In the Arena

Netanyahu Unhinged

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Jeff Goldberg has an interview with Binyamin Netanyahu that is probably more depressing than alarming, since you’ve got to figure that the new Israeli prime minister is mostly blowing smoke when it comes to his over-the-top talk about Iran. (He’s entitled to blow, by the way, so long as the mullahs go around talking about Israel as a “cancerous tumor.”)

Netanyahu’s view–if this effusion actually reflects his view–stands in opposition to much that is known about Iran and its leaders. For one thing, they are a dismal, hateful, occasionally violent lot, but they have no history of behaving irrationally in international affairs. As the 2007 NIE on Iran’s bomb program found, the Mullahs will respond to international pressure–and Netanyahu seems to agree, here, when Goldberg catches him in an inconsistency:

 “I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.” When I suggested that this statement contradicted his assertion that Iran, by its fanatic nature, is immune to pressure, Netanyahu smiled thinly and said, “Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”

There are other notable examples of Netanyahu’s ignorance and myopia in the interview. This, for example, is vile to the point of borderline racism:

Iran “wasted over a million lives without batting an eyelash … It didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness. It wasn’t Britain after World War I, lapsing into pacifism because of the great tragedy of a loss of a generation. You see nothing of the kind.”

It is also wildly untrue. The impact of the Iraq war remains an open, searing wound in Iran. You can see the victims on the streets in Iran, shaking and tearing uncontrollably, begging, with signs saying “chemical victim of the war” around their necks–or, at least, you could when I last visited in 2001. In fact, it is the memory of that war–Iran’s helplessness against the rockets that fell in Tehran and Saddam’s chemical attacks on the battlefield–that is a prime motivation for the desire to have a bomb as deterrence. It is also a reason why those Iranians who are most opposed to the government do not resort to violence: “We’ve had too much of violence,” a reform newspaper editor told me. “Every one of us has lost some one. We want reform, not revolution.”

Netanyahu is also completely wrong when he says that Iran, with a bomb, will be able to coerce Arab neighbors to its side. The precise opposite is true: Iran with a bomb would touch off an Arab arms race. The very prospect of Iran with a bomb is freaking out the Arabs now–in private, your average Egyptian, Jordanian or Saudi diplomat is far more passionate about the threat from Iran than the “atrocities” Israel undertook in Gaza. 

So, what’s going on here? A smokescreen, I suspect. Netanyahu–who is opposed to a Palestinian state–is trying to draw attention away from illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which continue to grow and threaten the possibility of a two-state solution. He is also playing to the minority of American Jews who support neoconservative positions, especially the notion that Iran having a bomb would be somehow different, and more threatening, than Pakistan having a bomb–the idea that Iran is run by mad mullahs, who behave irrationally. 

In truth, the Iranian factions that want to resume the bomb program are behaving with utmost rationality. The single fact on the ground that makes an Iranian bomb extremely likely, if not inevitable, is the existence of Israel’s bomb. As long as the Israeli Prime Minister goes around threatening to attack Iran, the Mullahs are going to  want some way to counter that.