Thorny Issues

Jewish Light Editorial

The question of whether World War III will happen in our lifetimes may well turn on whether the worst of the bad guys, such as Iran and North Korea, are rational actors or not and, sadly, we don’t know the answer.

This constant undercurrent percolated to the surface again this week as a senior Iranian military commander boasted that if given the order, the nation’s forces could “raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes.”

The threat came on the heels of Iran’s testing of medium-range ballistic missiles. Apparently two of the missiles bore the inscription “Israel must be wiped off the earth.”

The rhetoric stemming from Iran is hardly new. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken that way for years, so to hear these kinds of statements from high-ranking Iranian leaders isn’t even remotely surprising. And while this particular statement is perhaps more specific than others, Iran has made similar threats toward Israel and America throughout the post-1979 revolutionary era.

Nor is this evil braggadocio necessarily determinative in assessing how to shape foreign policy toward Iran.Yes, some who opposed the nuclear agreement crafted a year ago cited this kind of vituperation as an argument for refusing to deal.

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Others, however, pointed out that it was the overt hostility, and perhaps unpredictability, of Iran’s regime that made it just that much more essential to forge a nuclear pact. That way, if indeed the Supreme Leader and his minions did literally go ballistic, there wouldn’t be as high a chance of a nuke attached to the situation.

Regardless of how one came down on that agreement, the burning question is this: Would Iran sacrifice itself to take down Israel?

We put it this way because it is nigh on impossible that a missile launch against Israel wouldn’t be met by the most rapid of reactions from Israel, America and their allies.

In other words, the Iranian leaders, by offering an attack, would have to be willing to suffer a mass suicidal death sentence upon their own people.

Which gets back to the question of rationality.

The debates on Iran’s self-survival interest are longstanding and, at least among those closest to foreign policy and defense analysis, the conclusion has most typically erred on the side of sanity: Iran simply wouldn’t risk the annihilation of its people, or even of Tehran’s metropolitan-area population of 16 million.

We don’t know for sure, of course, so it’s incumbent upon Israel, the United States and other allies to be ready to strike on a moment’s notice if Iran attempts anything of a direct nature (as opposed to its continued funding of Islamist proxies like Hezbollah or Hamas). There’s no indication that this readiness is likely to be diminished in the near future.

What might change, however, is whether our executive branch will correctly judge the semantics of foreign policy and confuse bluster, no matter how ugly, with intention.

With new leadership from one party or another to descend on Washington, there’s uncertainty as to what turf the next administration will stake out in regard to defense and foreign relations. Whether you think our footprint ought be heavier in the Middle East, there’s little question that effective diplomacy requires a deft and discriminating touch, the ability to separate out the wheat from the rhetorical chaff, to know which reactions truly serve as a precursor to war and which don’t.

In other words, it’s really important to put the Israel comments in context. As in, our Supreme Court just upheld Congress’ authority to use $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets to compensate the families of U.S. victims of terror attacks.That might have stuck a thorn in Iran’s paw and made it howl, just as only two weeks ago, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to the United States.

Here’s another one: Iran is feeling its bravura because it’s edging closer to an India deal to allow that nation (and Afghanistan) to participate in a new transport corridor.

Or, finally: Because Iran may sense a more temperate response from the current American president than what might issue from either of the major party candidates come January, the Islamic State is strutting its stuff, trying to set the international tone in advance of what could be a big shift in U.S. policy.

As we said, no one really knows what Iran will do and whether its words have predictive value. But one thing has been fairly constant: Iran’s leaders seem to use current events to wax fiercely and loudly, especially in spouting their animus toward Israel and the West. That fairly consistent track record, followed by little or no overt physical retaliation, sounds like the mark of a rational player, albeit according to logic we may not always understand.