Bibi and the Blob

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 16 2021

Israel’s attack this week on an Iranian nuclear site might at first seem to have been counterproductive; Iran responded by announcing that it will start enriching uranium to 60 percent, which would move it closer to the 90 percent weapons-grade threshold. But Israel’s motivation seems to have been less about setting back Iran’s nuclear program and more about setting back talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. So, all told, Bibi Netanyahu has reason to feel pretty good about the whole thing. 

Certainly he looked happy as he stood alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem and declared that America “has no greater ally” than Israel. Austin, too, was upbeat. He didn’t, for example, complain that America’s greatest ally had just tried to sabotage an important American diplomatic initiative—or that it had timed the sabotage to occur only hours before his visit to the greatest ally, thus putting him in an awkward position.

But, uncomfortable as Austin may have felt, upbeat was his only real option. As John Ghazvinian explained in Responsible Statecraft, if American officials publicly condemned Israel’s attack on Iran, they would risk “being raked over the coals domestically for criticizing Israel.”

Subscribe here

In case you doubt that the Biden team would have paid a high political price for criticizing Israel, let’s count the number of people in the foreign policy establishment who would have sprung to its defense: zero. At least, that’s the tentative conclusion of our rigorous study, which consisted of asking on Twitter whether anyone could name a Blobster who had condemned the Israeli attack. No names were forthcoming, though we did receive more than one tweet commenting on the naivete of the question. 

Even “liberal” members of the Blob—the kind of people you’d think might oppose violations of international law and acts of war, both of which the Israeli attack was—worked to find reasons Biden should be grateful for Israel’s intervention. On the Rational Security podcast, Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution looked at it this way: The attack (which disabled for an unknown duration the power supply of some centrifuges) will somehow put pressure on Iran to quickly make more concessions at the negotiating table. And since it was Israel, not America, that did the dirty work, “this is a way to create urgency for the Iranians that the US is hands off about but it gets to reap the benefits of.” Meanwhile, by not criticizing Israel, the Biden team can get “a little political space from its critics at home and in the region.”

But the fact is that Biden spent his first few months in office trying to appease Iran hawks at home and abroad, and he doesn’t have any “political space” to show for it. Meanwhile, as he wasted time on this quixotic quest, making pointless macho demands of Iran that he finally abandoned, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was steadily losing political space to his more hawkish rivals. The Israeli attack, which occurred only two months before Iran’s presidential election, has further empowered his domestic opponents, who are now making an all-out push to withdraw from the Vienna talks. (In keeping with Blob discourse standards, Wittes evinced no interest in how much “political space” there is on the Iranian side.)

If talks fall through, Iran will likely elect a more hawkish president, possibly putting the final nail in the coffin of the 2015 deal. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained on Twitter why this kind of outcome may be to the liking of some Iran hawks: “As one colleague admitted pre-JCPOA: He was against a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem because fear of Iran's nuclear weapons program was the most effective issue around which to organize a campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic.”

The larger question is why Israel and its more fanatical American friends are intent on isolating the Islamic Republic. Some see the goal as geopolitical: Israel fears that American rapprochement with Iran could undermine America’s commitment to Israel. Others say the goal is just political: Bibi Netanyahu benefits from having a seemingly ferocious enemy, an “existential threat” (which of course will seem less existentially threatening if the Vienna talks succeed).

Unfortunately for the rest of us, reducing the chances for diplomacy tends to increase the chances of war. As former Defense Secretary James Mattis once said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

Subscribe here

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.

Please, consider subscribing.