Makovsky: U.S. and Israel converge on Iran, but timing gaps loom large

David Makovsky speaks to the audience about the situation in Iran and how it effects the rest of the world.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

While the United States and Israel have “converged” their thinking on how to respond to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, “gaps” remain on how long the “window will be open” for a possible military response if diplomacy fails, according to David Makovsky, one of the nation’s leading experts on the Middle East. Makovsky, a proud native of St. Louis and the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, spoke on “Iran: Implications for Israel, the Middle East and the World” at the Can We Talk? program Monday to an overflow audience at the Jewish Community Center. The program was a collaboration of the St. Louis Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the JCC.

Makovsky addressed his audience of fellow St. Louisans as the clock ticks ever louder regarding whether Israel, with or without the backing of the United States, will deem it necessary to take military action to degrade or destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. The tone of the gathering was even more somber as it took place in the immediate aftermath of the deadly shooting at a Jewish day school in Toulouse, France in which a rabbi and three children were killed and a youth seriously wounded in the worst attack on a Jewish target in France since 1982. Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC read out the names of the victims and asked the audience to rise for a moment of silence in their memory.

In his remarks, Makovsky noted the meetings earlier this month between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which took place after Obama was interviewed by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine and each of the leaders addressed the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“At the White House, in the discussions between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu it is clear that there has been a convergence on many of the issues (regarding Iran), but that not all of the gaps have been closed. On the convergence side, Obama moved closer to Netanyahu in the very clear statements he made in his interview with The Atlantic and in his AIPAC talk. He made a clear declaration that he considers Iran a threat not only to Israel, but to the U.S. and to the world. There is an awareness that if Iran gets a ‘Persian Shia bomb,’ then Saudi Arabia will want an Arab Sunni bomb. Then Egypt, even though it is broke will want one. Then there is the danger that nuclear weapons technology could be shared with a non-state actor like Hezbollah, which is an Iranian proxy.”

Makovsky added, “If Iran obtains a nuclear bomb, it will set off a profound shift in the balance of power in the region. It could not only set off an arms race but it would affect oil prices. And Israel takes seriously Iran’s threats to wipe it off the map. For the present, I want to stress that both Israel and the United States want the tough sanctions and diplomacy to work. These are already the toughest such sanctions and they will become even tougher when the European Union sanctions take effect on July 1. Iran’s currency has already taken a major hit under the current sanctions.”

The Middle East expert, who is as proud of the fact that he is a graduate of the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy as he is of his degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities, added that Obama “made it clear that we cannot ‘contain’ an nuclear Iran. Some Middle East experts, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser) have said that a nuclear Iran could be contained, but I respectfully disagree. The containment policy worked with the Soviet Union, but the situations are entirely different. During the Cold War, the United States had 500,000 NATO troops in Europe. There is no similar presence in the Middle East. The Soviet leaders were rational, and it is thought that the ayatollahs and other leaders of Iran are messianists. And even if some of the Iranian leaders are ‘rational,’ that does not mean they are ‘reasonable.’”

Another point of important convergence between the U.S. and Israel cited by Makovsky was Obama’s statement that “Israel has a sovereign right to defend itself.” This was an important reaffirmation of mutual respect between the United States and Israel. Another very positive fact is the unbelievable amounts of consultation taking place between the U.S. and Israel on this issue, with frequent visits to Israel by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“So what could be so bad if there is so much convergence and cooperation? The main issue is that the United States and Israel have different clocks. The United States, unlike Israel, is a superpower and so it can afford to wait longer while the sanctions and diplomacy go forward. Israel is not a superpower, and feels that it cannot afford to wait longer than the period in which Iran has enough highly enriched uranium and other elements needed to construct nuclear weapons. Israel does not have the luxury of waiting as long as the U.S. Israel is afraid things can move, regarding a possible military strike from ‘too soon. too soon. too soon. Oops! Too late!”

Makovsky emphasized, “The United States and Israel strongly agree that the Iranian crisis should be resolved diplomatically and through the sanctions. But they continue to have gaps between their respective clocks as to when the military option could be used before it is too late. There is agreement that Iran already has missiles and warheads, but has not yet achieved highly enriched uranium at the level of 93 percent needed to construct a nuclear weapon. There is some concern that Iran may be only a few months away from achieving that goal.”

Makovsky also described the differences between a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities from Israel’s successful destruction of the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981 and in Syria in 2007. “Those were single-plant targets, while Iran’s facilities are scattered among several, including a key location buried under a mountain. The only planes capable of carrying large enough bunker busting bombs are American B-2 and B-52 bombers, which Israel does not have. Even if an attack is successful, there must be a continued sustained effort to prevent Iran from rebuilding and relaunching its nuclear program.

“This is a moment in U.S.-Israel relations with more challenges than have existed since the days of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion back in 1948. These times require Ben-Gurion like decisions and an ongoing effort. As it is noted in Pirke Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”), “We cannot finish the work. But we are not free to desist from it.”