So: Is Iran really a threat to Israel?
Iran isn’t out to nuke Israel, nor is it out to control the Middle East. It couldn't even if it wanted to, even if it had nuclear weapons. For starters, Israel and Pakistan have nukes, so does China and so, for that matter, do the United States and Russia. Even at the height of their rivalry during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States tried to control the Middle East but proved comically (and more often tragically) incapable. The United States repeated the attempt as the sole superpower and failed rather miserably. A tertiary power such as Iran isn't about to best its predecessors in delusion.
Iran wants to be a regional power, wielding influence where it can and even flexing its muscles by proxy through its clients (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq). But, as Barack Obama must know (and his approaches toward Iran bear this out), Iran’s power through these clients is limited. Hamas is an essentially Palestinian force, and more to the point, a Sunni Muslim force. Its long-term interests are neither with Iran nor with a Shiite Islamic agenda.
Nor, incidentally, is Hamas’ near- or long-term interest remotely connected to the potential for an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel. Distasteful and absurd as such calculations may be, such a strike would, by dint of geography, almost inevitably wipe out as many, or more, Arabs as it would Jews. (Remember: more than a fifth of the population in Israel proper is Arab, and some 5 million Palestinians rim Israel in occupied territories too close to avoid either a direct hit or the devastation from a nuclear strike.)
What About Iran’s Support of Hezbollah?
Similarly, Hezbollah is an essentially Lebanese force, its interests in Iran almost exclusively tactical. The way Hezbollah sees Iran is almost identical to the way Israel sees the United States: as a patron, an arms supplier, a cash cow, a blind ally. The relationship is not always a two-way street, and in that regard, too, Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran is similar to that of Israel with the United States. When it’s a choice between Hezbollah’s interests and its patron’s, Hezbollah neither bucks to Iranian demands nor hews to Iranian interests. What’s important to remember about Hezbollah above all is that it’s out to protect Hezbollah first and last, not to do Iran’s bidding.
That’s not to say that Iran will not continue to try to flex its muscle through its regional allies. That’s what regional powers do, just as superpowers have always done, just as the United States continues to do. It’s quite silly to expect Iran to sit back and do absolutely nothing while American and Israeli influence, overt or cover, runs the table in the Middle East. It’s just as silly to act surprised that Iran would attempt to influence policy (or militants) in the region. Iran wants to be a player. The question is not whether it should be “allowed” to be a player. It already is. The question is how to engage it constructively. Opposing it without engagement hasn’t worked.
Iran’s Internal Problems Dictate Its External Bluster
Iran itself is pretty much a small version of the Soviet Union in the 1970s — approaching financial bankruptcy and ideological exhaustion. Its tired Islamic revolution, approaching its fourth decade, cannot be propped up except by pretense, and also by belligerence. The West will only prolong Iran’s cowboy act by playing into it, and feeding it, as the Bush administration did so well.
The collapse in the price of oil may well force Iran to the negotiating table. It’s up to Obama, and Europe, to come up with a compromise that could allow Iran to come out of its diplomatic isolation while giving it a face-saving way of maintaining some kind of civilian nuclear program while verifiably abandoning a military one.
Why Bombing Iran Won’t Help
Beyond all those reasons, there are other compelling reasons why bombing Iran would be a mistake.
First, Iran isn’t Iraq - it isn’t a weakened country led by a discredited despot. With a population approaching 70 million, Iran has more than twice the population of Iraq, it has a functioning if anemic economy, a sizable if clunky military (and a fanatic Revolutionary Guard), and it has those proxy armies it can always call on for help. Iran wouldn’t hesitate to use those armies as a hedge against an attack.
Second, a single raid would not destroy whatever nuclear capacity the administration guesses Iran possesses. A bombing campaign would have to be widespread and lengthy. Its success would also be guesswork, but its consequences wouldn’t be.
Third, Iran would be radicalized again just as large segments of the population and parts of Iran’s government appear ready to look beyond belligerence.
As The Economist’s Max Rodenbeck wrote in The New York Review of Books in January 2009, “air strikes cannot guarantee to stop Iran from getting the bomb, yet would likely ignite a cataclysmic regional backlash, particularly in Iraq. The fragility of the global economy has cooled tempers, too, since any threat to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf could destroy chances of a recovery. Bitter experience has also shown that shunning Iran, and brandishing sticks without accommodating legitimate Iranian concerns, have merely served to entrench Tehran's own hard-liners. Not only has Iran defiantly accelerated its nuclear program, it has also made embarrassing strategic inroads, via such ideological allies as Hezbollah and Hamas, against American interests in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.”