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.


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