Patrick Cockburn: Israel's threats of war are more potent than war itself

World View: Warnings of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities are probably only bluff, but thanks to the US and widespread gullibility, they are proving effective

Related Topics

The air is full of dire warnings of an impending Israeli attack on Iran. Prophets of doom point fearfully to the meeting tomorrow in the White House between President Barack Obama and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as crucial in making the decisions that will lead to peace or war.

Many Israeli and Western commentators adopt a tone so portentous about this meeting that parody is difficult. For instance, Ari Shavit writes in Haaretz that "next Monday... each will see the abyss in the other's pupils". Mr Shavit does not reveal what lies at the bottom of this ocular cavity, but he sternly warns the American and Israeli leaders that if they don't work together "they will bring disasters on their nations".

Wars in the Middle East commonly come as a surprise and are aimed at catching the enemy napping or, at least, with little preliminary warning. This was true of the Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, and even Nato's air assault on Muammar Gaddafi's tanks as they advanced on Benghazi a year ago. Where the build-up has been slow, as in America's wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003, it is because the US was certain of victory.

The highly publicised impending Israeli air strikes on Iran are different from these previous conflicts in several respects. First, they are extremely unlikely to achieve their declared aim, which is permanently to end Iranian capacity to build a nuclear bomb. A bevy of former Israeli intelligence and army chiefs, along with senior serving American officials, say this cannot be done. An Israeli attack is, if anything, likely to push Iran into building a nuclear device, a decision that, it is generally admitted on all sides, it has not yet made.

Second, the Israeli assault will not only come as no surprise, but it will be one of the most heavily publicised events in the world in recent years. Promoters of Hollywood blockbusters must look with envy at the pre-publicity for this war. Israel's Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak, makes bloodcurdling threats. The US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, even put a date on the attack, saying to journalists that there is a "strong likelihood" of an Israeli air assault this spring. The New York Times reverently quotes Israeli officials saying Israel might attack Iran without telling the US. The Hollywood analogy is apt: there is something very stagy about these oft-repeated threats, though the international media happily take them at face value.

There is a persistent misjudgement that mars much of the commentary on the relations between Israel, Iran and the US. This is to do with the size and the military capacity of the protagonists.

Taking its threats at face value, Israel is saying that it will fly its planes to Iran and destroy widely dispersed and heavily protected Iranian nuclear facilities. But this is the same air force that in 1996 and 2006 failed to defeat a few thousand Hezbollah guerrillas dug into bunkers a few miles from Israel's northern border. Two years later, the bombardment of tiny undefended Gaza killed some 1,300 civilians, but failed to eliminate the Hamas leadership.

Israel is more influential when threatening war than when actually fighting one. The last time Israel conclusively won a war was in 1973, and only after serious setbacks. Its prolonged incursion into Lebanon brought only humiliation and failure.

Israeli leaders do very little militarily with which the US seriously disapproves. It is Israel's relationship with the US, not Iran, that is crucial. Israelis sense this and do not vote for leaders who get on permanently bad terms with Washington, as happened to Netanyahu to his cost in the election of 1999. Israeli attitudes are reflected in a poll, conducted for the Brookings Institution and released last week, which shows that only 19 per cent of Israelis favour a unilateral strike on Iran without US support. This figure goes up to 42 per cent if an Israeli strike does have American backing. A third of Israelis is against a strike in any circumstances.

All these are reasons why Israel's threats of imminent war against Iran are most likely high-quality bluff. Yet it is a bluff that has, so far, proved successful in isolating Iran politically and economically. Israeli leaders in their hearts may secretly not feel as threatened by an Iranian bomb as they claim. In any case, the US National Intelligence Estimate (the collective opinion of its intelligence agencies) confirms Iran has not taken a decision to build a nuclear weapon, and has not had a programme to do so since 2003. Even then, one agency concludes, the Iranians were only doing so in case Saddam built a nuclear bomb. If Iran does succeed in building nuclear devices, it will be deterred from using them by the far greater arsenals of Israel and the US. Deterrence works – witness the US-Soviet Union standoff during the Cold War.

Of course, Israel would prefer Iran to be without nuclear weapons, but they scarcely pose the threat to Israel that Netanyahu and Barak pretend. But their repeated threats to strike Iran before it strikes Israel have proved highly successful in persuading Europe, and much of the rest of the world, to join the US in imposing economic sanctions. They would scarcely have done this without having been persuaded that the alternative was a new war in the Gulf.

The sanctions are effective: Iranian oil exports are being crippled, international trade links are being paralysed, domestic prices are rising swiftly and, in the long term, support for the authorities in Iran is being sapped.

This is a further reason for suspecting that threats of war are overblown. The US and Israel may publicly differ on how to respond to Iran's nuclear programme, but they are at one in wanting to change the regime in Tehran. Here they are making more progress than seemed likely a year ago. Syria, Iran's main Middle Eastern ally, is fighting for its life and, in the long term, is unlikely to survive. The number of people and parties boycotting the Iranian parliamentary election last Friday shows a divided, increasingly unpopular Iranian regime. Israel's threats of war are turning out to be more potent than war itself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Engineers / Senior Electronics Engineers

£25000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in Henley-on-Thames, this...

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Misleading Translations: the next 40

John Rentoul
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project