Who Moved My Iranian Threat?

The brutal tactics of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, make for gripping publicity.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a protest, 2013.Credit: AFP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

In recent weeks, a new threat has arisen to terrify Israelis, wherever they are. It’s a brutal, cold-hearted, fundamentalist enemy, calculated and flush with funds, willing to stop at nothing to destroy us and everything we hold sacred. And it’s coming soon to a border near you!

It has become the dominant topic in Israeli newspapers in the last few weeks splayed across the front pages: Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS. It's in Sinai and the Syrian Golan. It’s recruiting Arab Israelis and decapitating nice Jewish guys.

When it’s not executing journalists it's slaughtering Yazidis and other peoples it feels are less than "pure." When it’s not declaring war on Western powers, it’s declaring war on Twitter. Suddenly, the Islamic State seems to be everywhere.

In Israel too, it seems, the Islamic State has become our new pet menace. Based on the number of words Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has devoted to it in the past two weeks, one might think it's the No. 1 threat to Israel’s security.

Which raises the question: whatever happened to our last No. 1 enemy? You know the one: brutal, fundamentalist, rich and unmerciful.

Ready, set – nothing

Just two years ago, Israel seemed poised to attack Iran (or vice versa), yet yesterday's papers say Iran might be among the recipients of Israeli intelligence on the Islamic State. Even as recently as March 2014, pundits had us fearing that mutual destruction was imminent.

And now, nothing. Even Netanyahu, possibly the last of the world’s leaders to take the Iranian threat seriously, hasn't been speaking of Iran with the same verve, the same gusto as before. Not quite the same Netanyahu that stood in front of the UN General Assembly with a cartoonish drawing of a bomb and a red marker.

Have we gotten bored with the Iranian threat? Have we come to accept a nuclear Iran? Are security threats a matter of fashion, changing with the seasons, and, if so, is Iran out of vogue, like leg warmers? Only good old Henry Kissinger, god bless him, seems to have escaped the political fashion police: This week, the former secretary of state insisted that Iran “is a bigger problem than Islamic State.”

Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 2014. Credit: AP

What happened to the dread that followed, until fairly recently, any mention of Iran? Who even remembers the lines of panicked Israelis waiting outside distribution centers for gas masks, dreading that Israel might attack Iran or Iran might attack Israel before they reach the front of the line? Where is the fear? A kinder, gentler Iran?

Well, it found a new outlet. A nuclear Iran is scary, sure, but Islamic State is so much more photogenic! Its execution videos are slicker, its propaganda so much more effective – and it doesn’t even need subtitles! In a world of incessant, nonstop news cycle, it is possible to talk about Iran, sure – but Islamic State? You don’t have to talk about Islamic State. You can show it.

This is partly a result of the “new Iran”, the relatively Western-friendly post-Ahmadinejad nation, the one making headway in nuclear talks with the West. The one mentioned, these days, as a possible ally of the United States in its fight against Islamic State.

Thus, the No.1 threat to world peace circa 2012, the country that two years ago was allegedly hell-bent on destroying Israel and defying the West, the fundamentalist, extremist, unstable country that was supposed to have had a nuclear bomb by now, might just be the West’s ally in its battle against the new “big bad.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean that Iran is suddenly nonthreatening, or that Islamic State is truly more frightening an enemy than a nuclear-capable Iran. What it means is that the two threats are not judged based on their viability, but on their ability to create media buzz. In a way, that’s always been the way they’d been judged.

And really, how can Iran, with its clerics and centrifuges, compete for media attention with the sexiness of the decapitating, extremist, British-accented, HD-quality-shot, seemingly-unmanagable beast that is IS?

Media panic, like all media-induced hype, has an expiration date. And the “Iranian threat,” it seems, has reached its own. One day, even the Islamic State will seem moderate compared with some new threat that will be even more fundamentalist, even more extreme in its desire to kill us all.

But meanwhile step aside, Islamic Republic. There’s a new Islamic State in town.