The Emperor’s New-Old Nuclear Clothes

How is it still possible to write a lengthy article about the military/strategic dynamic among the triad of Israel, Iran, and the United States while making zero mention of Israel’s robust nuclear-weapons capability? New York Times staffers Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, and their editors at the Times magazine clearly think this is quite okay. In their recent lengthy article, “The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran,” Bergman and Mazzetti looked at the U.S.-Israeli coalitional aspect of the past 17 years in the project to prepare for launching military or special-ops actions against Iran. They followed in the long tradition within the big corporate media of deliberately ignoring Israel’s nuclear capability, a factor that is central to any understanding of the forces at play in the Middle East and also, crucially, those at play in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

The authors’ omission of any mention of Israel’s nuclear capabilities-and the ability these capabilities have long given to the country’s leaders to exert strong, continuing nuclear blackmail on Washington-is one serious flaw in their narrative. Another is that they seriously downplay the importance of the fact that Israel’s military is incapable, on its own, of inflicting debilitating damage on Iran’s nuclear program using only “conventional,” that is non-nuclear, weapons. (The two lacunae could perhaps be linked, as we will see below.)

Early in the article, Bergman and Mazzetti set the scene for how they see the strategic dynamic among Israel, Iran, and Washington by citing an analysis provided by Ilan Goldenberg, who was an up-and-coming Pentagon official in the Obama administration. He described the dynamic as:

a kind of three-way bluff. Israel wanted the world to believe that it would strike Iran’s nuclear program (but hadn’t yet made up its mind). Iran wanted the world to believe it could get a nuclear weapon (but hadn’t yet made a decision to dash toward a bomb). The United States wanted the world to know it was ready to use military force to prevent Iran from getting a bomb (but in the end never had to show its hand). All three were taking steps to make the threats more credible, unsure when, or if, the other parties might blink.

This is a “sexy” and intriguing description of the situation-except that the first of those three bluffs assumes that Israel could mount a significant strike against Iran’s nuclear program if it were just to “make up its mind” to do so. But later in the story, the authors admit that nearly all Israel’s military leaders have judged for many years now (including during the Obama years, when Goldenberg was in the Pentagon) that Israel was not capable of successfully mounting such a strike on its own.

Or at least, these military chiefs were most likely making their assessment based on plans to use only Israel’s conventional weapons, without also preparing and employing their nuclear arsenal for the task.

There is quite a body of evidence, even in the public domain, that supports the conclusion that Israel’s conventional capabilities would be unable to knock out Iran’s well-defended nuclear facilities and command-and-control networks. For example, this 2008 study (PDF) from the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, and several other studies of the “scorched earth” war that Israel waged in 2006 against Iran’s much smaller ally, Hizbullah, in Lebanon, showed that even the most sophisticated and brutal-but never nuclear-actions the Israelis undertook that year were insufficient to destroy Hizbullah or force it to surrender. Given that Hizbullah and Iran share a lot of military doctrine and operational capabilities-though Iran’s capabilities are far, far more robust and capable than Hizbullah’s-and that Israel is far more distant from Iran than it is from Lebanon, then the lessons from the 2006 encounter for a future Israeli attack on Iran were powerful indeed.

If, as many of Israel’s military leaders and planners are clearly described as saying in the Bergman/Mazzetti article, Israel is incapable of delivering a debilitating conventional-weapons strike of its own against Iran, then the only credible and serious military threat it could mount against Iran would be one either to trigger the United States into a shooting war with Iran-that might follow a scenario such as: (1) Israel or a “deniable” third force launches a military strike against a central Iranian asset; (2) Iran retaliates against U.S. assets in the Gulf or elsewhere; (3) all hell breaks loose-or a threat to use, or anyway clearly unveil, its own nuclear weapons in a display aimed at Iran.

Either of these actions would, of course, constitute clear threats not just against Iran but against the peace and security of the whole of the Gulf region, and of the whole world. Significantly, either of them would also have grave consequences for the United States and its position in world politics. Therefore, U.S. military/political leaders have for many years now had as one major priority in the Middle East the job of keeping a close eye on whatever the Israelis might be planning against Iran and doing whatever is needed to head off either the “triggering” or the “nuclear unveiling” scenario described above.

You can catch glimpses of U.S. leaders pursuing such tasks at points throughout the Bergman/Mazzetti narrative. Early on, they describe their article as a “the story of a war narrowly averted… two bedrock allies spying on each other and a battle over who will ultimately shape American foreign policy.” Later, they write that in mid-2012 Israeli intelligence picked up their first information about the negotiations that then-President Obama was pursuing with Iran behind Israel’s back, in the talks that three years later brought the JCPOA deal. And then, around that same time, “American spy satellites detected clusters of Israeli aircraft making what seemed to be early preparations for an attack. Israeli leaders had spent more than a year delivering ominous warnings to Washington that they might launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities-and if they did, they would give the United States no warning and no chance to stop them…”

“Behind the scenes,” the authors write, “Israel was indeed preparing for such a strike.” But it was never launched. Bergman and Mazzetti describe two different explanations for why that happened:

Some former American and Israeli officials think that Netanyahu was simply deploying his own maximum-pressure strategy, to push Obama toward either his own strike or even tougher economic sanctions, but never intending to actually send Israeli jets or commandos to attack Iran…

A former Israeli security official expressed doubts that Netanyahu and [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak were ever serious about a strike. “I have a feeling that just discussing such dramatic issues gave them great pleasure. I saw the politicians’ excitement over their power,” the official says.

2012 was also, of course, a presidential (re-)election year here in the United States-and Netanyahu had a long and close relationship with the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Bergman and Mazzetti quote Dan Shapiro, then Obama’s ambassador to Israel, as saying, “It definitely crossed our minds that Israel might consider it an advantage to strike in the final phase of the U.S. election [because Israel might believe that it] could force the United States’ hand to be supportive or to come in behind Israel and assist.”

So here we are, about to enter another presidential (re-)election year, though one in which the political dynamic regarding Israel between the incumbent and his opponent might be very different than in 2012. However, with President Trump recently starting to hint that he might be open to negotiating with Tehran, and with some possible Democratic contenders next year being long supporters of Israel, this dynamic may turn out to be more like 2012 after all.

A few things about the nuclear dimension of the U.S.-Israel-Iran triangle have been clear to me for a long time. One is that the longstanding refusal of most members of the U.S. political elite (officials, legislators, think-tankers, corporate media, and so on) to even mention the fact of Israel’s own nuclear-weapons capabilities and to take full account of them in public discussions of strategic matters in the Middle East is extremely harmful. Among the harms inflicted by that refusal (and by the general political clout that Israel wields in Washington) is that Israel’s longstanding ability to wield a form of nuclear blackmail against Washington -as I have written about for more than 30 years now-is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that, while Iran has been a full member of the NPT and has submitted to a full range of inspections of its nuclear research facilities for many decades now, Israel is not a member and has never been subjected to any such inspections.

(Another thing that is almost never mentioned is that all journalists based in Israel-as Bergman is-are subject to the country’s rigorous censorship system. This censorship is particularly strict regarding all military issues.)

One conclusion I have drawn after many decades of researching and analyzing the U.S.-Israeli relationship is that, actually, Israeli leaders are not particularly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran were to break out of the NPT and its inspections regime, then Israel might unveil its own nuclear capabilities. No big deal-especially after India and Pakistan both did that in 1998 and the broader NPT regime did not immediately collapse. And so long as Iran does not break out of the NPT, Israel can quietly, behind the veil of its longstanding policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, continue to exert a form of “extreme-case” nuclear deterrence against Iran. (And to use the threat of a potential unveiling as a potent means of leverage against decision-makers in Washington.)

So why, then, do we have all the continual hullabaloo and endless navel-scratching in the Western corporate media (and the Western political system, more broadly) about the possibility -not yet anywhere close to a fact, but a possibility, some time in the future-that Iran may start to build a nuclear-weapons capability?

My conclusion is that a good part of this navel-scratching is a deliberate tactic of diversion: a way for the decision-makers in Israel and their supporters to keep leaders in Washington and elsewhere distracted and always a little off-balance, so they will end up without the bandwidth and the stamina needed confront Israel over the continuation of its project of colonial expansion in the lands occupied in 1967.

That colonial project in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and in Golan is what all Israeli leaders since 2001 have cared about most deeply. And they all knew that one great way to head off any efforts a U.S. president might make to challenge the project was to raise a hubbub about Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“Why do you keep talking to us about human rights or international law issues in the Palestinian territories?” was the essential message such efforts sent to decision-makers in Washington. “Stop worrying about those. We will handle them as we see fit, and you should butt out. But meantime, keep looking at all those shiny objects over there in the Iranian nuclear program! And by the way, keep your aid money flowing to our military. Otherwise, just imagine what havoc we could create for you in the Gulf…”

Originally published at on September 18, 2019.