Paul Pillar

Netanyahu's Game and the Two Gulfs

Recent reports that in 2010 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had ordered the Israeli military to increase its readiness level in anticipation of war with Iran appeared to leave some unanswered questions. Since none of us who do not have Israeli military manuals on our shelves know exactly what level “P-plus” means, it is hard to adjudicate the reported disagreement between Israeli military chiefs, who resisted the order on grounds that it could precipitate a war, and Netanyahu and Barak, who reportedly assured them that it would not. A subsequent analysis by Yossi Melman helps to clear matters up. Melman explains:

The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.

The Israeli military's chief of staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, warned Netanyahu and Barak that what they were ordering could "create uncontrollable facts on the ground" that would touch off an unwanted war. "If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music," is the way Ashkenazi put it. The understandable worry among the generals was about a 1914-style situation in which the responses and fears engendered by mobilization measures lead to a war that nobody had specifically chosen in the first place.

Netanyahu surely is smart enough to understand these dangers. The incident highlights a game he is playing; to stoke tensions with Iran sufficiently that the United States may be ensnared in a war that it does not want—but in which once war breaks out, the United States would do Israel's dirty work by inflicting more destruction on Iran than Israel could inflict on its own.

The timing of the incident underscores another purpose of Netanyahu's tension-stoking brinksmanship: to divert attention from continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and inaction on the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He issued his order about the same time, in the late summer of 2010, that President Obama was making an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks restarted.

Netanyahu's efforts to precipitate an unwanted war are made all the more worrisome by an incident a couple of weeks ago off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. Predator drone was met by two Iranian SU-25 fighters that fired some shots in the vicinity of the drone but did not hit it. According to the Pentagon, at the time of the encounter the drone was sixteen nautical miles off the Iranian coast, four more that the twelve-mile territorial waters. An Iranian military spokesman confirmed that the incident occurred and said Iran would defend its territory.

It has not been established, and the Iranians did not explicitly say, whether the intent of the shots was to issue a warning or whether they were aimed at the drone but missed. The Pentagon sought to downplay the difference. Suffice it to note that in terms of the capabilities of the equipment the slow-flying Predator would be no match for SU-25s, even though the latter are designed primarily for ground-attack missions rather than air-to-air combat.

Any firing of live ammunition over international waters is serious business, but to understand the Iranian perspective do a little role reversal. Imagine that Iran was flying aircraft within sixteen miles of the U.S. coast. Imagine the Iranians were doing this with aircraft that can be armed as well as perform reconnaissance, and that not long ago one of these aircraft came down on U.S. soil. And imagine that this was all happening amid endless talk in Iran about possibly launching an armed attack on the U.S. homeland. The screams in Congress and elsewhere to do something about this threat are not at all hard to imagine. Given how much talk we hear about preemption, there would surely be demands to do something more forceful than just to fire warning shots, international waters or no international waters.

And yet the encounter off the Iranian coast is now being added to the litany of things cited to show that Iran supposedly is a dangerously aggressive regime that must be stopped. Such an interpretation evokes memories of another sequence of events leading to war in the past, this time not in 1914 but instead fifty years later, in 1964. Purported North Vietnamese aggressiveness against U.S. military assets in the Gulf of Tonkin was taken as a sign that the Vietnamese communists needed to be stopped. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was the trigger for a Congressional resolution authorizing what became the Vietnam War, and the rest is history. As with the recent incident over the Persian Gulf, no shots hit any American assets in the encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the alleged attack that was the focus of the war resolution probably never occurred.

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