Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is Iran's Antisemitism A Credible Threat To Israel?

Israel and its supporters are particularly wary of Iran's intentions given its regime's record of constant anti-Israel and antisemitic statements. Jeffrey Goldberg's latest article in The Atlantic considers how Iran's antisemitism affects the debate over the nuclear deal. In the piece, which is very well-argued, Goldberg repeats a line often cited in Israeli and pro-Israel policy making circles: "If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them." Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed similar sentiments in speeches to AIPAC, although it is not by any means unique to the Israeli right.

Ayatollah Khomenei and other religious leaders in Iran have called for the annihilation of Israel. Iran's leaders make no secret of these sentiments (although they are not universal in Iran). Famously, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, called for Israel to be "wiped from the pages of time." For Jews to respond to these comments with deep mistrust toward an Iran nuclear deal is as understandable as Kurdish mistrust of the Iraqi government or Armenian mistrust of Turks. But just how much trust should analysts put in Iran's statements as a matter of foreign policy? In other words, Should we trust Iran's statements that it intends to wipe out Israel?

First we need to establish whether Iran is rational. Goldberg's article uses the phrase "rational self-interest" but these are two different concepts. In social science, rational means that an actor weighs the pros and cons of a policy using fixed, ranked preferences. It wants X most, Y second most, Z third most, and it makes choices based on what policy optimizes its achieving X,Y, and Z. Self-interest is defined in realist international relations literature primarily as survival, and takes as axiomatic that survival is the primary interest of states. Secretary of State John Kerry argues to Goldberg that states usually prioritize antisemitism when the harm to self-interest is low. Goldberg is unconvinced, and he has good reason for it. The roughly 15,000 Nazi concentration camps, for example, cost money and diverted resources, including soldiers, from the German war effort in WWII. But if states frame antisemitism in terms of self-interest, this decision becomes less irrational. Hitler genuinely believed that Jews were a threat to the survival of Germany. Understood this way, valuing antisemitism and national self-interest are not mutually exclusive.* And of course, saying a decision is rational doesn't make it any less abhorrent or morally repugnant.

So if Iran can be antisemitic and rational, how credible are its leader's threats to annihilate the Jewish State? Should analysts "believe" or otherwise trust Iran's threats?

Trust is a major problem for countries in an anarchic international system. Since any country can lie, cheat, or change its mind, it takes considerable effort to figure out whether anything a country says is credible. The overwhelming majority of analysis and intelligence gathering is based on trying to figure out a) whether a country's statements are credible and b) how to respond in a way that country will assess as credible.
  
Credibility is a factor of capability, intentions, and resolve. A threat is credible if a country can strike, wants to strike, and wants it badly enough to prioritize it over other things. Hitler's threats against Western Europe were credible not just because he made speeches about Lebensraum (intentions) but also because he was amassing actively the military power to invade (capability) and was willing to prioritize invasion over domestic and other concerns (resolve). For Iran's threat against Israel to be credible, it also needs these three things.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it would have the capability to strike Israel via missile attack. Theoretically Iran could also make use of its terror proxies but it's unlikely that it would entrust these proxies with a nuclear capability. A nuclear attack would do catastrophic damage to Israel's cities and could effectively destroy the state.

There's also evidence that Iran has some intention to harm Israel. The regime has attacked Israeli interests, puts limits on its own Jewish population, and has a leadership with an ideological opposition to Israel's existence. On the other hand, Iran knows that such a strike would provoke an international response, especially if it were nuclear. Leaders in authoritarian countries like staying in power, especially because the alternative is often death. A nuclear strike on Israel would at the least invite regime change that no leader would welcome.

Most importantly, there's evidence that Iran's resolve to strike Israel is low. Iran has limited political and material capital to spend against other threats - Saudi Arabia, ongoing sanctions, a suffering economy, and an urban population deeply unsatisfied with aspects of the current leadership. More importantly, despite over 35 years of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements from Iran's leadership, there has not yet been a major Iranian strike on Israel. The Ayatollah has also made statements against using a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes. In other words, Iran has had low resolve to act on its threats. Thus far, Iran's threat to destroy Israel and the Jews has not been credible.

