Israel Is Facing Iran in a Two-person Poker Game

Iran will either expose Israel's bluff or risk suffering a military strike.

This is the Israeli version of the prisoner's dilemma: If the International Atomic Energy Agency's new report on Iran and the flood of reports about Israel's intent to attack Iran result in a new set of sanctions on Tehran, Israel will have to decide if that's enough, or if it must nonetheless attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

If, on the other hand, the United Nations finds it difficult to approve significant additional sanctions, due to opposition from China and Russia, Israel will face a terrible dilemma. If it doesn't attack Iran, it will lose its credibility: The international community will no longer take notice of its empty threats. But if Israel does attack, claiming that the international community is indifferent, it will turn "the Iranian problem" into an Israeli problem, thus effectively absolving the international community of any need to act.

This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "After what happened in the Second World War, the survival of Israel is essential, and its creation was a central political event of the 20th century. We will not compromise on this." This statement alone is enough to show to what extent Israel has managed to reduce the global threat posed by Iran to a local threat against Israel. This, by the way, is the very same Sarkozy who warned in April that an Israeli strike on Iran would be "disastrous."

Israel's deliberate chatter did not merely divert attention from fear of Iran's nuclear program to fear of an Israeli response. It also transformed the question of Israel's response from a strategic dilemma into a logical dilemma. No longer is this a dilemma whose key questions are whether Israel can actually carry out a military strike, whether it knows where to attack, whether it can withstand an Iranian counterattack or what the political implications might be. The key question now has been reduced to whether it's reasonable for Israel to attack - or in other words, whether Israel will act like an irrational country that doesn't even consider the consequences of its actions.

This question places Israel in the same position as Iran, since the main question about Iran is also one of rationality: Is Tehran willing to suffer a deep economic crisis and possible loss of life just to maintain its nuclear program?

The international effort to impose further sanctions - or to offer incentives for stopping the program - is based on the assumption that Iran is a sensible, logical state, and that eventually, it will act rationally. If, on the other hand, one accepts the Israeli viewpoint that Iran is not a rational country, but rather the state equivalent of a suicide terrorist, then there's really no point in further sanctions, because in any case, sanctions can't persuade lunatics to change their ways.

And this is where the contradiction in Israel's logic lies. If the thunder and lightning coming from the Israeli government are meant to encourage the international community to impose more sanctions in order to forestall "Israeli lunacy," this implies that Israeli still sees Iran as a rational state that might change course due to international pressure. Such a conclusion ought to lead to a series of diplomatic moves rather than military threats, which force even Iran's opponents, including most European and Arab states, to unite behind opposition to an Israeli military strike. And when even Israel's friends - those it still has left - are opposed to military action, then even the cliche that "all options, including the military one, remain on the table" becomes worthless.

Because when Israel pushes for a military strike, it turns out that the military option is suddenly opposed by a united international front. Thus the implied threat that is supposed to deter Iran becomes an empty threat if Israel doesn't attack immediately. But Israel doesn't really want to do that: It just wants to threaten, so that the international community will wake up. And there's the rub.

Now, Israel faces Iran in a two-person poker game, in which Iran will either expose Israel's bluff or risk suffering a military strike. But in either case, Israel will find itself in a critical situation from which only the international community can rescue it, by imposing sanctions on Iran. But what if it doesn't?

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