Middle Eastern politics is a toxic blend of reality and paranoia, an ecosystem in which one situation has many ripples.
At present, Israeli forces are trying to degrade Hamas infrastructure and deter continued rocket strikes. But Operation Protective Edge is also about sending a message to Iran.
After all, for Netanyahu, the prospect of a nuclear Iran poses a terrible threat to Israel’s security. His fear, in my view a well-founded one, is that Iran seeks nuclear weapons as a defining strategic objective. Iran’s possession of such weapons would drive the Middle East deeper into the abyss of chaos. Iran would use its newfound power to threaten democratic movements in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen and to intimidate Europe and the Sunni Arab monarchies. In turn, these states would probably develop their own nuclear weapons. Iran would also significantly expand its support for groups like Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), using a strategy of nuclear blackmail against the states in the region to encourage extremism among these Islamist groups.
And a nuclear-armed Iran is increasingly likely. While international negotiators are currently meeting with their Iranian counterparts to pursue a long-term nuclear deal, the prospects don’t look good. First off, Iran is refusing to dismantle its existing nuclear infrastructure. Indeed, Supreme Leader Khamenei claimed yesterday that Iran had an “absolute need” for 19 times the enrichment capacity that Western diplomats believe the country can (somewhat) safely be allowed. Put simply, there’s a vast diplomatic chasm obstructing any deal. But while the Obama administration believes that President Rouhani might be able to persuade the aging and ill Khamenei to accept a deal, Netanyahu’s cabinet is far more skeptical. Recognizing Khamenei’s literal supreme power over foreign policy, and keenly aware of his pathological hatred for their very being (check out his twitter feed), Israeli officials believe Khamenei is fixated on obtaining nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the rise of ISIS and the meltdown of Syria have forced Netanyahu to take a far sharper view of Israel’s regional security interests. Not since the early 1980s has Israel faced such a diverse spectrum of threats.
This truth takes us back to Gaza.
Meeting Hamas and PIJ rocket teams with decisive force, Netanyahu hopes to signal Israel’s unwillingness to cede its traditional security supremacy. This intent is encapsulated in Israel’s mobilization of ground-force deployments: Netanyahu seems determined to take major risks in pursuit of grand strategic objectives (in this case, the military dismemberment of Hamas). Nevertheless, Israeli operations in Gaza aren’t solely about damaging Hamas. They’re also about broadcasting specific capabilities. In this regard, the scale of Israel Defense Forces air sorties in Gaza has been notable. Advertising its conducting of hundreds of missions each night, the IDF is demonstrating its capability for large-scale operations: the kind of air campaign necessary to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Here, Netanyahu wants Iran to understand his willingness to gamble — even at potentially high cost. By extension, Netanyahu is also warning U.S., European, and Russian diplomats that he won’t accept any deal with Iran that he regards as weak.
In all strategy, the use of military force is as much about psychology as physical impact. But nowhere is this truth more evident than in the Middle East. Put another way, in Gaza, Israel is now drawing a red line for Tehran. While most Western leaders seem to believe that a nuclear-armed Iran can ultimately be tolerated, Israel, as I’ve long suggested, believes the opposite. Correspondingly, only a strong nuclear deal will suffice.