A day does not pass without someone trying to frighten the Israel public with doomsday prophecies of impending war with Iran.
Thus, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warns of a regional conflagration if U.S. President Donald Trump withdraws from the nuclear deal. Thus, former senior officials and media pundits in Israel warn that the ongoing fight against Iran’s presence in Syria and its race to a nuclear bomb could spark a regional war at a very heavy cost to Israel.
These threats are utterly baseless and lack credibility. They are simply a scare campaign, which at best stems from a fixed thought process and adherence to the status quo, even at the cost of mortgaging our future, and at worst is motivated by political or personal considerations.
The warnings are rooted in a false and even naive assumption that the regional bully can do anything he wants, and that imposing boundaries on him is a mistake because it will only make him angry and cause him to respond violently. However, experience teaches us that setting red lines and backing them up is the only way to deter bullies and cause them to change their behavior.
We must keep in mind that Iran does not want war and is not prepared for one. Its power has always lain in waging campaigns via proxies who spill their own blood on its behalf. The Iranians are far more careful with their own blood.
Iran is also mired in economic difficulties at home, and the Iranian public is not hiding its objections to expensive and bloody adventures far from its borders. Even among Iran’s leaders, President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters are spearheading opposition to the country’s military entanglements in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The Iranian public will not forgive those who drag them into another war that only serves the interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose entire reason for existence is to establish an Iranian presence throughout the Middle East.
Aside from this, Iran is weak militarily as well as economically, and its presence in Syria is still limited, thanks in large part to Israel’s airstrikes in Syria. The threats by Iranian leaders to destroy Israel should not be taken lightly, but at the same time they should not pose a deterrent. Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel’s nuclear program, said that Iran is incapable of destroying Israel, but that through its hollow threats it exposes itself to an existential threat it cannot counter.
None of this is to say that Iran will be deterred by the unfolding poker game with the American president over the Iranian nuclear program, and with Israel over the Iranian presence in Syria. Iranian retaliation for the alleged Israeli airstrikes will eventually come, but it will not be in the form of all-out war; it will consist of precise, if painful, blows, in the form of terrorist attacks.
What remains to be seen is who among the players will blink first. Throughout the 70 years of its existence, Israel has already gained experience in “poker games” such as these—against Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, and against the PLO and Hezbollah in Lebanon—and for the most part, it has emerged with the upper hand. If Israel aspires to survive in the Middle East, it cannot be deterred and retreat.
Indeed, in the Middle East wars often erupt organically and unpredictably without anyone planning or initiating them. Misunderstandings, miscalculations and unforeseen events could lead to war. Caution, alertness and readiness are necessary, certainly among those in charge. However, there is quite a bit of distance from this to an atmosphere of public hysteria and panic about a possible war this summer. There is a difference between rational concern that breeds caution and panic that breeds political and military paralysis, and will exact a price in the long run.
History teaches us that the fear of antagonizing an enemy and appeasement attempts do not pay. Ultimately, not only do these fail to deter the adversary, they actually encourage it to advance to the next stage of its plan. At that point, confronting the enemy can be far more complicated and daunting.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.