Amid a prolonged campaign to keep us scared about what is depicted as an inexorable Iranian march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, it is easy to lose sight of the cyclical nature of discourse about Iran's nuclear program, which began in the days of the Shah and has been the subject of repeated unrealized predictions about how close the Iranians supposedly were to getting a bomb. Rather than any one-way march, what we are seeing is a wheel of alarm that keeps turning around. Discourse on this subject is better understood not in terms of threats posed by Iran but instead in terms of the purposes, both long- and short-term, served by hyping of such a threat.
A couple of developments in particular have pushed the latest turn of the wheel. One is Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election, which has made it harder for the alarmists to keep painting the face of Iran as a menacing one. The chief agitator on Iran, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, already sorely misses one of its most helpful props: outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though he does not leave office until next month.
Netanyahu's government also is discomfited by recent movement, or at least appeals for movement, in diplomacy aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry really does seem to be serious about getting something done on this problem. There also have been pointed reminders lately from voices within Israel, including editorialists at major newspapers and experienced security officials such as former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin , that continuing the government's current course means a bleak future for Israel of costly international isolation and even losing any identity as a Jewish and democratic state. For Netanyahu's government, one of the purposes of ringing alarm bells about Iran as the “real problem” in the Middle East is to divert attention from these truths about the conflict with the Palestinians and to divert energy from any diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Any new attention to the Palestinian issue is a spur for that government to ring the bells yet again.
It thus was unsurprising that Netanyahu took to U.S. airwaves on Sunday to try to scare the pants off us again about the Iranian nuclear program. As usual, he conducted his fear-mongering while seemingly oblivious to major realities about this subject. He ignored the repeated and publicly expressed intelligence judgments that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and may never decide to do so. His demand that Iran end all enrichment of uranium is clearly a non-starter and only a prescription for making diplomacy fail. The amped-up saber-rattling he demands from the United States as well as Israel only heightens whatever interest the Iranians may have in a nuclear deterrent, further impairs diplomatic prospects by making the Iranians even more doubtful about U.S. intentions, and ignores how implementation of a military threat would probably be counterproductive by leading the Iranians to make the very bomb-building decision they have not to date made. His description of the Iranian government as a “messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime” is a crude stereotype that continues his practice of treating this entire issue in a cartoonish way, even when he is not using literal cartoons at a podium at the United Nations. He ignores that the only existential threat that a nuclear weapons state in the Middle East poses to another state in the region is the threat that Israel poses to Iran , and he ignores that the only threats of military attack in that duopoly are the threats that Israel is making against Iran rather than vice versa.
Besides not being led astray by this pied piper of alarm, there is work to be done on the issue of Iran, and all the more so in the wake of the Iranian presidential election. Some of the most important points to bear in mind are expressed in a just-released open letter to President Obama from 29 national security experts and former government officials (myself included). The letter observes that Rouhani's election presents “a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.” It calls on the administration to redouble efforts to engage Iran not only on the nuclear issue but also on other matters of concern to the United States. On the nuclear issue, it states that a new proposal is needed that, while incorporating what the United States and its Western partners are seeking regarding limiting and verifying Iran's nuclear activities, treats sanctions in terms of their stated purpose of leverage to obtain such an agreement, rather than just being unending punishment or a domestic political statement. Sitting back and expecting Iran to make the next move would likely lead to just one more episode in the long history of missed opportunities in this relationship.