Playing Chicken With Iran

Netanyahu and Barak are involved in a high-stakes game of chicken with Iran. But are they still capable of making rational decisions?

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Remember the game of chicken immortalized in "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean? Two drivers speed towards each other in the middle of an otherwise empty road. The first one to swerve is the chicken, who loses, humiliated. The other driver wins, and retains his pride. There is, of course, another very unsavory option: Neither driver chickens out, and the game ends lethally for both competitors.

Imagine a game of chicken in which the public is involved. The public doesn’t want a lethal end to the game. The question becomes: Who will they try to persuade to swerve?

This is a good approximation of the situation between Israel, Iran and the rest of the world. Iran is staying on course – right down the middle of the highway - with its nuclear program. Netanyahu and Barak are staying their course, saying that Israel will attack Iran soon if the international community fails to convince Tehran to stop its nuclear arms race.

There are plenty of interested spectators along both sides of the road.

On one side are the diplomatic efforts to cut a deal with the Iranians, which don't seem to be working. On the other, the U.S.-led sanctions, meant to gradually cripple Iran’s economy until it is forced to flinch.

Both drivers continue to speed down the middle of the road toward each other. The Iranians play tough and say that the sanctions aren’t having any impact, even though there is strong evidence to the contrary. Netanyahu makes a rare public appearance on Israeli TV and says that Israel reserves the right to defend itself, signaling that the international community and Iran should be truly worried.

There is a flurry of high-level visits of U.S. officials to Israel: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta keep coming here, partially to convince Netanyahu and Barak not to attack Iran without U.S. support and probably also to increase the pressure on the Iranians by signaling how seriously the U.S. is taking the Israeli threat.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has just stepped up sanctions, making it even more difficult for Iran to conduct business, and he has further increased U.S. military support for Israel, another signal of serious U.S. support for Israel.

There is, of course, a twist in this game of chicken. Generally the players are alone in the car. But in this particular case, Israel’s citizens are sitting in the back seat. They see the other car approaching on a collision course, but aren't able to do much about it.

The situation seems worrying. There's a heated debate over whether Netanyahu and Barak are handling things rationally. Time and again, Meir Dagan, Israel’s legendary former Mossad chief, has said publicly that it would be irrational for Israel to attack Iran. He recently reasserted his belief that Israel is not under imminent military threat. He gave the very distinct impression that he doesn't trust the decision-making process of Netanyahu and Barak. Yuval Diskin, former chief of the Shin Bet security service, took a similar position in a recent public appearance, saying that Barak and Netanyahu are taking a messianic attitude towards Iran.

Haaretz military affairs reporter Amos Harel has reported on recent conversations with five former defense officials who he says have occupied all conceivable senior positions in the Israel Defense Forces. All have reservations about how Dagan and Diskin have gone public with their views, and all do not necessarily agree that Israel should refrain from attacking under any circumstance. But they all believe that doing so without international, or at least U.S. support could have catastrophic consequences.

It also seems, Harel has reported, that currently active defense officials, including IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, oppose an attack on Iran but may be forced to act against their own professional judgment.

My own conversations with former senior officials in the security establishment have not improved my sense of security. Barak is depicted as a man so deeply convinced of his own brilliance that he does not listen to anybody’s advice. Add that Barak’s political career is likely to be over once there are elections, and you get the picture of a man who may not be acting in the country’s best interest. Netanyahu is described as having difficulty functioning well under pressure.

These are valid concerns. But there's a powerful argument that, conceivably, might outweigh them all – the effect of the Netanyahu-Barak saber-rattling on putting the Iranian issue at the top of the international list of concerns. The U.S. would never have assembled its list of crippling sanctions, and those sanctions would never have been endorsed by most Western countries, were it not for Israeli threats to attack Iran on its own, and Netanyahu's and Barak's accomplishment in keeping that threat alive. Because Israel is the player that needs to keep up the pressure, Netanyahu and Barak cannot step off the gas, and they are not allowed to give any impression that they are likely to swerve away from the collision course toward an attack on Iran.

In other words, they must appear slightly irrational, unconcerned with the possibility of a regional war and indifferent to its impact on oil prices, the world economy and the Middle East’s stability. To do otherwise would make them cease to be credible.

There's only one problem: In any game of chicken, there comes a moment when it becomes difficult for the players to differentiate between conveying the impression that they're determined not to step off the gas and losing the ability to make a rational decision.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak make brief remarks to the media at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, August 1, 2012. Credit: Reuters



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