Posing Existential Threats

The evidence only weakly supports the contention that Iran has aggressive intent, while strongly supporting the contention that Iran wants to be, and be treated as, a regional power. Posing an existential threat to Iran could make it learn some very unfortunate and unnecesary lessons about the type of foreign policy behavior that will pay off.
In certain circles, it has become fashionable to toss around the accusation that an adversary is posing an existential threat. Primitive, distant, non-nuclear Iran is treated by some American politicians as though it poses an existential threat to the U.S., and Israels official policy under Netanyahu, who may (perhaps like Ahmadinejad) believe that sounding like a lunatic is the most risk-averse approach possible, seems to be that Iran is an existential threat to it. Protestations that Iran has done nothing to suggest that it would sacrifice itself to thermonuclear obliteration by an Israel that appears all too eager to oblige in order to drop one primitive nuke (whenever it may figure out how to make one, if it is even trying) are pushed aside as though they were details too trivial to deserve serious consideration.
Ironically, these circles who like so much the word existential never stop to ask about the existential threat that Israel poses to Iran. With the weapons, the means of delivery, the superpower protection, the loudly proclaimed political will, and the historical record of aggression [against Egypt (Suez), Lebanon (1982-2001, 2006), Iraq (Osirak), and Syria], Israel poses a threat to Iran sufficiently serious so that it must be considered a key factor influencing Iranian foreign policy calculus and behavior.
Whatever the true motivations of Irans various leaders may have been, Iranian behavior (provision of low power military arms, financial aid, and apparent terrorist attacks on Israeli targets supplemented by endless free rhetoric) certainly suggests hostility but hardly supports the hypothesis that Iran is preparing to attack Israel. Quite the contrary. Irans minor (in a strategic sense) irritation of Israel combined with trumpeting of its hostility alerts (in fact, grossly over-sensitizes) Israel without posing any serious strategic threat. By alerting Israel and giving Israel a huge free card to play in Congress, it facilitates the rapid growth in the military power of the Israeli garrison state. Iran is responsible for enormously increasing the Israeli military dominance over the Mideast and Israels huge military superiority over Iran. This is the game of someone with a very different goal.
What goal might require loud-mouthed hostility not backed up by any serious strategic preparations for war? The answer is obvious. Iran surely dislikes Israels regional shadow and even more surely dislikes its own marginalization. Under the Shah, Iran heedlessly pursued an arms build-up that had no obvious military purpose whatsoever but had a very clear political purpose: to make Iran a regional power. Erected on a socio-political house of cards, the Shahs high-tech toys availed him nothing when everyone decided they had had enough of his dictatorship.
Under Khomenei, Iran launched a campaign to lead the worlds Shia that sputtered and died like a match in a downpour except in Lebanon, where Israels 1982 invasion provoked a nationalist liberation movement that gave Iran an opening to gain influence. Irans attention was soon fixated on Saddam Hussein, whose existential threat provoked a decade-long Iranian effort to survive and then to punish Saddam (no doubt with dreams of reviving its failed Shia crusade). As with the Shah, Khomeneis goal, except when pushed into an existential corner, was to make Iran a regional power.
Today, Irans noisy interference in the affairs of the whole Mideast region combined with the absence of most of the serious military development moves (the main exception being its offensive missile program) is strong corroborative evidence that once more, Irans goal is to transform itself into a regional power. It calmly cooperated with the U.S. to get rid of its Taliban enemy after 9/11. It calmly stood aside and watched the U.S. invade Iraq to get rid of its Iraqi enemy in 2003. It let its Hezbollah ally do all the fighting to stop the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, fighting Hezbollah did with relatively low-power Iranian weapons, vastly inferior to the arms provided to Israel by the U.S.
Nothing Iran has been doing disproves the hypothesis that Iran harbors aggressive intent. It would be hard to identify any country that does things that disprove aggressive intent. Countries normally strengthen themselves. But countries that do not harbor aggressive intent normally do not go out of their way to make themselves look aggressive.
Touting the ability to refine uranium to medical grade constitutes enough bragging to scare Israelis into highly threatening action without actually doing much of military significance. It does have other purposes, however. First, it helps the Iranian regime look good domestically. Second, it gives the impression that Iran is an up-and-coming country that needs to be taken seriously.
In this context, Irans policy toward the Levant looks all too familiar: lots of smoke but just enough fire to be minimally persuasive without costing too much. Israels addiction to beating up Lebanon combined with its utter refusal to negotiate a reasonable, balanced accommodation with Palestinians has awarded Iran a free pass to the Mediterranean, and that free pass is essential if Iran is to be taken seriously as a Mideast power.
Maybe Iran has a hundred-year plan to conquer the Mideast, but by the sharp test of Occams Razor, a much simpler and more persuasive explanation is that Iran wants to stride the regional stage. Iran can do this by playing the neighborhood bad boy, and today it is being taught the very clear lesson that this is its only way forward. However, Iran could also be encouraged to join the crowd by being accepted and offered inducements for playing nice. This, of course, is Ankaras strategy, and the very attractive prize Ankara is offering is Iranian access to the European hydrocarbon market. The route Iran ends up taking will have significant impact on the goals that Iran ultimately strives to reach.
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Further Considerations

