In all the debate about the ramifications of the coronavirus, one issue has almost completely disappeared – the diplomatic opportunities created by this crisis. As an example, consider a discussion held at the Institute for National Security Studies on April 20 about the impact of the virus on Iran.
The speakers agreed that the coronavirus had significantly weakened Iran’s economy, which had already been hurt by the resumption of Western sanctions in 2018, after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal signed in 2015. Therefore, the discussion concluded, even if the economic crisis doesn’t divert Iran from its aspirations of regional hegemony and nuclear capability, at least its ability to realize these goals has been undermined.
In the political-military thinking of the 1990s, the weakening of an enemy created opportunities to advance diplomatic moves. Thus, for instance, diplomats exploited the PLO’s weakness to promote the Oslo Accords, and Military Intelligence interpreted Syria’s weakness following the dissolution of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to advance peace negotiations.
But in the military-style thinking that has come to dominate the political debate some 30 years later – of which the INSS is a leading exponent – an enemy’s weakness is seen mainly as an opportunity to up the military offensive against them.
One of the institute’s senior research fellows, former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, argues that Iran’s weakness gives Israel an opportunity to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria and perhaps even increasing military pressure to drive Iranian forces out of that country. The head of the institute, Amos Yadlin, says that Iran will continue its nuclear project and regional entrenchment, and that the defense establishment’s job is to prevent this.
And what was never even mentioned at this discussion? The fact that Iran’s weakness is also a diplomatic opportunity.
Zvi Bar’el has reported that some people are urging America to ease sanctions on Iran to help it deal with the coronavirus, on the assumption that this display of compassion could then be leveraged to obtain Iranian moderation. The Trump Administration has been pushing for a compromise with Iran and a renewal of the nuclear agreement since late 2019.
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Yet given our contemporary military thinking, not a single proposal has been raised to advance an Israeli move that would bolster Iran’s moderate camp, which favors dialogue with the West.
Nobody has said that Iran’s weakness isn’t an opportunity for Israel to continue humiliating the country and dealing it further blows, but on the contrary, an opportunity for resolving our disputes. Nor has anyone proposed leveraging the economic weakness in Lebanon, which assuredly isn’t interested in war with Israel right now, to distance the “Third Lebanon War” that is seen in Israeli thinking as a decree of fate.
We shouldn’t go overboard with a naïve approach that bestows complete trust on our enemies. But it would definitely be desirable to promote steps that would intensify the debate in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip about how to behave in order to make gains.
Moreover, exhausting diplomatic opportunities is also in Israel’s interest as a way to postpone future military conflict. After all, given our need to invest resources in extricating ourselves from our own economic crisis, implementation of the army’s ambitious build-up plans will have to be postponed.
“Security” is a subjective term whose interpretation is also influenced by the resources at the political and military leadership’s disposal. Therefore, we need security that’s also based on diplomatic steps, not just military ones. This is an idea that deserves contemplation as we observe Memorial Day.