When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations, enumerating the steps Iran must take to set Israel’s mind at rest regarding its nuclear program, he said that an attack by Israel was inevitable: there was no chance that Iran would meet the four conditions that had been set for it. What was more, the chances that the United States would insist that Iran abide by them were nil. The prime minister is well aware of that. He knows that, in the end, his ultimatum will leave him on his own to face Iran.
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By doing so, the prime minister bound Israel to, and took upon himself, a commitment that he may not be able to fulfill. He could have contented himself with a general statement such as “Iran will be tested by its actions not its words,” but he chose to go into detail. According to him, the Iranians must stop enriching uranium, remove all uranium that has been enriched already from Iran, dismantle the infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability, including the underground facility in Qom and the advanced centrifuges in Natanz, and stop all work on the heavy water reactor in Arak geared toward plutonium production. Only these measures will “put an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program and eliminate its breakout capability.”
It is hard to understand why the prime minister included these four conditions in his speech, unless he truly intends to lead Israel toward a decision to attack. After all, once the talks between the U.S. and Iran begin over the next few months, it will become obvious that the Iranians have no intention of abiding by Netanyahu’s conditions, nor is there any intention of their being imposed on Iran. At that point, Netanyahu’s credibility will be put to the test — a test that will assuredly end in failure.
We should note that Netanyahu’s speech made no mention of the American military option. In other words, Netanyahu seems to realize that there is no chance it will happen. That is why he said, “I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
When the prime minister says that Israel will attack Iran on its own, he is making a hollow threat. Israel has no real military option. Netanyahu hears that again and again from all the professional people who are supposed to carry it out. An Israeli attack could damage Iran’s nuclear installations, but in the best case it would only cause a brief delay in the nuclear program. It is obvious that Netanyahu will not order an attack as long as talks with the Iranians are under way. That could take a long time and, as it passes, the credibility of an Israeli military threat could erode still further.
The tragic part of Netanyahu’s speech to the UN came when he called out, “Hold me back,” and it was obvious that nobody wanted to “hold him back;” his threats to bomb Iran were taken as the whims of a hysterical leader trying to stop a positive historical process by military force. According to an editorial in the New York Times, Netanyahu was seen as a troublemaker, liable to “sabotage the best chance to establish a new relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution sent American-Iranian relations into the deep freeze.”
None of this means that Netanyahu is wrong in his belief that Iran has no real intention of giving up its nuclear option. But even if he is correct, he needs to understand that he will have to change direction and start thinking about how to live with a nuclear Iran.