- - Wednesday, June 30, 2021

In 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s deputy prime minister, warned the world that Iran was “three to five years” away from developing a nuclear bomb. In the three decades since, Mr. Netanyahu has repeated similar warnings countless times in interviews and speeches, alleging that Iran is led by irrational fanatics who dream of annihilating Israel in a nuclear armageddon.

Yet Iran has never possessed nuclear weapons and its leaders are not interested in obtaining them, said historian John Ghazvinian, the executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in this episode of History As It Happens. The episode examines Mr. Netanyahu’s lasting influence on U.S. policy toward Iran, which is as diplomatically isolated and economically weak as it has been in decades.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is out of power now, but his legacy on Iran is expected to persist in the foreign policies of both Israel and the U.S. That is because he waged a successful campaign to demonize Iran’s leaders and convince a receptive American audience that Iran was hell-bent on building a bomb, said Mr. Ghazvinian, the author of “America and Iran: A History, 1720 to The Present.”

And the Israeli leader succeeded although intelligence agencies in the U.S., Israel and Russia concluded Iran was not building a nuclear bomb, Mr. Ghazvinian added.

“The only logical place for Iran to be is the middle ground, where it has to develop just enough uranium enrichment capacity and technological ability to buy itself a certain level of influence and strength in the region … but not so much that it risks racing all the way to a bomb,” Mr. Ghazvinian said.

Iran is not interested in “going nuclear” because a bomb, far from enhancing Iran’s position in the greater Middle East, would provoke massive economic or military retaliation from Israel or the U.S., the historian said.

So if Iran was never truly after the bomb, what motivated Mr. Netanyahu to repeatedly warn that the Islamic Republic was an existential danger to world peace? The answer lies in major geopolitical changes following the end of the Cold War, the U.S-led effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and the opening of the Madrid peace conference that same year.

The international landscape changed so dramatically that it is easy to forget Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told reporters in 1989, “Iran is Israel’s best friend.”

“It was actually the Israelis who wanted to encourage the United States to mend its fences with Iran after the hostage crisis. They believed the Iranian revolution was a temporary aberration … and that Israel’s much larger enemies were the immediate Arab states,” Mr. Ghazvinian said.

“When the Cold War ended, everything changed. Israel was now locked into a peace process with its Arab neighbors and no longer saw them as any real threat,” Mr. Ghazvinian added.

Israel, eager to maintain robust military aid from the U.S. as well as geopolitical relevance, began demonizing Iran, confident it would not be difficult to convince American leaders to view the Islamic Republic as a threat. Mr. Netanyahu went so far as to show a cartoon bomb diagram in a 2012 address to the United Nations, lest anyone not take his warnings seriously.

Midway through 2021, the three nations are in the midst of leadership changes: President Biden is seeking to renew the 2015 nuclear accord trashed by his predecessor. Mr. Netanyahu was ousted by an unwieldy coalition of eight parties led by conservative Naftali Bennett. And in Iran the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a favorite of the ayatollah, was elected president in June.

Despite the new faces, Mr. Netanyahu’s shadow lingers over Mr. Biden’s initial moves to resurrect the 2015 deal or seek a wider reconciliation over any number of thorny issues. Iran remains, in the view of Democrats and Republicans as well as pro-U.S. Arab nations, a pariah state undeserving of real engagement, Mr. Ghazvinian said.

For more of Mr. Ghazvinian’s insights into U.S.-Iranian relations and the decades-long controversy over “the bomb,” listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide