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Carlo Strenger

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Playing Chicken With Iran

Posted: 08/03/2012 1:53 pm

Remember the game of chicken immortalized in the movie Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean? Two drivers drive towards each other in the middle of an empty road. The first who swerves endures the humiliation of being a chicken. The other wins and retains his pride. There is a third, very unsavory option: neither driver chickens out, and the game ends lethally for both competitors.

Imagine a game of chicken, in which the public is involved. The public doesn't want this to end lethally, because it is dangerous for them as well. Now the question becomes who they try to persuade to swerve.

This is a good approximation of the situation between Israel, Iran and the rest of the world. Iran is staying its course and continues its nuclear program. Netanyahu and Barak stay their course and say that Israel will attack Iran soon if the international community does not succeed in convincing the Iranians to end their nuclear program.

On both sides of the road, there is a public trying to avert a head-on clash. On the one side there are the diplomatic efforts to cut a deal with the Iranians, but that doesn't seem to be working. On the other side there are the U.S.-led sanctions meant to gradually cripple Iran's economy.

Both drivers continue speeding down the road. The Iranians play tough and say that the sanctions aren't having any impact, even though there is strong evidence to the contrary. Netanyahu makes a rare public appearance on Israeli TV and says that Israel reserves the right to defend itself, signaling that the international community and Iran should be truly worried.

There is a flurry of high-level visits of U.S. officials to Israel: Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta keep coming here. Partially to convince Netanyahu and Barak not to attack Iran without U.S. support; but probably also to signal to the Iranians how seriously the U.S. takes Israel's threat, thus increasing the pressure on Iran.

Meanwhile Barack Obama has just stepped up sanctions, making it even more difficult for Iran to conduct business, and he has further increased U.S. military support for Israel, again signaling to the Iranians how serious the U.S. is in supporting Israel.

There is, of course, a twist to this game of chicken. Generally the players are alone in the car. In this particular case, Israel's citizens are sitting on the back seat, seeing the other car approach without being able to do much about it.

Therefore a heated debate takes place whether Netanyahu and Barak are handling the situation rationally. The situation seems worrying: Meir Dagan, Israel's legendary former chief of the Mossad has, time and again, made public statements that it would be irrational for Israel to attack Iran, and he has recently re-asserted that he believes Israel is not under imminent military threat. He gave the very distinct impression that he doesn't trust Netanyahu and Barak's decision-making process. Yuval Diskin, former chief of the Shabak, backed this up in a public appearance -- he said that Barak and Netanyahu are taking a messianic attitude towards Iran.

Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel has reported on his conversations with five former defense officials who, as he says, between them have occupied all conceivable senior positions in the IDF. They have reservations about Dagan and Diskin going public with their views, and do not necessarily agree that Israel should not attack under any circumstance. But they all believe that doing so without international, or at least U.S. support could have catastrophic consequences.

Harel has also reported that it seems that acting defense officials including IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are opposed to attacking Iran and may be forced to act against their own professional judgment.

My own conversations with former senior officials in the security establishment have not improved my sense of security. Barak is depicted as a man so deeply convinced of his own brilliance that he does not listen to anybody's advice. Add to this that Barak's political career is likely to be over once there are elections, and you get the picture of a man who may not be acting in the country's best interest, but out of a narrow angle that includes his own political survival. And Netanyahu is described as having difficulty functioning well under pressure.

But there is a powerful argument that, conceivably, might outweigh all these concerns. Netanyahu and Barak's sabre rattling has had one powerful effect: it has put the Iranian issue to the top of international concern. The crippling sanctions against Iran would never have been put together by the U.S. and endorsed by most Western countries had it not been for Israel's threat to attack Iran on its own.

None of this would be happening if Netanyahu and Barak would not keep a credible threat for Israel's attacking Iran alive. Because Israel is the player that needs to keep up the pressure, Netanyahu and Barak cannot step off the gas, and they are not allowed to give any impression that they are likely to swerve off their line, heading towards an attack on Iran.

They must, in other words, look slightly irrational, unconcerned with the possibility of a regional war and its impact on oil prices, the world-economy and the Middle East's stability. Otherwise they cease to be credible.

There is but one problem: when you play chicken, the moment comes when it becomes difficult for the players to differentiate between giving the impression that they are madly determined not to step off the gas, and actually losing the ability to make rational decisions.

 
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