Of Telhami, Bibi and the Iran deal


Shibley Telhami is a Middle East scholar for whom I have the utmost respect. Alas, his “On Iran, the GCC is paying the price of relying on Netanyahu,” (WJW, May 28) is misleading, somewhat inconsistent and filled with speculation presented as fact. As for the title itself, the Gulf Cooperative Council states had no alternative but to hope that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be convincing in attempting to influence U.S. negotiations toward a very hard line. There was no price to pay. Netanyahu did not formally represent them and no GCC leader would be invited by Congress. He was their best bet.

Telhani’s claim that “they allowed Netanyahu to present Israel’s—and the GCC’s—case” is strange since they had no power to stop it. Even President Barack Obama could not stop it. It is true that the smaller states do not fear an Iranian bomb—Iran has sufficient conventional and unconventional methods of destabilizing or overthrowing them. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, Iran’s major rival, greatly fears a Persian nuke because the intensity of fear/hatred between them is very great.

Telhami’s main thrust is that Bibi’s move was essentially designed to gain electoral support at home. No doubt there is some truth in that, but it does not negate the widely held fear that such weapons indeed present an existential threat. Israel is far less concerned with Iran’s regional mischief, which it can conventionally address, and far more concerned about nuclear weapons. That concern is very real among large elements of the population and, in my opinion, is warranted. While he lists important Israeli officials “who have counseled against using such terminology,” Bibi’s belief is genuine. He is a hawk; he lost his brother in the Entebbe raid; he has witnessed innumerable wars.

In May 1990 I took a group of military officers to Israel. Netanyahu briefed us. With pencil in hand, he utilized a wall map of the Middle East to note trouble spots. Stressing potential threats from Saddam, he flattened his pencil on the map, with the eraser on Israel and the pencil point on Baghdad, saying “You see, they are only a pencil away.”  Several months later Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel. Bibi has a good nose for threats and his feelings are genuine.


But are they accurate? Only one nuke on the Tel Aviv area would probably decimate a million Israelis, weaken the military establishment and invite attacks from Hezbollah to the north and from Hamas in the south. That sounds very existential to me. Telhami also notes what Israelis are likely to do “the morning Iran announces such capabilities….a sizable minority in the polls says they would pack and leave.” So, a weaponized Iran could either bomb Israel away or scare it out of existence (since the loss of a sizable minority would decimate the armed forces and greatly reduce the Jewish majority). In writing that we “cannot know for sure how much Bibi believed his own rhetoric,” Telhami trivializes a very real threat, one which older Americans during the Cold War felt personally, as when we brought bedsheets to school to protect us from flying glass in the event of nuclear attack (as if that would help) or when America was on nuclear edge during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Lastly, Telhami states that “if a good deal arrives, it will serve American interests well.” But it will only be a good deal if it serves Arab and Israeli interests as well. It must be very stringent, with red lines clear and willing to be enforced by a U.S. administration.   He ends by noting that “if a good deal arrives…there is no escaping that Iran would emerge stronger…,” to the unhappiness of Arabs and Israelis. “But the American bet is that both will need Washington even more.” A strong Iran under the ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards is not a good thing, and America being needed even more is even less of a good thing, for the United States has been over-involved in the Middle East and Americans are tired of this.

If Iran gains nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will do so as well (some say it already has a weapon, but it is in Pakistan). Other Middle East states, like Egypt and Turkey, will be similarly motivated, and if they cannot achieve nuclear status for deterrence, will probably instead choose dirty bombs and chemical weapons. The seeds for an unwanted war by all parties will be sown for sure. And even more menacing is that the leakiness of Middle East security establishments means that al Qaedas of the world will quickly obtain such devastating weapons. If so, the entire world is at risk and Sept. 11, 2001 will look like a mild disturbance compared to what is likely to come.

Donald L. Losman is Professor of International Affairs at the Elliott School, George Washington University.

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