Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, three former US diplomats warn that “Israel and Iran Are Pulling the United States Toward Conflict.”
In an April 26, 2021, article, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Steven Simon charged that Israel’s efforts to prevent a virulently anti-American regime, Iran, from acquiring nuclear weapons is hastening the likelihood of a US-Iranian conflict.
But this misreads both the situation itself and the very nature of the Islamic Republic.
Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has considered itself to be at war with the United States. Both the words and deeds of its leaders confirm as much.
Indeed, in a leaked conversation that appeared the day before the Foreign Affairs op-ed, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, admitted, “I believe Iran and the US will never be friends as long as the Islamic Republic preserves its identity. Never will our issues with America be resolved.” That admission, made in confidence, is unambiguous. Zarif knows the nature of the regime that he serves.
The regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, was fiercely anti-American, anti-Western, and antisemitic.
As the historian Ray Takeyh observed in his 2009 work, Guardians of the Revolution: “for the grand ayatollah, the global order was divided between states whose priorities were defined by Western conventions and Iran, whose ostensible purpose was to redeem a divine mandate.”
Khomenei’s vision of Iran — a vision shared by his successor and protégé, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — was one in which Tehran would lead an Islamic revolution against designated heretics and enemies, chief among them the US and Israel. Khomeini’s “hostility to Israel was not a cynical strategy of appealing to the larger Arab society,” Takeyh noted, “but an essential and enduring pillar of his ideology,” an ideology that viewed “the relations between America and the Middle East as a battle between good and evil.”
It was a “revolution without borders,” Khomeini declared. And for the last 40-plus years, Iran has acted accordingly, taking Americans hostage and training, funding, and equipping terrorist groups that target the US and its allies like Israel.
Tehran has sheltered Al-Qaeda operatives — including both before and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, murdered hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, plotted to blow up a Washington, DC restaurant, and reportedly planned terror attacks on American airports, embassies, and power grids.
In short: there is no need for Israel to “pull the US into a conflict with Iran.” That conflict already exists, whether certain US politicians and bureaucrats choose to acknowledge it or not. But that conflict could get a lot worse if the Islamic Republic acquires nuclear weapons.
Miller, Kurtzer, and Simon do not, of course, want Tehran to possess nuclear arms. All three have years of commendable service to their country, stretching back decades and across both Republican and Democratic administrations. They are certainly aware that Iran is a hostile actor, noting its proclivity for terrorism. Yet they don’t seem to fully appreciate either Iran’s ambitions or its duplicity.
The three former diplomats refer to the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran for its terrorist activities as “draconian.” Yet, evidence suggests that the sanctions have been effective — not in dissuading Iran from the anti-Western terror that is its raison d’être, but in hindering Iran’s capabilities — the very thing that the three are rightfully worried about.
The three former US officials are right, of course, to be concerned about Iran’s capabilities, even if they do misread the regime’s motivations. But they fail to see that Israel’s actions, far from being a hindrance to the US, are actually an asset.
Instead, they darkly warn that “escalation with Iran may prove attractive to [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu as he faces domestic problems, including corruption charges and a political stalemate.” While conceding that “the Israeli prime minister is too responsible to lead his country to war solely in order to avoid legal troubles,” they assert that “he does stand to benefit” as an Israeli public “would not want to encumber a wartime prime minister.”
Yet, less than two weeks after the Foreign Affairs op-ed, Palestinian terror groups, armed and equipped by Iran, have chosen to attack Israel with hundreds of rockets. It was not Israel that chose to escalate, but the terror groups and their puppet masters in Tehran.
And when it comes to Iran, Netanyahu is well within the Israeli mainstream. His views on the dangers of a nuclear-armed terror state are the rule, not the exception. Both public opinion polls and the statements of other Israeli politicians, including his competitors and rivals, confirm as much.
And instead of lamenting recent alleged Israeli actions in Iran, such as the strike at the Natanz nuclear facility and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the coterie of US officials should see them as a boon to the United States: an opportunity not only to delay the nuclear program, but a means for leverage against Tehran. Instead they write: “there are no easy options available to the United States to divert a determined Netanyahu from the path of escalation that he is on.”
“Washington,” Miller, Kurtzer, and Simon suggest, “would have to make Netanyahu understand that further escalation with Iran would damage US-Israeli relations and that the administration will not back down in the face of domestic political pressure.”
This, of course, was precisely the strategy that the Obama administration pursued. And while it was successful in achieving a “deal” — the terms of which actually allowed Iran to eventually obtain a nuclear weapon and which evidence suggests Tehran violated anyways — it was unsuccessful in maintaining a credible level of US deterrence. In fact, precisely the opposite occurred: American deterrence eroded as a result of the United States purposefully putting “daylight” between the US and its allies in favor of striking a faux accord with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. American allies took note, as did her enemies. For proof, one only need look at the rockets raining down on Israel, fired by Iranian-proxies.
The Jewish state has a core national interest in preventing a fiercely antisemitic regime from obtaining nuclear weapons. So, in fact, does the United States, which has both a strategic interest in combating a shared enemy, as well as a moral imperative in preventing another genocide of Jewish civilization. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons this will lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. To forestall that possibility, the United States must not hold illusions about Iranian objectives, and it must be able to discern the difference between friend and foe.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in the Algemeiner on May 14, 2021)