Prime minister and IDF chief air sharp differences over how to stop Iran

Prime minister and IDF chief air sharp differences over how to stop Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu says sanctions have failed, while Benny Gantz argues they are beginning to be effective

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told the Israeli daily Haaretz that sanctions on Iran were bearing fruit, while at the same time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN that economic restrictions had failed to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The dueling interviews released Wednesday revealed gaps in official thinking on how best to derail Iran’s nuclear program.

In an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Netanyahu played down the effect of sanctions intended to persuade Iran to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

“They’re certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy, but so far they haven’t rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota,” Netanyahu said. “I mean I hope that changes, but so far I can tell you the centrifuges are spinning… so if the sanctions are going to work they better work soon.”

“The sanctions haven’t worked,” Netanyahu continued. “How do we know that? Because nothing has been stopped. What has stopped in the Iranian program?”

Netanyahu dismissed the suggestion that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes, pointing to the republic’s parallel efforts to develop long-range military capabilities.

“They said it’s for medical isotopes. Right?” he said. “That’s why they’re developing ICBMs to carry medical isotopes to Europe or Israel or the United States.”

The prime minister also warned that the threat of mutually assured destruction would not necessarily work between Iran and Israel, since Iran is not a rational actor that would put self-preservation as a top priority.

“When it comes to a militant Islamic regime I wouldn’t be too sure, because unlike, say, the Soviets, they can put their ideology before their survival,” Netanyahu said. “So I don’t think you can bet on their rationality.”

In contrast, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said in an interview with Haaretz published on Wednesday that a rational mindset in Tehran may prevent Iran from even developing nuclear weapons. The decision to take the development program along the path to a bomb has yet to be taken and Iran may not do it as long as it feels vulnerable, Gantz said.

“If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be made,” Gantz said. “It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”

Gantz expressed the opinion that Iran has not yet committed itself to making a nuclear weapon.

“[Iran] is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb,” Gantz said.  ”It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.”

He also said sanctions on Tehran were beginning to work.

“The sanctions are beginning to bear fruit — those on the diplomatic level and those on the economic level,” he said.

Nonetheless, Gantz said, as the man in charge of Israel’s defense capabilities he was preparing for all possible developments.

“The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility,” he said. “If it’s not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That’s my job, as a military man.”

While Israel and the US are in agreement over the potential threat from Iran, Gantz said that Israel’s closer proximity to the danger places it under greater pressure.

“We and the United States have a large common alignment of interests and relations, but America looks at America and Israel [looks at] Israel,” Gantz said. “We aren’t two oceans away from the problem — we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently.”

Should Iran obtain nuclear weapons’ capability, that would embolden its activities through its proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, and would also leave Israel as the only country in the world facing a declared threat of obliteration from a nuclear-armed foe, Gantz predicted.

“If Iran goes nuclear it will have negative implications for the world, for the region, for the freedom of action Iran will permit itself against us — via the force Iran will project toward its clients: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza,” Gantz warned. “And there’s also the potential for an existential threat.”

In an interview with Maariv also published on Wednesday, President Shimon Peres warned that while the effect of economic sanctions on Iran may be questioned, the outcome of military action was also unclear.

“One can ask, would military sanctions work?” Peres said. “It is all under a question mark.”

Peres said it was wiser to begin with economic and diplomatic sanctions while keeping a military option on the table, a line he has stuck with in recent months.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday that Israel would continue to work with the US and the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Barak also said that although statements made by Egypt’s presidential candidates seem to contravene the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, he hopes that in the long term they will do what is best for Egypt.

read more: