The current drive to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal reflects two important, and inter-related, changes. From Israel’s perspective, these changes are to be welcomed, though its government must remain cautious about the country’s own role.
The first change is the escalation of efforts by the United States and its Western allies to abort the Iranian regime’s nuclear quest. The second change is the perception that Iran’s nuclear capacity would threaten not only Israel.
In a speech to the Union for Reform Judaism in December, US president Barack Obama stated that “another threat to the security of Israel, the US, and the world is Iran’s nuclear programme”. But, by this month, Obama was saying of Iran that “my number-one priority continues to be the security of the US, but also the security of Israel”.
That choice of words was a sign that the US is changing tack when it comes to Iran.
For more than a decade, the question “Whose issue is it?” has been part of the policy debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, argued that if Israel were to take the lead in sounding the alarm on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the issue would be perceived as yet another “Israeli problem”.
Critics argued that Israel was trying to push the US into serving Israel’s interests rather than its own. Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt said: “Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose an existential threat to the US. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China, and even a nuclear North Korea, then it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the [Israel] lobby must keep constant pressure on US politicians to confront Tehran.”
Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been less worried than Sharon was about Israel’s perceived role. He is too busy being directly engaged in the attempt to eliminate the deadly threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.
That policy has been effective, but it has also drawn attention to Israel’s influence on the Iran question. Curiously, this has not been held against Israel, partly because Obama and other leaders now regard Iran as a more serious threat, and therefore feel the need to take appropriate action.
But the willingness of the international community to engage could wane, particularly if sanctions exact a high financial price or military action causes a large number of casualties. Israel would therefore be wise to reinforce its pressure on the US administration with a broader diplomatic campaign. Like it or not, Israel must urge the world to remember that Iran is everyone’s problem.
• Itamar Rabinovich is a former ambassador of Israel to the US