Colin Kahl: Israel threats to strike Iran not “merely bluffing”

In an interview with Al-Monitor‘s Laura Rozen, the Obama Administration’s former top Pentagon mideast advisor, Colin Kahl, explains why he isn’t writing off Israel’s latest threats about Iran from key decision-makers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak as mere saber-rattling:

Al-Monitor: Why are the arguments that it is not just saber-rattling more compelling?

Kahl: First, US and European sanctions have nearly maxed out. So what additional benefit does the saber-rattling produce here? Second, the P5+1 process is on hold for the moment and a major breakthrough on the accelerated timeline envisioned by the Israelis is unlikely. Not to mention the fact that some Israeli decision- makers seem skeptical of the benefits of diplomacy, period. Third, despite the saber-rattling, the Iranians don’t fear an Israeli strike (although they might fear a US strike). So Tehran isn’t likely to make a concession in the near-term just because of an Israeli threat.

Finally, the Israelis would seem to know that the prospect of a US strike before the [November 6 US presidential] election is very low, regardless of their posture. This is not primarily for political reasons, as some suggest, but because Iran is not likely to cross US red lines this year. So the prospect of an Israeli attack is unlikely to drive Obama to war before November.

So, I think it is more likely Israeli leaders are preparing the Israeli public for a strike, and creating a narrative for the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have failed and thus Israel has no choice.

Kahl, a Georgetown Professor who is advising the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, summarized his position about using the “military option” on Iran this June in a report he co-authored for the Washington-based think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS):

A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a significant challenge to U.S. and Israeli interests and would increase the prospects for regional conflict. Nevertheless, a preventive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program by either the United States or Israel at this time is not the best option, and rushing to war would risk making the threat worse.
In Al-Monitor‘s “Back Channel” blog, Rozen also points out an Associated Press report indicating that even mainstream American news media are aware of the fact that the majority of the Iran-threat rhetoric is Israeli-orchestrated:

“Although Israel’s leaders frequently lament all the Iran ‘chitchat,’ make no mistake: It’s they who are fueling the discussion,” the Associated Press notes in a report on “Israel plunged into unprecedented debate on Iran war.”

The United States’ “red line” on Iran (an Iranian nuclear weapon), which differs from Israel’s “red line” (Iranian nuclear weapon capability), is one reason why the U.S. remains reluctant to give in to the Israeli pressure campaign. From the CNAS report:

Until Iran appears poised to weaponize its nuclear capability, however, the preferable option is to continue the current combination of pressure and diplomacy. All options, including preventive military action, should remain on the table, but policymakers should recognize that the potential risks and costs associated with using force are high. Military action should remain a last resort, which should be contemplated only by the United States and only under stringent conditions.

Kahl tells Rozen that the two Israeli leaders are convinced that they have to rely on themselves when it comes to dealing with Iran — another Israeli-pushed narrative that’s being reinforced by U.S.-based Israel advocates like Jennifer Rubin — and while that may be the juiciest part of the interview, the following stood out for me (emphasis mine):

Al-Monitor: It’s worth noting these arguments are being made primarily in the Israeli media, as opposed to the international media — The New York Times, CNN, etc. as in the past. This is an argument being made to the Israeli public.

Kahl: It’s very interesting… One explanation may be that it is an intentional effort to condition the Israeli public. Israel appears to be going through the Iraq dynamic we in the United States went through in 2002-2003 [ahead of the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq]. And as Time’s Tony Karon noted the other day, there are only so many times you can tell the Israeli public that they face a “grave and gathering threat of annihilation” before Israeli politicians, for the sake of their credibility at home and abroad, have no choice but to act.

Don’t miss Iran policy expert Gary Sick’s take on the Israel-strike-Iran debate.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.