Of course, the threat could at some point become credible, and this raises the key question: If Iran's threats became credible, how would we know? What observable evidence would indicate a shift in the credibility of Iran's threat to annihilate Israel? It's not an easy question to answer, but its critical for assessing how much of a threat Iran poses, and thus how much risk a nuclear deal is worth. 

The bottom line is that since the line between credible and not-credible is fuzzy, Israel should assume that there is some credibility to Iran's threat to annihilate Israel based on its status as the Jewish State. However, it should also understand that Iran has low resolve to make good on its threat. That doesn't mean Iran would never strike Israel, just that it's highly unlikely. Consequently, Israel should devote some resources to countering Iran's threat while being mindful more credible and dangerous threats. It should also continue to monitor the Iranian regime for signs that a non-credible threat has become credible. 

Most importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that the current nuclear deal has made Iran more likely to annihilate Israel. To the contrary, the deal provides incentives that reduce Iran's nuclear capability, while shifting its intentions and further reducing its resolve. The deal does not eliminate the nuclear threat, but no deal can. Given the nature of Iran's threat, the Iran nuclear deal is an important opportunity for Israel to exist in a region of reduced threat and fulfill its purpose as a safe haven for the Jewish people.




*See the Bounded Rationality and Schema Theory literature for other accounts of rational decision making.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Netanyahu Puts US-Israel Relations At Risk

The American people should be outraged over Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks today to the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Israeli concerns over the nuclear deal are understandable and warranted. But Prime Minster Netanyahu's blatantly false statements about the effects of the Iran nuclear deal are a flagrant abuse of the US-Israel relationship. His remarks make a mockery of decades of US support for Israel. If the Prime Minister is truly committed to a "real debate" he should avoid statements with absolutely no basis in reality. Claims that the deal "paves Iran's path to the bomb" or "will bring war" are absolutely ludicrous. There is no logical or evidence-based case for either of these statements. That the Prime Minister would risk the state of the US-Israel relationship on such utter nonsense is an astounding display of recklessness. The American pro-Israel community should be deeply concerned about the cynical and baseless attacks levied tonight by the Prime Minister of Israel against the foreign policy of the United States of America.

If Israel's leadership means to have a debate, let it be one which reflects the intelligence of the American and Israeli public. Let it be one based on facts. Let it be one predicated on the notion that a strong US-Israel relationship is one of the most important defenses against Iranian expansion in the Middle East. The people of Israel and the United States deserve a respectful debate grounded in reality. Their mutual security depends on it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Israel Reacts To Jewish Terrorism

The deaths of two children in Israel and the West Bank last Thursday and Friday underscore the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Thursday, a radical Jewish terrorist stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki to death and seriously wounded 5 others. On Friday, an Israeli Jewish settler set fire to a Palestinian house, killing 18-month old Ali Dawabsha and seriously wounding his mother Reham, father Saad, and brother Ahmad.

Israel's national anthem Hatikva expresses the aspiration for Jews "to be a free people in our land." When LGBT Israelis and their straight supporters put their lives at risk by parading through Jerusalem, this aspiration goes unmet. When settlers terrorize Palestinians and endanger all Israelis with the threat of Palestinian reprisals, this aspiration goes unmet. 

Israelis, like most decent people, have taken steps to respond to these tragedies. It is disappointing to see these steps taken too late. But it is also disappointing to see that instead of embracing these actions, some commentators downplay them. Here are some of the steps Israel took as a society in the wake of last week's attacks:

- The term "terrorism" was used to describe the attacks by Israel's Prime Minister, President, Defense Minister, and Leader of the Opposition.

- 100 Jews visited the Dawabsha family to pay their respects.

- Thousands of Israelis rallied in support of gay rights across Israel.

-300 settlers held a vigil with Palestinians for the Dawabsha family.

- Israel arrested right-wing extremists including the grandson of Meir Kahane.

- The lack of prevention for the attacks was condemned by major opinion leaders in Israel, including MK Yair Lapid.

