference was to be avoided. As to the present, there has been too much speculation about foreign political interference matched by inadequate research and solid fact (at least in the public arena) about the use of new methods in the old trade of propaganda and misinformation. This is the subject for another study.

Now to the main point of this article. I want to draw attention to a vital matter on which I can claim neither expertise nor accurate knowledge. My aim is to raise the alarm and to stimulate responses from those most qualified to express their judgements on the basis of inside access to the facts. I realise, of course, that such persons are likely to be influenced in their assessments by their personal, conflicting policy views. When it comes to determining the accuracy of intelligence judgements, they are too easily affected by the predispositions of those concerned. Objective truths often prove to be elusive.

On 22 April 2021, the liberal Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, published an extraordinary analysis of the contrasting policies and actions of the Biden Administration in the US and of the Netanyahu government in Israel toward Iran.

The Ha’aretz article was written in response to recent Israeli attacks on Iran by Israel, including a major operation on 10 April against the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, south of Tehran. Apart from the ingenious methods used to produce an explosion dozens of yards below ground and thus not subject to aerial bombardment, the most striking feature of the operation was that Israeli public radio did not, as usual, deny or remain silent about Israel’s responsibility. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — who is attempting at the moment to piece together a coalition which will enable it to retain power after the recent, inconclusive Israel elections — not only boasted about the country’s military prowess but also appeared to be giving a warning to the US administration, that the Jewish State will feel free to undermine Washington’s new policy. That policy involves restoring a version of the nuclear agreement with Iran concluded by President Obama in 2015 and subsequently scuppered by President Trump. It may even have been no accident that the strike against Natanz, apparently carried out without informing the Administration, coincided with a visit by the new US Defense Secretary to Israel.

The article in Ha’aretz is highly critical of what it argues is unwise Israeli military action against Iran — unwise because it has been conducted independently of the United States, seemingly with the objective of undermining the policy of the new Democratic administration in Washington of seeking some rapprochement with Iran.

The force of the article stems from its authorship. It comes with the authority of three of the most senior figures in the Israeli intelligence and security establishment. The lead author, Efraim Halevy, a former head of Mossad, was a close relative and friend of the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (who used to refer to Halevy affectionately as his nephew). The other two authors are Aharon Farkash and Chuck Freilich, are respectively a former head of Military Intelligence and a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.

Halevy is not the only former head of Mossad to warn the Netanyahu government against pressuring the US, its main and indispensible foreign ally, by making major military moves against Iran without its approval. Another former Mossad boss, Danny Yatom, was even more strident in his criticism of Netanyahu, on the ground that publicly acknowledging covert Mossad action would serve only to damage the organisation’s operational capabilities.

Halevy, Farkash and Freilich base their strategic recommendations on the following assessments.

First, that the real dangers facing Israel do not amount to the existential threat so often bruited by politicians seeking to gain votes through fear. To quote: “Instead of scaring Israelis with alarmist descriptions of both the immediacy and the existential nature of the Iranian threat, it would be more appropriate to broadcast a very different message, one that is much closer to Israel’s strategic reality. Israel, which was established, inter alia, to ensure that no one could ever again threaten the Jewish people with annihilation, still faces significant threats, but its existence has been guaranteed.”

Second, that the assessment of AMAN, the military intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, is that even if Iran so desires it will take two years before it will be able to assemble a nuclear bomb.

Third, that the core alliance with the United States is so vital to Israel that the cost of attacking Iran as a way to undermine US policy will outweigh any immediate military gains from so doing.

The Halevy group add further arguments. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, does not have the ability to use Iranian-supplied rockets to inflict intolerable damage. This is because there exists a “balance of deterrence” between Hezbollah and Israel and because of Israel’s aerial superiority over Syria. Insofar as Israel is vulnerable to incoming missiles, something the group does not deny, it will be important to devote enough attention to developing further defences against all forms of aerial attack, including UAVs, sufficient to protect its cities as well as its military installations.

The principal worry expressed by these veteran intelligence and security leaders is that the country’s politicians do not appreciate the folly of “an Israeli government campaign against another Democratic administration”, concerning the wish of the Biden team to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. The agreement, for all its faults, is the best available and better than the alternative, namely no agreement at all. Such a strategy of cooperation with the United States does not exclude the need for appropriate Israeli military action in what may, the group implies, be a prolonged confrontation. What they do insist is that any covert action by Mossad should remain covert. Successes should not be advertised to gain votes: military security must not be sacrificed to allow a sitting Israeli government “a fleeting moment of glory and dubious political gain”. Above all, Israel must realise (so their argument goes) that “the relationship with the US has rarely been in such danger” — a spectre which haunts them.

It would be a mistake to characterise their position as one of “doves” against neoconservative policy “hawks”. It appears to be based on a professional assessment governed by realpolitik. In the past, Halevy has criticised the lack of realism of the ill-fated attempts of the 1990s to create a road map to a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, just as he is now warning against the hubris of recent Israeli governments, with their seeming priority of keeping political office at all costs. The underlying need, he and his fellow intelligence experts maintain, is that of strategic patience. Long-term national interests must not be sacrificed to populist political shennanigans.

Israeli military operations conducted for short-term electoral and political advantage at home are reckless if they threaten to destroy the country’s main alliances. The nuclear danger from Iran is a long-term problem that demands a carefully calibrated and changing mix of responses. “Iran and its proxies have adopted a long-term strategy towards Israel and the threats that they present will unfortunately be with us for many years to come. Israel, in response, must adopt an integrated long-term strategy of its own, based on diplomacy, economic pressure and both kinetic and cyber effects.” This certainly will require “ensuring that Israel has the offensive capability to cause significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program and other efforts, should this prove necessary.” But needless defiance of Washington will be deeply against the Israeli interest.

Two very different perspectives are possible. To some, it appears obvious that any possibility of attack by Iran with nuclear weapons inevitably poses an existential threat to the Jewish State. Therefore, it is better for Israel to act against Iran before it achieves the capacity to deliver a weapon of mass destruction. For others — seemingly including a large, and possibly a majority, faction of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment — delay, deterrence, defensive precautions, plus economic sticks and carrots mixed with limited but carefully directed military actions, are wiser choices. After all, even a figure such as Libya’s Colonel Ghaddafi apparently was persuaded to abandon his nuclear pretensions.

How, then, are we, as intelligent but inexpert members of the public, to evaluate highly technical defence matters about which we lack inside knowledge?

The reason why I have written this piece is to encourage some of the real experts, persons with different views and experiences, but hopefully all exceptionally well-informed, to contribute to the debate. Among the “examination questions” to be answered are:

1) Is the Halevy group correct in arguing that Israel faces danger, but not “existential” danger, from Iran?

2) Is a policy of containment, dialogue and trade with Iran more likely to avoid nuclear confrontation then military attack against Iran?

3) Is it correct that even if Iran wishes to produce its own nuclear weapon, it will take no less than two years to do so?

4) Could a direct aerial or other form of military assault permanently or semi-permanently prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power? Or might the attempt prove counter-productive?

5) Do the experiences both of the Soviet Union and of Western powers in Afghanistan and of the West in Iraq show that it is easier to capture than to hold a major foreign territory? If so, could a limited strike against Iran solve the problem of its reported nuclear ambitions more than temporarily? If not, how might a policy of deterrence and containment best work?

6) Finally, the “Prince Charles question”: what is the most effective boundary between a strategy of defence against Iran and an offensive plan? If the answer is that elements of both are needed, what would that mean in practice?

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky was senior consultant on constitutional affairs to Policy Exchange from 2012-2015. He was a member of the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights and consultant to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

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