There has been altogether too much stuff in the media lately about how Iran is not really a threat to anyone and how even some prominent Israelis don’t really believe that they have to go to war (or have Washington go to war on their behalf). It was perhaps inevitable that there would be some pushback to again stoke the fires and make the case that Iran is indeed evil incarnate and on the verge of obtaining an apocalyptic weapon.
Not surprisingly, some of the latest pushback comes from the redoubtable Ethan Bronner of The New York Times in his article “Israel Senses Bluffing in Iran’s Threats of Retaliation,” which appeared on the paper’s front page on Jan. 26. Bronner, whose son has served in the Israeli Defense Forces, is the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief and covers much of the Middle East. He lives in Israel, and his objectivity has often been questioned, but the self-proclaimed newspaper of record has refused to consider replacing him with someone less openly tied to Israel and its interests.
As a former intelligence officer, I am acutely aware of how easy it is to create and spread disinformation. Journalists are frail creatures with big egos who want to get an important story that no one else has. What could be better than to get something fresh from a well-placed, unnamed government source? Who cares if it is phony? Bronner, who has been in Israel for four years, is no doubt a confidant of a number of Israeli officials who perceive value in the careful cultivation of a New York Times journalist willing to hew closely to the Netanyahu government’s line. When Mossad sees Bronner walking their way, it’s like Hanukkah coming early.
All of that said, Bronner’s current agenda is clear right from the get-go, as reflected in his apparent endorsement of the view that Iran “has called for Israel’s destruction and … finances and arms militant groups on Israel’s borders.” He reports that “Israeli intelligence estimates, backed by academic studies, have cast doubt on the widespread assumption that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would set off a catastrophic set of events like a regional conflagration, widespread acts of terrorism, and sky-high oil prices.” Thanks to Bronner’s report, the whole world can no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. Attacking Iran will produce few or no consequences. And who is telling us that? No less than Israel and The New York Times, one an interested party in minimizing concern over the damage that such a war would cause and the other a newspaper that prints all the news that fits its point of view.
Bronner actually cites one source by name to make his case. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a November speech that “the retaliation [from Iran] would be bearable.” And then Bronner is off to the races with “eight current and recent top Israeli security officials” who are, alas, unnamed. One opines, “Take every scenario of confrontation and attack by Iran…” before delivering his judgment that Tehran having a nuclear weapon would greatly complicate Israel’s possible responses. Excuse me, but even Bronner and his Israeli friend should realize that Iran has not been talking about attacking anyone — the threats to attack have all been coming from the Israeli side for the past five years and more recently from a gaggle of American presidential wannabes. Any “confrontation and attack” by Iran would be retaliation.
And then there is the support provided by the article about to be published by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. An advance copy was graciously given to Bronner. The piece argues that the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is a bluff. Bronner does not mention that Tel Aviv University is state-run, and the Institute he cites advertises itself on its own website as having “a strong association with the political and military establishment.” The paper is the work of the former head of military intelligence and the ex-Iran expert from Israel’s National Security Council. So we have government and still more government confirming what the Israeli government itself apparently wants everyone to believe.
Why would Iran not retaliate in the strait? To avoid a confrontation with the U.S. Navy, according to Bronner’s Israeli experts. But what if Iran did not agree with that assessment? Bronner does not go there, but he does cite another think tank, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Begin-Sadat is government-funded and is based at state-supported Bar-Ilan University. The Center conducts “policy-relevant research on strategic subjects, particularly as they relate to the national security and foreign policy of Israel.” Its non-nonpartisanship is reflected in its current promotion of a “recent important new study by Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, based on previously classified data, [that] refutes Palestinian claims that Israel is denying West Bank Palestinians water rights.” It has also published an article titled “Palestinians: Invented People” by Professor Michael Curtis.
The Begin-Sadat Center obligingly argues that “The threat to Israel of missile warfare is somewhat exaggerated, and public discourse on this issue should reflect realistic assessments. At this stage, missile attacks would be able to inflict only limited physical damage on Israel.” Bronner quotes an anonymous retired official who adds that Iran’s reaction “will be nothing like London during World War II.” That was the German blitz that killed 20,000 Londoners, so it is perhaps reassuring to believe that it will not be like that, but the analysis is based on what Saddam Hussein did in 1991 and the effectiveness of the 4,000 primitive Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah in 2006. The United States and Israel have both been claiming that Hezbollah now has nearly 40,000 rockets and missiles, including sophisticated Grads, that can reach any target in Israel with considerable accuracy, so who is fooling whom?
To be fair to Bronner, he does note here and there along the way in his article that some officials and “experts” disagree with the conclusions he is reporting, but the piece overall seems intended to promote yet another war that can be fought on the cheap. The underlying premises are that Iran can be attacked, that its nuclear program can be seriously damaged, and that Tehran will either not opt to or be unable to retaliate in any meaningful way. And even if it does retaliate, it will not be too bad for Israel, and the United States would be impacted even less.
To say that this is very dangerous thinking would be to understate the case, particularly as Bronner demonstrates that it appears to be what is driving the Netanyahu government. Fear-mongering is the name of the game when citing the underlying concern that Iran might be about to obtain a nuclear weapon and might then be tempted to use it, a “what if” piled on a “maybe” to justify a preemptive war. It is not merely coincidental that Bronner cites Netanyahu’s apparent belief that the so-called Iranian threat is equivalent to “the Nazis who tried to eliminate the Jews.” And the piece concludes with the Israeli prime minister speaking on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying, “I want to mention the main lesson of the Holocaust when it comes to our fate. We can only rely on ourselves.”
Someone should remind Bronner that while he is promoting an Israeli viewpoint he is writing for an American newspaper and audience and should address the serious question of what Washington’s options might be if Netanyahu does take action. Israeli self-reliance is a wonderful thing, if only it were true. The United States has been tied hand and foot to Israeli policies and would be drawn inexorably into anything that Tel Aviv starts. The confident assertion that Iran would be unable to retaliate effectively might prove as reliable as the claims made in 2002 that there would be a “cakewalk” in Iraq.