Neither these actions - nor any actions - can prevent what has already happened. That structural problems remain in Israel is a given. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat all Israelis as a monolith, or equally responsible for these attacks. Opponents of Israel often decry calls for "moderate Palestinians" to condemn terrorist attacks on Israelis. The same opponents should be consistent with regards to Israeli terrorist violence and give credit to the Israeli public where it is due. This consistency is important not only for fair debate. Preventing future violence will require sustaining the current sentiments in Israel's public discourse and translating them into meaningful action.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paranoia On Iran Deal Reaches Fever Pitch

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made comments Sunday comparing the Iran nuclear deal to marching Israelis "to the door of the oven." While most groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the comments because they misappropriate Holocaust imagery, the Zionist Organization of America took a shockingly different stance. The organization's president Mort Klein said in a press release:

"Empowering with an eventual nuclear weapons capacity - as this deal does ...an Iranian regime that has repeatedly spoken of wiping out the Jewish state of Israel does bear some relationship to the Nazi era and Governor Huckabee therefore did not speak out of place."

ZOA is making the claim that the Iran nuclear deal concluded by the P5+1 and Iran empowers the latter to essentially conduct a second Holocaust. This is absolutely ludicrous. The terms under which this statement would be true do not exist in reality. There is not a single well-respected expert on international security, nuclear proliferation, Iranian decision making, or Middle East politics who agrees with this claim. It's not just offensive, it's bonkers.

The Iran nuclear deal is a long shot in some respects. It requires making concessions and hoping an enemy state does stuff we want them to do. But the worst case scenario - the absolute worst case that exists within the boundaries of reality - is that Iran uses some of the sanctions relief money for terrorism and doesn't stop enrichment, leading to the collapse of the agreement. This is a bad worst case, but it's not a second Holocaust. No serious expert on Iran, Mideast politics, nuclear proliferation, or international security would seriously disagree with that assessment.

Debates about the nuclear deal are important, but they are being poisoned with paranoia. Invoking the Holocaust is an extreme example but less crazy ones exist. Prime Minister Netanyahu's characterization of the deal as an "historic mistake" is one example. The deal might fall through. But an historic mistake is invading Russia in the winter, or assuming trench warfare would lead to victory in World War I. It's not signing a deal that at worst would leave the international community with a marginally worse status quo. The lack of nuance in AIPAC's blanket opposition to the deal is another example. AIPAC claims in one of its many factsheets that the Iran deal will "raise the prospect of war." It will not. If anything, the deal creates at least a decade-long opportunity to restrain Iran's nuclear enrichment, which decreases the prospect of war. Iran might continue enrichment after the deal but it's not more likely to do so in a decade than it is now.

While Saudi and the Gulf states are no strangers to paranoia themselves, too many members of the pro-Israel community are basing their positions on paranoia rather than evidence. Policy positions on the deal within the pro-Israel community are based on a shamefully poor understanding of text of the deal, Mideast politics, or freshman-level international relations theory. Let's be clear that this isn't universally the case - there are some pro-Israel people making arguments against the deal that are reasonable and many pro-Israel activists who are earnestly trying to understand exactly what the deal does and doesn't do. But others eschew evidence and broad consensus across the foreign policy community. They mistrust Iran because it's a bad actor, but fail to recognize that even bad actors exist are constrained by material political realities.

There is a deeper harm to this paranoia. Firstly, not once has it actually protected Israel. Secondly, fear is a driving factor in an anarchic international system, but paranoia means bearing the cost of going it alone when trying to cooperate is substantially cheaper. Paranoia is less scary but it's more costly. Whether the issue is an Iran deal, negotiating with Palestinians, or fighting delegitimization, the least scary action is not always the most effective. As it stands, paranoia is discrediting pro-Israel lobbying efforts in Washington and harming the efforts of people expressing legitimate concerns about the deal. Until more of Israel's friends are able to accurately assess and react to threats in the region, they will be unable to advocate with maximum efficacy for policies that protect the Jewish State.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

AIPAC Plays A Risky Game On Iran Deal

AIPAC's decision to oppose the Iran deal sent a clear message about its opinion of the Obama administration's Israel policy. As JTA's Ron Kampeas reports, AIPAC has raised $30 million dollars for television ads against the deal. The landing page of its website has been overtaken by fact sheets and memos about the harm the deal will incur against the US and of course Israel. Many of these documents raise important points about snapback provisions, the lifting of sanctions, and covert enrichment.

