Instead of a Stick, Time to Give Iran the Carrot

Iran is a more rational state than Yemen or Libya, it is more democratic than Saudi Arabia, and has a more stable system than Pakistan.

No doubt, Meir Dagan wins on points. The former Mossad chief's remarks got bigger headlines than the ones on the Ofer family's ships. But which is more threatening to Israeli security: the possibility that an Israeli company does business with Iran and pops the balloon of Iranian threats that Israel has done so much to inflate, or Defense Minister Ehud Barak's categorical statement in a Haaretz interview that Iran will not attack Israel even if it acquires a nuclear bomb?

Perhaps the real danger is the clash of Israeli security oracles, each one of them purporting to be a wizard who can cite the exact year when Tehran will gain a nuclear capability, never mind that not one predicted the mass demonstrations in Iran after the 2009 elections. These are analysts who feed the U.S. government and Israeli people information on each particle of enriched uranium, while not really understanding how the Iranian regime works. They're the ones who bandy about the military option, while admitting that this option would be catastrophic for Israel.

Maybe the strategic threat to Israel is precisely the confusion, the lack of clarity and, most importantly, the disputes between intelligence agencies about what poses an existential threat. Is it the Iranian bomb, whose assembly has now been deferred to 2015 (according to Dagan ) or 2013 (according to Israeli intelligence officials ). Or is it the demonstrators from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt who might today charge through the borders into Israel; the opening of the Rafah crossing, which is liable to turn Gaza into southern Lebanon; or UN recognition for Palestinian statehood in September?

Sometimes it seems as if the existential threat is Israel's very reason for being - without it, what would we do here? Take Iran, for example. On the one hand, it poses an existential threat; on the other, both the Ofers' ships as well as Dagan and Barak's comments reveal the emptiness of the fight against the Iranian threat.

For more than 30 years sanctions of one sort or another have been slapped on Iran, but whenever it seems these sanctions might work, another 100 companies are discovered that have ignored the restrictions, and investors arise who view the sanctions as a good business opportunity. Monitoring of these sanction-breaking companies is stiffened, but as long as countries such as China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela and Qatar do business deals with Iran openly, it's unrealistic to expect real change.

The rebellion of Iranian citizens against the regime was not sparked by the sanctions, and political disputes in Iran center around not the nuclear issue, but around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic and social policies. The effort to hamper Iran's technological capabilities using sanctions has failed. Spreading computer worms might have delayed Iran's nuclear program, but Tehran has knowledge, components and resources, and the regime is propelled forward by its motivation to prove that it can withstand the sanctions.

"The military option is the last alternative, not preferred or possible, but a last resort," Dayan decreed, without providing an alternative. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bill to impose draconian sanctions on the supply of products that are likely to assist Iran's oil industry. But this is just an American option, not an international one. A group of six states (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany ) has already tried the diplomatic option unsuccessfully. And now that top Israeli figures are ruling out the military option, it's hard to see what's left.

Another approach is to redefine the nature of the Iranian threat. Negotiations can be conducted with Iran about its place in the world, rather than about the type of weapons it possesses or is likely to possess. This process can seek to clarify why Iran is thought of as a global threat, rather than Pakistan or India, countries with proven nuclear capabilities that threaten each another.

This option assumes that the ayatollahs' regime is not necessarily a suicidal one. Iran is a more rational state than Yemen or Libya, it is more democratic than Saudi Arabia, and has a more stable system than Pakistan. All these other countries - including Libya until its civil war - have relations with the United States. The world has invested tremendously in the option of the stick. A few thoughts might be devoted to the carrot option.