Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief, said in an interview published in Haaretz on Wednesday that he did not believe that Iran would decide to build a nuclear weapon. He argued that the Iranian leadership is very rational, and said “Iran is moving step-by-step toward a point where it will be able to decide if it wants to make a nuclear bomb.
It has not decided yet whether to go the extra mile.” He added that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would produce a weapon if he believed he could do so without reprisals, but that Khameni understands that reprisals would take place and he therefore will not move the program to completion.
Gantz is making three points. The first is that the Iranians are rational. In saying this, he distances himself from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements about Iran. Netanyahu has focused on the ideology of the Islamic Republic, arguing that its religious foundations trump rational calculation. Second, Gantz is saying that Iran has not yet decided whether to build the bomb, but that it could build one if it chose.
Third, he is arguing that Iran would build a bomb if there were no apparently military threat of consequence, and that its rational decision not to build a bomb is predicated on a continued threat. Gantz is not arguing that Israel ought not threaten an attack if Iran proceeds to build a nuclear device. Rather, he is arguing that so long as the threat of attack remains credible, the Iranians will not build a bomb.
This argument has been made by a number of people. However, when the person making it is the senior Israeli military commander, it becomes significant. On the surface, Gantz appears to be breaking with Netanyahu’s view. Netanyahu seems to believe that Iran will proceed to weapon construction regardless of rational calculation and that therefore measures must be taken sooner rather than later in order to stop Tehran. Gantz is saying that the threat of action will be sufficient to stop the Iranians and that therefore no action is needed.
This creates a significant policy distinction, as it appears that Netanyahu is arguing for a strike while Gantz is arguing against it. Whatever the nuances, the public perceives the prime minister and the chief of staff as holding opposing views of what ought to be done. But it is difficult to understand, assuming divergent views, why the chief of staff would choose to air these differences on the pages of Haaretz — difficult but not inconceivable since generals have gone public against politicians in many countries at many times. But if that’s the case, we can expect Gantz’s resignation shortly.
There is another interpretation. The Israelis have been waging a very public campaign about the proximity of Iranian weapons, and have been dropping broad hints that the time to destroy Iran’s capabilities might be at hand. The problem is that while all military operations carry with them the risk of failure, an operation to destroy Iran’s capabilities is likely to fail, and carries the risk of retaliation. Israel is far from Iran and basing aircraft in Azerbaijan — as has been rumored as a possibility — would not likely avoid detection by Iranian and Russian intelligence. It is not secure. Second, and perhaps more important, Iranian retaliation, such as trying to block the Strait of Hormuz, would destroy any global economic recovery by increasing oil prices. The foundation of any attack would be Iranian irrationality, which, if assumed, means that Iran would be prepared to suffer the pains of a blockade in order to punish others.
If the key to blocking Iran’s program is the conviction that Israel has an effective military option, then Netanyahu’s public posturing plays an important role. It makes the Iranians uncertain as to Israeli intentions and capabilities. At the same time, the United States does not want to see an Israeli strike, and Israel cannot strike unless the United States commits forces to keep the Iranian navy from laying mines.
Israel must navigate a course that is sufficiently intimidating to the Iranians without causing the United States to overreact. It is interesting that some of the terminology in Gantz’s interview parallels statements by the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both referred to the Iranian leadership as “rational.”
If Gantz is still in office next week, the political leadership must have cleared his interview. In that case, Israel’s position is that it will attack Iran if it builds a weapon, but there is no need to attack now because Iran isn’t irrational enough to try it. The threat to Iran is still there, the United States is placated and actual Israeli thinking remains a secret.