However, AIPAC's strategy of blanket opposition to the deal is a little risky. Roughly 49% of US Jews support the Iran nuclear deal while 31% oppose it. In taking a decisive stance against the deal, AIPAC is - in theory -  leaving its centrist constituency vulnerable. J Street has a dedicated website for supporting the deal, as well as a factsheet responding to AIPAC's arguments. But its websites say little about why supporting the Iran deal is a decidedly pro-Israel position, and its factsheet shows it is letting AIPAC set the agenda. AIPAC is leaving the center flank open because it knows J Street will have difficulty bleeding centrists from its ranks.

AIPAC's confidence that it holds the center of the American pro-Israel community is a statement about the lack of true debate over the deal from an Israel perspective. Sure, the debate over the deal itself is extensive. But no actor in the American pro-Israel community has argued as a major tenet of its platform that the Iran deal might actually be good for Israel. Checks on enrichment aren't perfect but they're a lot better than what Israel has now. Lifted sanctions are potentially risky but they also allow Israel and its allies to trace cash flows among their dangerous adversaries. The deal may fail, but that wouldn't preclude Israeli or American military action on Iran. The case does exist, but nobody is making it.

Rather, the community's position reflects an addiction to cynicism that is hampering its ability to make its legitimate concerns heard in Washington. Israel is "causing problems" for the Obama administration, but at the end of the day it may have very little to show for calling Obama's foreign policy crown jewel an "historic mistake." AIPAC touts Saudi criticism of the deal but stops short of urging Israel to emulate the Saudi position of official support but with specific reservations. Instead, it has wholeheartedly embraced Israel's unconditional rejection of the Iran deal. This is not a position in support of the group's mission to "strengthen, protect, and promote the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States." Instead, it encourages the alienating behavior for which both American and Israeli leaders are responsible, but from which neither side benefits.




Monday, July 20, 2015

What Is A "Good" Iran Nuclear Deal?

In his March 3rd speech to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu expressed support for "A better [Iran nuclear] deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live." Yesterday, he urged Congress to "hold out for a better deal."

Israel is not opposed to a diplomatic solution in principle, a position which will give it leverage in Washington. But its talking points, and those of its more conservative supporters, are making arguments that conflate this deal with any deal. Separating the two would improve the credibility of Israel's bargaining position. In general, analysts should recognize the difference between the argument "this is a bad deal" and the argument "deals are bad."

For example, some opponents argue the deal is flawed because Iran might engage in covert enrichment. There is no mechanism in the 159-page deal that guarantees Iran will not "cheat" and covertly enrich nuclear material. This is problematic because any "snapback" of sanctions requires the P5+1 to actually know that a violation of the deal is occurring. The argument has been compounded by confusion over the lack of an "anywhere, anytime" provision for inspections. But while it's true the P5+1 can't prevent covert enrichment, the argument ignores the underlying issue: Even if the P5+1 had total access to any site it wanted, it would still have imperfect information about which sites should be inspected. This imperfect information is not because of this current deal. It's systemic - a direct effect of the anarchic nature of the international system. Since there is no global police than can make countries tell the truth 100% of the time, there will always be a danger that a given state is cheating and lying about it. Iran may very well violate the terms of a nuclear deal, but the risk exists in any deal concluded in the existing state system. This argument isn't against this deal, its against deals more broadly.