How many Iranian policies?
Does Tehran (i.e., the regime) have a consensus main foreign policy goal? To what degree to Khamenei, the IRGC, Ahmadinejad, the national security elite have contradictory goals or differing priorities? What evidence would, if it were found, distinguish the goal of destroying Israel from the goal of inclusion as a member of the Mideast Club?

Key factors:
Who benefits? To what degree might integration into the global hydrocarbon trade stimulate an economic bureaucracy in Iran sufficiently powerful to make Iranian foreign policy less risk-taking? To what extent might a U.S. offer of security for Iran undermine its desire to challenge U.S. leadership?

Is Israel the object at all or just a proxy for becoming the leader of a new world order not centered on the U.S.?
What impact would a post-Imperial U.S. foreign policy in general and/or a new U.S. policy, for the first time since the fall of the Shah, of genuine, balanced accommodation with Iran have on Iran’s long-term goals? What evidence would distinguish between a rise in Iranian hubris and determination to overthrow the U.S. on the one hand and an Iranian turn toward cooperation?

Would an Israeli-Palestinian settlement end the Iranian-Israeli hostility?
One can easily hypothesize that an Israeli return to its 1967 borders and the emergence of a secure and independent Palestinian state would pull the Levantine rug out from under Iran and end Iran’s apparent obsession with Israel. But what would it take to end Israel’s obsession with Iran? Would a post-settlement Iran turn to economic cooperation with Turkey? Will Iran continue to tout its nuclear prowess as part of its competition with Saudi Arabia? Would a post-settlement Israel give up regional hegemonic aspirations and focus on restoring the health of its democracy or would an influx of bitter settlers from the West Bank radicalize Israel even more?

Key factors:

  • whether Egypt slips deeper into military dictatorship or manages to build a popular government;
  • the relative influence of Turkey and Israel in post-revolt Syria;
  • whether the Israeli government whips up settler resentment or promotes their smooth reintegration into Israel;
  • whether or not Arab Spring revolts bring Iran head-to-head with Saudi Arabia

Would the U.S., after an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, become freed from its obsession with Israel?
An Israeli-Palestinian settlement would facilitate a U.S.-Iranian detente, which would have multiple benefits for both sides. Would the U.S. seize this opportunity? Would Iran? Would the U.S. then restructure its overall posture toward the Mideast away from the Israeli/Saudi pillars toward a more balanced and flexible interaction with Turkey, Egypt…and Iran?

Key factors:

  • Whether or not Syria collapses and becomes the battleground for outside forces;
  • Ability of Israel to adapt to Smaller Israel status;
  • Ability of Palestinians to develop effective governance, in turn greatly dependent on willingness of world to support and protect them

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