Israel Is Threatening to Turn Iran Into Another Ukraine

Israel's air strikes on Iran highlight the risk that Israeli bellicosity and Biden administration fecklessness could combine to produce a disastrous regional war in the Middle East.

Eli Cohen, Israel's foreign minister, speaks at a news conference with Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, in Jerusalem, Israel, on January 30, 2023. (Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the weekend, a militaristic power that’s spent a long time saber-rattling against and meddling in its neighbor’s affairs violated its territorial integrity and bombed the country. No, not Russia. In this case, I’m referring to Israel’s Sunday drone strike on Iran.

The incident is the first attack on Iran — that we know of, anyway — by Israel’s newly elected, illiberal coalition of racists, religious zealots, and other extremists. Raising military tensions with Iran is a grim rite of passage for every new Israeli government, with its “liberal” predecessor having threatened and carried out strikes on Iranian targets, and the right-wing government before that, also headed by current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, carrying out multiple assassinations inside of the country. In other words, to borrow from one of the dumbest things ever said on cable news, on Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel…again.

Israel’s strike, carried out with the full backing of the Biden administration, is being sold by both governments as an attempt to “contain” Iran, a rather misleading framing. While Iran is a regional power that meddles in its neighbors’ business, so is Israel, which regularly visits violence on its neighbors, including Syria, and the Palestinian people. To say nothing of the monstrous eight-year-long war still being waged by nearby Saudi Arabia on Yemen (also with steadfast US backing).

Besides that, Iran is encircled by US bases, sits next to a hostile, nuclear-armed power, and is suffering from years of crippling sanctions by the world’s largest economy, a country that has also assassinated its chief military leader and inflicted on it devastating cyber attacks over the last decade, to name just a couple highlights. Who can honestly say with a straight face the problem here is too little containment?

In any case, to this end, the US and Israeli militaries just spent a week carrying out their largest joint military exercises, simulating an attack on Iran in what was both implicitly and explicitly a threat against the country (“If Iran makes mistakes, offense capabilities are getting ready,” as one top Israeli military official put it). It’s the latest escalation of war-planning between Biden and the Israeli government, which has spent more than a year pressuring the US president on a future war on Iran. The exercises were “a reminder that no matter what else is happening in the world, the poisonous kettle of the Iranian nuclear program keeps bubbling,” wrote the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, a little like saying an arsonist’s threatening letters are a reminder his victims want to install a fire alarm.

Adding a layer of off-the-charts hypocrisy to the whole affair, Tel Aviv and Washington are also pointing to Iran’s supply of drones to Russia while it wages war on Ukraine to justify the attack (Tehran, for its part, claims it supplied the drones before the war). In the process of defending the principles of international law and territorial sovereignty, apparently anything goes, including…violating international law and territorial sovereignty. It’s a warped calculus, but it’s also directly deleterious to US interests, since Biden continues to, largely unsuccessfully, rally the world to the US side in the Ukraine war on the basis of defending the so-called “rules-based international order” — an order whose “rules,” contrary to what US officials keep saying, can apparently be casually broken without threatening the entire structure after all.

What makes the Iran situation all the more absurd is that the Pentagon’s own National Defense Strategy paper late last year openly admitted that “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one” [emphasis mine]. What seems to be happening here is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, with the Biden administration haplessly going along with Netanyahu’s war-hawkery for fear of a domestic political backlash.

Tragically, this was an entirely avoidable corner Biden chose to paint himself into. By declining to simply reenter the Iran deal his defeated right-wing opponent had violated, and instead trying to extract extra concessions from Tehran through drawn-out renegotiations, Biden set off a sequence of events that ultimately killed the deal that had been holding together a fragile peace. Now, Biden is largely at the mercy of Netanyahu’s government, which understands well it has US military and political support, however reluctant, for whatever it decides to do to Iran, and however much this would embarrass the administration.

This kind of hypocrisy doesn’t come without a cost for US interests. It’s exactly these kinds of double standards that countries in the Global South have, in part, cited again and again to justify their refusal to go along with US political and economic isolation of Moscow following its invasion. This is especially the case with India, which Biden has tried to push off the fence, but which has continued to prop up the Russian economy by gulping down its oil exports in defiance of the United States, on the basis of looking after its own interests — which, it’s implied, aren’t rooted in defending an all-to-often selectively invoked rules-based order.

But there’s a larger point here than run-of-the-mill US hypocrisy on foreign policy. Anyone in the United States appalled by Vladimir Putin’s disastrous gamble in Ukraine should do everything they can to steer Biden away from repeating the same blunder — not because it will be any worse than Moscow’s war, but because they have an actual direct influence on the actions of their own, democratically elected government.