Benjamin Netanyahu is Pushing for War with Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu is Pushing for War with Iran

The Israeli prime minister has a history of encouraging Washington to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Once again, the Middle East is on the brink of full-scale war. The tit-for-tat exchanges between Israel and Iran are increasing the risk that the United States will get sucked into another Middle East war. As such, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longstanding efforts to get Washington to attack Tehran—combined with new incentives amid Israel’s war in Gaza—are cause for major concern.

This past weekend, Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in its first direct military assault against the country. This retaliatory attack by Iran was in direct response to Israel’s strike on an Iranian consulate building adjacent to Tehran’s embassy in Syria earlier this month. The strike killed Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, one of the highest-ranking commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). This represents the highest level targeted assassination of an Iranian official since the drone strike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani in 2020.

The attack marks a new precedent in the decades-long “shadow war” between Iran and Israel.

Israel has reportedly informed the United States and other states in the region that a response from Tel Aviv is inevitable. President Biden supposedly advised Netanyahu to “slow things down” after Iran’s recent attack. However, the administration’s passivity was summarized by the words of White House National Security Communications Spokesperson John Kirby: “I think we have to wait and see what the Israelis decide to do.”

A war between Israel and Iran—which would undoubtedly come with direct American involvement—would be catastrophic for U.S. interests and the Middle East. Washington needs to make clear that America’s chief interest is to avoid being dragged into another ruinous military campaign in the region.

Netanyahu has long considered Iran Israel’s primary threat and has tried for decades to get the United States to attack Iran. Before that, Netanyahu forcefully advocated the invasion of Iraq. These facts bear consideration and are cause for concern when considering Netanyahu’s incentives.

The prime minister was a leading figure pushing the United States to invade Iraq in the lead-up to 2003. In an address to the U.S. Congress in 2002, Netanyahu promised, “If you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” Regarding Iraq’s nuclear program, Netanyahu claimed, “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking, is working, is advancing towards to the development of nuclear weapons.” He urged the United States forward, arguing that it “must destroy” the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Whether Netanyahu—and the U.S. foreign policy establishment—were being cynical or foolish (or both), the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was ruinous for both the United States and the Middle East—including Israel. A geyser of extremism erupted across the region, causing a profusion of wars, instability, and terrorism. Plunging into war with Iran could be worse than Iraq.

Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington view the problem as existential. Since the 1990s, Netanyahu has raised the alarm over the imminent development of nuclear weapons by Iran, often pressing the United States for permission to take direct military action against Tehran or imploring the United States to do so on its behalf. This effort has been coupled with clandestine Israeli efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, such as the targeted assassinations of top Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities.

But the prize for Israel has always been a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. Netanyahu has been almost monomaniacally focused on this issue.

In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked President George W. Bush for a green light to bomb nuclear sites in Iran, which Bush rejected. In his book, Bibi: My Story, Netanyahu recalls how he asked President Barack Obama in 2013 to strike Iran’s nuclear installations during his first presidential visit to Israel, a request Obama likewise denied. In 2015, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress and urged legislators to block the administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran, arguing that Iran “poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.”

Netanyahu had a much more enthusiastic critic of Iran in the White House during the tenure of Donald Trump. Trump scrapped the JCPOA and began what was referred to as the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran in 2018. On taking office, the Biden administration scrapped its campaign promise to rejoin the nuclear deal, instead pursuing a “better deal” with Tehran. Six years later, this approach has failed miserably. Iran is now closer to a nuclear weapon than ever before and, clearly, not hindered in its ability to operate abroad. 

After his presidency, speaking about his authorization to assassinate Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, Trump, in private, griped that Netanyahu was “willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier.” According to The New Yorker, after it was clear Donald Trump had lost the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Netanyahu urged Trump to use the opportunity to bomb Iran, at which point an exasperated then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the president, “if you do this, you’re gonna have a f****** war.”

There is reason to worry that Netanyahu wishes to seize the current moment and finally realize his dream of a U.S. attack on Iran. Since the October 7 terror attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent onslaught in Gaza, Netanyahu likely sees escalation with Iran not only as a way to rally further Western support but also as a deflection mechanism to take the world’s eyes off Gaza. We have already seen a surge of escalation across the region over the past six months – from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and now between Iran and Israel directly—as a direct result of the war in Gaza and America’s emphatic embrace of Israel.

A broader war involving Iran would likely draw the United States directly into the fray, rendering Gaza as little more than an afterthought as Washington rushes to support its partner, Israel.

In addition to Netanyahu’s longstanding and sincerely held view that a U.S. attack on Iran would be a masterstroke, the prime minister also has a personal incentive to regionalize this conflict.

His support inside Israel has reached all-time lows, and protests calling for early elections in Israel are growing in both frequency and scale. President Biden himself has expressed fears privately that Netanyahu is trying to drag the United States deeply into a broader regional conflict. Netanyahu appears to recognize that once this war is over, so too is his time in power. 

Washington must not take the bait. Biden reportedly told Netanyahu in private that the United States will not support any Israeli counterattack against Iran, but if the past six months have been any indication of the president’s willingness to constrain Israel, then it is difficult to see this as little more than hollow rhetoric.

A major war in the Middle East would be detrimental not only to the region but also to U.S. interests.

For the United States, such a war would dramatically expand U.S. commitments and entanglements in the region at a time when the Middle East no longer represents a core theater of U.S. interests. The United States is already deeply engaged in assisting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and trying to deter China in the Indo-Pacific while carrying a national debt north of $34 trillion and running $1.5 trillion-plus peacetime budget deficits each year.

Getting dragged into a war with Iran while maintaining Washington’s stated objectives in Europe and the Indo-Pacific risks plunging America toward a crisis.

The Biden administration should draw a bright line and make clear that Americans will not be pulled into a war with Iran.

Jon Hoffman is a Research Fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute. Follow him on X: @Hoffman8Jon.