Making sense of Netanyahu’s Iran policy  

Brian M Downing 

Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly warns of Iranian dangers to his country and the region. He tried more than once to persuade the United States to destroy Iranian nuclear sites and mobilized his considerable resources to press the White House into action. Neither of the previous two presidents obliged.

Israel and Iran were once staunch allies, united by the common Sunni enemies of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The partnership continued well after Iran became an Islamic Republic under Khomeini in 1979. Israel supported Iran with weaponry and intelligence when Iraq invaded the following year. The partnership fell away.

Today, Israel and Iran are at daggers drawn. The situation might appear to stem from maladroit politicians on both sides, but the Israeli position shows impressive strategic vision. Nonetheless, things gang aft agley in both Scotland and the Middle East. Sunni hostility may return one day – with more powerful armies. Alternately, Saudi monarchs may be undermining their position at home and heading toward upheaval.(1)

The threat

Netanyahu claims three dangers from Iran. It is the most important sponsor of terrorism in the region. Its troops and proxies operate nearby in Lebanon and Syria. And the Iranian nuclear program, despite the 2015 treaty, remains a danger.

Iran has indeed used terrorism over the last forty years. Figures in the Shah’s state were assassinated in Europe. Agents and proxies conducted kidnappings and bombings in Beirut, including the 1983 ones of the American embassy and a US-French military compound. Since then, it has backed Hamas and Hisbollah who fire into Israel and kidnap its citizens. More recently, IRGC agents tried to assassinate Israeli diplomats in response to Mossad-backed killings of Iranian nuclear experts. Iran’s use of terrorism can be established; it can also be exaggerated to advance strategic objectives.

Since the outset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Iran has supported Damascus with arms and money. The IRGC has also trained Syrian militias and a multinational Shia force. The IRGC itself has about 2000 troops in Syria. Iran, then, has a military presence near Israel.

Iran and its allies do not, however, constitute a meaningful threat to Israel. They are lightly-equipped and have no air support. An attack on IDF positions along the Syrian or Lebanese border would be foolish, costly, and remarkably brief. Guerrilla infiltrations would be difficult as Israel’s northern borders are defended by ground troops, drones, and electronic surveillance. Results would be negligible, retaliation devastating.

Netanyahu, despite the P5+1 agreement of 2015, continues to warn of grave danger from Iran’s nuclear program. However, even prior to the deal which entailed dismantling Iran’s most worrisome facilities, his assessment was not shared by prominent security chiefs. Uzi Eilam, a brigadier general and director of Israel’s nuclear program, stated that Iran was ten years from being able to make a nuclear weapon and that it was unclear it intended to go past legitimate “dual use” stages and embark upon a weapons program.(2)

Major general and retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan (1945-2016) once directed a program of assassinating terrorist leaders and Iranian scientists and can hardly be called dovish. He too rejected Netanyahu’s claims. The plain-speaking spy chief publicly called them “bullshit”. Not plausible interpretations of hazy intelligence, just “bullshit”.

Claims that Iran constitutes a significant threat to Israel, let alone an “existential” one, are difficult to support. Iran does not have nuclear weapons and it’s exceedingly unlikely Russia, China, the United States, and other world powers will allow it to develop them. The nuclear club doesn’t want new members. Nor do Iranian troops and agents constitute such a threat. Netanyahu’s Iran policy is not based on poor intelligence or personal foibles. It’s based on a well thought-out strategy looking inside and outside his country.

The Israeli-Saudi-American alignment

Since the demise of Israel’s alignment with Iran, several prime ministers, not only Likud ones, have inverted strategic partnerships in the region. This has been accomplished by exploiting anti-Shia concerns and prejudices.

Sectarian hostility has been part of the Islamic world since the successional conflicts after Muhammad’s death (632). Hostility today is at its highest point in centuries. Recent events have seen to that.

The 2003 destruction of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated army and state brought Shia control to the country. A formidable obstacle to Shia-Iranian power was gone and though Baghdad has steered between American and Iranian predominance, Sunni monarchs are alarmed.

The Arab Spring saw popular protest in many Sunni countries which were misinterpreted – or misrepresented – as Shia movements backed by Iran. This view is wrongheaded as Sunni and Shia youth alike marched for reform until being driven off the streets, but Sunni monarchs with large Shia minorities, or even majorities, reacted fearfully and arrived at positions skewed by sectarian passions and political interests.


Although the Sunni monarchies spend exorbitant sums on weaponry, their armies are of limited use. They’ve shown little effectiveness in Gulf War One, Yemen, or anywhere else. Rulers look outside the region for security, mainly to the United States.

It was not by chance that the Saudis signed an immense arms deal with the US on President Trump’s recent visit to the Kingdom. It solidified a longstanding Saudi-American defense partnership. The previous administration’s effort for comity with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and easing Gulf tensions, is over. Iran rejected it and Neoconservatives guide the new American president.


The obvious advantage for Israel is greatly reduced danger from Sunni countries. When combined with the collapse of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and with Egypt’s internal woes and membership in the anti-Iran league, the advantage is remarkable. For the first time in its history, Israel does not face a sizable hostile army on its borders.

Sunni monarchs once harshly criticized Israel for occupying the West Bank and refusing to negotiate over it. Criticism has waned. The US intermittently called for negotiations over several decades but the new administration has announced its disinterest. Settlements will continue, incorporation or annexation may follow. The Sunni powers may counsel the Palestinians to accept a confederation of towns, albeit one with generous subsidies, instead of meaningful statehood.


Protracted confrontation with Iran could lead to capable Sunni armies. They are receiving vast amounts of western arms and lengthy training with western troops. They may gain combat experience in coming years in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Israel could face strengthened and freshly hostile Sunni powers. The scenario is more likely if Iran were to break apart as did Syria and Iraq (a likely goal of its enemies) or otherwise no longer constitute the unifying threat it is today. Nothing fails like success.

Powerful Sunni armies are unlikely. The monarchs will not use their forces in significant fighting as it would demonstrate their armies’ inadequacies and their countries’ vulnerabilities. Their subjects will grumble at hardships and grow hostile with protracted casualties. Iran will take note. Only small-scale deployments can be risked, as in Yemen where the Emirates have a detachment on front lines and Saudi troops patrol secure areas in the rear.

Wars historically lead to professionalization of lackluster armies. Old ways of doing things, such as the selection of high-ranking officers and doctrines, are pushed aside to become more effective. Prussia against Napoleon, Britain after the Crimea. Sunni monarchs, however, will be loth to professionalize. Many Middle Eastern rulers attained their positions after officers resentful of nepotism and corruption launched coups. Nasser, Assad, Khadafi, and Saddam Hussein took power this way. Even where warrior-kings like ibn Saud conquered their domains, their sons know the risks of professional armies. Nepotism and venality ensure lackluster armies, but also reasonably loyal ones.

Aligning with Israel and the United States will fuel discontent in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. An immense youth population faces little chance of advancement and no chance of reform, at least not through peaceful means. Seeing rulers make common cause with countries they themselves call “satans” when convenient, will radicalize swaths of youth and encourage them to serve in ISIL and al Qaeda.

Israel can encourage turmoil by harsher treatment of Palestinians, incorporation of the West Bank, or ominous moves near Muslim holy sites, including the Temple Mount. Such actions, however, could strengthen growing domestic opposition to the Likud (already conspicuous among IDF generals) and bring in a centrist government with a different foreign policy agenda.

1 See Trita Parsi’s excellent study, Treacherous Alliance, Yale, 2008.

2 A 2007 American National Intelligence Estimate agreed: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.