Is there an honest discourse about Iran in Israel?

Last month I did a piece on LobeLog about a talk given by Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University professor, who’d gone to Israel and was surprised at the dearth of serious academic discussion on Iran. He wondered if this didn’t contribute to the wild-eyed paranoia in Israel — particularly in its policy-making — about the Islamic Republic (ruled by a “messianic apocalyptic cult,” etc.). We always hear from Israel that Iran must be considered as a fundamental annihilationist state and simply can’t posses nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

I received a few reactions from Israelis complaining that their national academic discourse on Iran was just fine, thank you. Questioning it was clearly not welcome.

Iran may indeed go nuclear one day. Yet in an article in the Jerusalem Post, you’ll find Dr. Boaz Ganor — deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government at IDC Herzliya, one of the most influential Israeli universities in the sphere of security — in essence telling the United States: “Fine!, if you won’t bomb, you’ll need to create a ‘second-strike nuclear alliance’ that will obliterate Iran the second it uses a nuclear weapon.”

More amazing than the nuclear revenge pact is the far-fetched conclusions about what a nuclear Iran would do. Ganor writes that the Islamic Republic has been trying, since its very inception, to export the revolution and build its global clout. With a nuclear arm, this exportation of revolution would not only be stepped up — it  it would work. Iranian proxies and allies would be untouchable by their opponents, and Iran would become a “radical Islamic nuclear superpower.”

Here’s the problems (or at least a few of them):

1) If Iran is exporting the revolution, they’re doing a damned poor job. In an apparent three decades of relentless efforts, the Islamic Republic has built revolutionary clout only in Southern Lebanon and, freed up by the U.S. invasion, in Iraq. Neither case, however, is a done deal. Shia Republicans control neither country, though both play a role in government. (Though, hilariously, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, changed its name after the U.S. invasion to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI. Get it? The Revolution already happened! Thanks, America!)

2) Speaking of Iraq — although this is one of the two places where some tiny bit of Revolution has maybe been exported, Ganor still lists it as a place where “Iran will not hesitate to use vassal terror organizations…to promote its interests.” Ummm… So I guess that’s one other country we have to take off the list for now. That leaves only Southern Lebanon! Next Ganor says Iranian forces will quickly overrun every oil field in the Mid East , including Saudi Arabia. Continuing, he adds: “Under the Iranian nuclear umbrella, [its proxies] will be immune to reprisal.”

This may be true of some of Iran’s other regional adversaries. But can anyone seriously think that Israel, if threatened in any manner whatsoever, will hesitate even a second before it attacks, drops bombs, snatches-and-grabs, or anything else it feels necessary to defend itself, whether or not Iranian has a nuclear bomb? I doubt it.

3) “A radical Islamic nuclear superpower” — puh-leaze! I mean, one could say “regional power,” and it’d be hard to argue against. But “superpower”? Flinging these words around to serve the paranoid fantasies of one Israeli academic devalues the term. The hyperbole is astounding. (I’ll note that Ganor’s primary policy recommendation to prevent a nuclear Iran is by “a sweeping military operation,” and “only one country has the power to take on an operation of this scale.” That, naturally, is the good ‘ole U.S.A. This must be the reason for the line that this will make “the Cuban Missile Crisis look like child’s play.” So perhaps this is why he throws around “superpower” — to appeal to the vanity of another “superpower.”)

Despite these three very hollow points, he goes on to say: “This is not a worst-case scenario, but a completely reasonable estimate of what will happen from the moment Iran achieves nuclear capability.”

So here’s my question for my Israeli friends and colleagues: Does anyone take seriously the war-mongering of this academic from “one of the leading schools of public policy, diplomacy, foreign policy and strategy in Israel?” Do Israeli academics laugh this off? Write letters to the editor? Petition their bosses that this guy is not an Iran expert and needs to be pushed back?

One of my friends who does NGO work described her conversation with a prominent Israeli politician from Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party in Israel. She asked why the party wasn’t more out in front of the Iran issue — working to build a coalition around opposing the overheated Israeli rhetoric that would, in her view, make a disastrous war with Iran inevitable. The politician said the party wasn’t capable, and that the Israeli stream of hostility to Iran was too difficult to swim against.

Are Israel’s academics liberated from — or swimming with — this stream? Inquiring minds want to know.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. RE: “We always hear from Israel that Iran must be considered as a fundamental annihilationist state and simply can’t posses nuclear weapons under any circumstances.” – Ali Gharib
    EXCERPT FROM THE OBSERVER GUARDIAN, 09/21/2003: …Without a ‘just, comprehensive and lasting’ peace which only America can bring to pass, Israel will remain at least as likely a candidate as Iran, and a far more enduring one, for the role of ‘nuclear-crazy’ state.
    Iran can never be threatened in its very existence. Israel can. Indeed, such a threat could even grow out of the current intifada. That, at least, is the pessimistic opinion of Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
    …In this situation, he went on, more and more Israelis were coming to regard the ‘transfer’ of the Palestinians as the only salvation; resort to it was growing ‘more probable’ with each passing day. Sharon ‘wants to escalate the conflict and knows that nothing else will succeed’.
    But would the world permit such ethnic cleansing? ‘That depends on who does it and how quickly it happens. We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force. Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: “Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.” I consider it all hopeless at this point. We shall have to try to prevent things from coming to that, if at all possible. Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.’
    SOURCE –

  2. “Iran may indeed go nuclear one day” — good to see Mr. Gharib beginning to grapple with reality on this issue. The so-called nuclear revenge pact is just deterrence by another name, and deterrence is certainly preferable to war.

    Nuclear-armed or no, Iran is increasing its influence in the region, and particularly in Iraq. By 2015 or so our influence in Iraq will be a thing of the past; Iran will have taken our place. This would be more palatable if we could cozy up to Iran in the meantime.

    We have to deal with two overwhelming facts: 1. Israel possesses enormous and apparently unshakeable influence over U.S. Middle East policy; 2. Iran will remain suspicious of us so long as we are tethered to Israel.

    Given this reality, we should be happy if war with Iran is avoided and a radical Shia (i.e., Sadrist) regime does not take over in Iraq. More than this we cannot hope for.

    We may go broke and have to withdraw from the Middle East entirely. So there is a bright side to national bankruptcy, after all!

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