Iran’s Bluster isn’t a Bluff

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

November 1, 2005

Last week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president of Iran, declared that “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

It was a truly “retro” moment, conjuring up images of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who, almost four decades earlier, called on the Arab people to “throw Israel into the sea.”

Now, as then, the international community gasped at the lack of civility but could not imagine that the leader who uttered these words was serious. Iran’s diplomats were quick to explain it away, and even Ahmadinejad ultimately sought to tone down his words with less inflammatory rhetoric.

But the fact remains, as Ahmadinejad himself pointed out, that his comments were hardly new. In threatening the destruction of Israel, he noted he was only repeating the 27-year-long stance of the Iranian revolution.

There is one important difference between Nasser and Ahmadinejad: Nasser’s Egypt was right next door to Israel. In fact, he issued his threat as he sent his army into the Sinai Peninsula and precipitated the 1967 Six-Day War. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, would have to send the Iranian army 1,000 miles across the Persian Gulf and the Arabian desert before he could hope to fulfill his threat.

It’s true that Iran put a huge effort into developing long-range missiles with the ability to strike Israel. But so far, Iran can only load them with chemical warheads. To launch them against the powerful Israeli military would bring disproportionate death and destruction down on Ahmadinejad’s own people.

So, does Israel really need to fear the populist ranting of an Iranian hothead president, who seems only to be using Israel as a whipping boy to stir up support for his already faltering government? Shouldn’t Israel be satisfied that he scored an own-goal, further isolating Iran and placing its actions under greater international scrutiny?

The answer to my mind is clearly no. There is plenty of International Atomic Energy Agency evidence to indicate that Iran is bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and that this goal is broadly supported by all of Iran’s political factions. Four years ago, another Iranian leader, the supposedly moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani, provided the strategic rationale for using nuclear weapons. He explained that in a nuclear exchange, Iran could withstand a second strike, whereas “the use of a nuclear bomb against Israel will leave nothing on the ground.”

Now Ahmadinejad has explained Iran’s ideological rationale, justifying his threat to Israel in the context of Islam’s centuries-long struggle against the infidel. He also threatened Arab leaders who might think of signing treaties that recognized Israel, just as during the Oslo process, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, issued a fatwa to assassinate Yasser Arafat.

Some will point out that Iran appears to be at least five years from acquiring nuclear weapons and that the international community has already mobilized to prevent that from happening.

But that argument overlooks Iran’s other weapon against Israel: Its ongoing war by proxy, which it has been waging for more than a decade. Iran’s primary proxies are two terrorist organizations: Hezbollah, which operates out of southern Lebanon, and Palestine Islamic Jihad, which carries out terrorist operations against Israeli civilians. The Iranian intelligence service trains, funds, arms and directs both.

In the 1990s, Iran was able to use these proxies in its attempt to thwart the Clinton administration’s peacemaking efforts. Their attacks did much to defeat Shimon Peres in the 1996 Israeli elections, which led to the stalling of the peace process. Subsequently, Hezbollah’s success in forcing Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 helped provide the rationale for the Palestinian intifada, which then destroyed the peace process.

After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah immediately turned its attention to supporting Palestinian terror attacks in Israel (giving the lie to the idea that it was just a Lebanese resistance movement). Iran’s backing for this effort was starkly revealed in January 2002 with the interception of the Karine A, a ship smuggling a huge cache of Iranian arms from the Persian Gulf to Gaza.

Once Iran’s proxy war shifted from Lebanon to the West Bank and Gaza, however, Islamic Jihad moved into the vanguard position. Its activities were barely distinguishable from the suicide bombings undertaken by Hamas. Nevertheless, during the intifada, Hamas was on several occasions willing to pause for tactical reasons. On each occasion, the fragile calm would be punctured by an Islamic Jihad attack that provoked Israeli retaliation, which would then bring Hamas back into the fray. In this way, Iran was able to keep the intifada boiling until Palestinians could take it no longer.

Even now, when more than 80% of Palestinians want the current calm to continue, Iran is pushing Islamic Jihad to provoke violence. In the nine months since an informal cease-fire took hold, Islamic Jihad has been responsible for all four of the major suicide bombings that have punctured the relative quiet, including the one in Hadera last week.

Lest anyone doubt the Iranian hand in guiding this effort, in September 2005, Khameini made a public display of meeting with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the head of Islamic Jihad, to claim credit for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Khamenei and Shallah proclaimed that “jihad is the only way to confront the Zionist enemy.”

Ahmadinejad’s declaration, therefore, is certainly no aberration. It was just one of those moments when the world could no longer avoid noticing Iran’s decades-long aggression toward the Jewish state. Were Israel not to take these threats seriously, it would be as foolish as Ahmadinejad.