A Dangerous Idée Fixe About Iran

Intelligence assessments similar to the one undergirding Israel’s policy against Iran in Syria failed in the past. It still doesn't mean this one will, too, but Netanyahu's statements might end up provoking Tehran

File photo: Syrian air defense batteries responding to Israeli missiles targeting Damascus, January 21, 2019.

Israel’s willingness to escalate its confrontation with the Iranians in Syria has been evident not only in its direct and massive military responses to any attempt to change the rules of the game created years ago, but also in its new tack of taking direct responsibility for carrying out operations, which it left ambiguous in the past. This willingness to go to the brink, and sometimes even cross it, collides with our clear interest in preventing a war in which Hezbollah’s missile arsenal would be used against us.

The intelligence assessment underlying this policy holds that none of Israel’s enemies in the northern theater currently have any interest in an escalation that could lead to war. This assessment is based on the “situational logic” – that as long as the civil war in Syria hasn’t ended, the coalition that is winning there does not want to start a new war. It presumably also rests on information from secret sources and friendly intelligence services, both of which bolster this assessment. In other words, Israel’s intelligence assessment of its conflict with Iran in Syria stands on firm foundations.

But the problem with such assessments, which are predictions based on analysis of intentions, is that they are subject to sharp changes that could lead to severe consequences. Israel has bitter experience with errors in predictions of this type. Two of the worst wars in our history were the product of such errors.

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The first was the Six-Day War of 1967. In the years before the war, the Israel Defense Forces employed an aggressive policy on the Syrian border to prevent what it viewed as an accumulation of threats against Israel. As part of this policy, the IDF initiated and escalated incidents in order to attack the Syrian army. This activity reached its peak in April 1967, when the air force downed six Syrian fighter jets, some of them over Damascus.

The intelligence assessment behind this policy was that the Syrian army was too weak to confront the IDF on its own, and as long as the Egyptian army was busy with the civil war in Yemen – a quagmire it had been bogged down in since 1962 – Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser wouldn’t risk a conflict with Israel.

Much like in the conflict with Iran today, this idée fixe about the “Yemenite quagmire” proved correct for years, and the Egyptian border remained quiet. But as the conflict escalated on Israel’s other borders, Nasser came under increasing pressure to take action. And in the end, when Israel’s military moves threatened his leadership of the Arab world, he gave in to this pressure, sent his army into the Sinai Peninsula, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel and forged a pan-Arab coalition that posed a real threat to Israel.

It’s true that the crisis in May-June 1967 ended in a crushing Israeli victory. But it’s worth recalling that it stemmed from an intelligence idée fixe that proved to be mistaken, and which was similar in character to the current one.

The second example was the lack of warning before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The idée fixe in this case is much better known (as the misguided konceptzia), but it’s important to remember that it, too, was based on the assumption that a status quo which the Egyptians considered intolerable – one that left them with no options, either military or diplomatic, for regaining the Sinai – wouldn’t lead them to start a war because of the IDF’s clear military superiority over the Egyptian army.

Here, too, this concept proved accurate for years. But in the end, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took a risk and decided to start a war. And in this case, adhering to the idée fixe led to dire consequences.

That intelligence assessments similar to the one undergirding Israel’s policy against Iran in Syria failed in the past doesn’t necessarily mean the current one is destined to fail too. Nevertheless, two things can be learned from these past failures.

First, before the idée fixe suddenly collapsed, there were growing signs that it might no longer be valid. That was true in both 1967 and 1973, and a move such as Iran’s recent launch of a heavy missile at Israel from Syria may be a similar indication. Second, there’s a limit to the pressure that Israel can exert on its foe without eliciting a harsh response, and the border could easily be crossed completely by accident.

The young, talented, enthusiastic pilot who downed a Syrian MiG-21 over Damascus two months before the Six-Day War didn’t intend to start a war, and neither did those who sent him on this mission. Nevertheless, the downing of this plane had a significant impact on Nasser’s cost-benefit calculations and his decision to confront Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive statements against Iran certainly also have a deterrent effect. But when he told the Iranian leadership in a public address at the United Nations last September that Israel would find anything it hid, and when he needlessly boasts of the achievements of the IDF and the Mossad, he is humiliating Iran’s leaders. And this might push them into a corner in which they will have no choice but to take military action.

If they do, they and their allies will pay a heavy price. But so will we.

Uri Bar-Joseph is a professor emeritus at the University of Haifa.