Opponents also argue that the deal "appeases" Iran by taking the military option off the table. Some opponents of the deal argue that it removes a credible US military option from the table while Iran consistently makes military threats. The argument often takes the form of a quirky comparison between President Obama and Neville Chamberlain, whose treaty with Hitler proved meaningless, except for signalling Britain's intention not to instigate war. The problem with this argument is that the threat from Hitler had nothing to do with rhetoric, and everything to do with material capabilities and the domestic support to use them. Any realist scholar would point out that treaties always carry a risk of cheating, and that military capabilities are more important. The US is aware of this fact, having ramped up its military presence in the Gulf region, increased support for regional allies, and reiterating yesterday that the military option remains on the table. The argument that Iran might cheat is an argument against deals more broadly, and also ignores the material superiority of the United States and its allies in the region.

There are aspects of the Iran nuclear deal that are specific to the current agreement. The mechanics of "snapback" provisions, release of funds to the IRGC, and procedure for inspections are all areas of legitimate debate among those who oppose the deal and those who support it. But it's important to differentiate between these issues, and more general critiques of the diplomatic versus military approach. And if Israel does in fact support a deal, a focused message is the best way to ensure its long-term security.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What The Iran Deal (Really) Means For Israel

This morning, the EU/EU+3 and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to a Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran's nuclear program. The 159-page agreement sets limits on Iran's enrichment capacity in return for a staged lifting of international and US sanctions.

Israel's leadership across the political spectrum has expressed concern about the deal. Prime Minister Netanyahu called it an "historic mistake,"centrist MK Yair Lapid called it a "bad deal," and Head of the Opposition Isaac Herzog expressed concern over the agreement as well. 

Without judging whether the deal is good or bad, it will likely generate three outcomes of interest to Israel.

Most importantly, Iran will have a real but reduced capacity to threaten Israel. While Israel would likely be unsatisfied with any agreement with Iran, many of its security concerns are legitimate. Sanctions relief on unsavory entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may increase the money available to sew instability in the Middle East and to target citizens of Western countries including Israel. Additionally, no agreement can fully prevent covert enrichment of fissile nuclear material. Given Israel's proximity to Iran, and Iran's constant threats to destroy the country, Israel has a lower capacity to tolerate Iranian violation of the deal than the EU/EU+3. 

On the other hand, an extended time for breakout capacity and the 3.97% limit on enrichment gives Israel and the West significantly more time to act against Iran should it decide to go nuclear. While no agreement can guard against all covert enrichment, the agreement does increase significantly the amount of monitoring that the international community can conduct in Iran. Furthermore, under the JCPOA, companies that sell equipment to Iran will also be able to verify that Iran is using it for a stated purpose. The agreement is not perfect from an Israeli perspective, but it does reduce some of the risk Israel faces at the current time.

Second, the Obama Administration will be slightly more hesitant to threaten the use of force against Iran. The effects of this hesitancy, however, will be largely diplomatic. While the administration may tone down its rhetoric to incentivize compliance with the JCPOA, it will maintain a heavy military presence in the Arab Gulf. The US presence in the Gulf acts as a check on Iran's violation of the agreement, and as a sign of support for its jittery Gulf allies. Israel will be doing more saber rattling at Iran over the next decade than the United States, and may seek reassurances that if Iran were to decide to pursue breakout capacity, the US would not take military action off the table.

Finally, the deal incentivizes further Israel-Gulf cooperation. While Israel has begun to broach the subject publicly, it will likely have greater domestic and American support to strengthen its Gulf alignments. The alignment may open opportunities for defense collaboration, and may set the ground for economic cooperation in the longer term. However, it will also put Israel under pressure to capitulate to demands from Gulf States including a) acquiring defense technology that could threaten Israel and b) accepting the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative. Making gradual shifts on both these issues will create opportunities for Israel to maximize the security benefits of an Arab Gulf alliance against Iran. 


While Israel's concerns are reasonable, its best strategy is not to make pre-fabricated statements that alienate its security guarantors. Rather, Israel should be vigilant and urge vigilance from the United States and other parties to the JCPOA. While any international agreement runs a chance of failure, the agreement could also, in the long-term, significantly improve Israel's security by sustaining its role as a regional hegemon. While Israel should be cautious, it also should not reject the potential for these benefits out of hand.