Will they? Won’t they? The ongoing Israeli/American Iran question

Aug 15, 2012 | Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

Will they? Won't they? The ongoing Israeli/American Iran question

An Israeli strike on Iran has been “imminent” for about two years now and commentators everywhere seem to be vacilating between alarm and dismissal. The volume of announcements, alleged leaks to the media, and public disagreement between various Israeli and US officials is leaving almost everyone scratching their heads over what is really going on.

The truth, as Elliott Abrams points out, is really anyone’s guess.

Whether Israel’s window for hitting the Iranian nuclear targets is really closing now or can safely be held open into next year is widely debated, especially by people who don’t have the facts. But they can be forgiven, for this is less a factual question than a judgment call. Where Iran’s program stands and how fast it can move forward, what Israel can expect to destroy and whether it can expect to destroy less 3 or 6 or 12 months from now, whether Israel’s missile defenses are improving faster than Iran’s missiles, and whether a President Romney or a reelected President Obama might actually destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in 2013 or 2014-these are not mathematical calculations. Add to these some local color in the Israeli debate: questions like “Do you trust Bibi or [defense minister Ehud] Barak?” or “What does General Gantz [the IDF chief of staff] really think?”

Of course, minor details like having no idea what is really going on have not prevented commentators from engaging in some highly-educated guesswork and making some hard-hitting speculation.

Here in Australia, Graham Cooke from the Australian Institute of International Affairs posits that Netanyahu is increasing his rhetoric on the Iran issue to repair his position in the polls:

Talking tough on the Iran issue may be one way back for the embattled PM, and he has been doing just that. Deliberate leaks from a supposedly closed meeting has him castigating security officials for their timidity over the Iranian threat, saying that he is willing to accept full responsibility in the face of national and international repercussions following an Israeli attack.

Most analysts would disagree with Cooke and point out that Netanyahu has been playing-up the Iran issue since well before his recent (and unrelated) drop in the polls. One person who does agree with Cooke is the Iranian Foreign Minister:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed the remarks as “the repetition of the baseless allegations” that Israel constantly levels against Iran, adding, “We do not see any grounds for such actions, and these claims are mostly made due to the internal problems of the Zionist regime.”

… “In our calculations, we aren’t taking these claims very seriously because we see them as hollow and baseless,” he stated.

Further in the piece, Cooke cites the recent Foreign Affairs cover story by Kenneth Waltz:

There is another view, controversially proposed by one of the world’s most prominent scholars on international relations, Kenneth Waltz of the University of California, Berkeley. Waltz believes a nuclear armed Iran would actually bring stability to the Middle East. He reasons the region has, for too long, been unbalanced by Israel as the lone State possessing a nuclear capability. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine he says the only surprising thing about the nuclear situation in the Middle East is that a potential balancer to Israel has not appeared before.

While few would agree with Waltz, there is logic to his argument. The balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union prevented the Cold War from becoming hot for more than 40 years; India and Pakistan are reluctant to escalate their traditional tensions now that both have nuclear weapons.

The Waltz piece was very poorly received in most policy circles (see, for example, Amitai Etzioni HERE). Waltz’s argument would have been logical if the situation were simply an Israel-Iran rivalry. Waltz completely ignored the actual factors driving Iran’s nuclear program — which has very little to do with Israel and a lot to do with establishing hegemony over the Gulf oil-trading routes — and ignored all of the other players, especially the Gulf Arab states.

Cooke also seems to believe that it is America’s role to seek to prove that the Iranian nuclear program is actually peaceful while “keeping the worried attack dog Benjamin Netanyahu on a leash”. Fortunately, the Pentagon does not quite see it that way:

Speaking during a press briefing, [US Defense Sectretary Leon] Panetta said: “Obviously Israel has to respond to that question. But from our point of view, the window is still open to try to work towards a diplomatic solution.”

“I don’t believe they made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Panetta said. “Obviously, they’re a sovereign country. They’ll ultimately make decisions based on what they think is in their national security interest. But I don’t believe they made that decision at this time.”

Meanwhile, Gil Hoffman reports that the newest addition to the Israeli cabinet may actually have the deciding vote:

Kadima MK Avi Dichter on Monday night went from opposition legislator to the man who could decide whether Israel takes military action against Iran when he agreed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s request to become home front defense minister.

Dichter will become the ninth member of Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet, which political sources say was evenly divided until now on the Iranian issue. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are thought be in favor of a strike if sanctions do not work and if the United States does not take action. Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Minister-without- Portfolio Bennie Begin are said to be opposed to such a step and to favor giving the US more time to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Dichter’s associates said he was completely undecided on the issue and would learn more about it before making a decision.

But the million dollar question is: will the US support an Israeli strike? In Israel, a Channel 2 report quoted an unnamed “source in the Obama Administration”, who said that the US may not join Israel should it go ahead with an attack:

The US feels a profound commitment to the defense of Israel, and so could be relied upon to protect Israel defensively from the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, the TV channel quoted the source as saying. But the thrust of the US source’s message to Israel, the TV report said, was “don’t rely on us to finish the job.”

This contrasts somewhat with a report from Israeli Channel 10, which cites presumably different unnamed sources affirming that Obama will, in fact, attack Iran regardless of Israeli actions:

The key formulation being discussed for Obama to assure Netanyahu is that the US “will attack Iran by June 2013″ if the Iranian nuclear weapons drive has not halted by then, the report said.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells Jennifer Rubin that they won’t:

The message out of Washington is very consistent. The Obama Administration does not wish to be dragged into a conflict with Iran. The message continues to be: ‘We’ll tell you, Israelis, when diplomacy has run its course. We’ll tell you when it’s ok to publicly discuss intervention.’ 

Over at Haaretz and republished in today’s Australian, Aluf Benn has a different take:

US President Barack Obama is considered a sharp opponent to the idea of an Israeli strike against Iran. But his actions say the opposite. Obama once again is leading from behind, as he did in Libya and Syria.

This is his doctrine: instead of complicating the US with a new Middle East war, he is outsourcing the fighting to an external agent. In Libya, it was the French, the British and the anti-Gaddafi rebels. In Syria, it is the Free Syrian Army. In Iran, it is the IDF.

Michael Koplow sees the ridicule in the debate:

I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is going in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner. In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation lockdown meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, “Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.” So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz



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