Iran: Implications for Israel and the world

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Now that the media hoopla around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last week has died down, let’s take stock.

Three areas of focus immediately come to mind:

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First, have President Barack Obama and Netanyahu established a trusting relationship as they move farther into multilateral efforts to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, and do they both understand and respect each other’s sovereign needs?

Second, in assessing the necessity and timing of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, what are the possible costs of such an attack, and how does that assessment inform Obama’s approach that continued political and economic pressure, coupled with diplomacy, be given time to work?

Third, how reliable is the intelligence around a decision to attack and when? Will it be as accurate as that leading to the finding of Osama bin Laden, or more like the poor intelligence leading up to United States invasion of Iraq or Israel’s knowledge of Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon in 2006?

The trust issue

Obama and Netanyahu did not early on develop a relationship oftrust, as Obama’s rhetoric critiqued settlements in the occupied West Bank and seemed to impose borders and negotiations for a two-state solution.

His speech in Cairo early in his administration seeking renewed relations with Arab League nations, and with Iran itself, on the heels of the tough-talking President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, invited questions from neocons and others of appeasement and conciliation.

Since fall, however, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the unshakable bond of the U.S.-Israel partnership before a variety of audiences. More appreciative responses have come from Netanyahu, other Israeli officials and the country’s general public, with Israeli polling for Obama showing much more favorable results at times over the last half year or so.

Dealing with Iran’s possible nuclear threat is an eminent – and perhaps imminent—strategic issue that can substantially affect the interests of both countries (not to mention the rest of the world), and not always in the same ways. So even if the leaders’ footing is now on terra firma, their leaders may not always find the nations’ interests and resultant conduct to be entirely consonant.

Netanyahu, for instance, may believe his military must take action more quickly than Obama would support because of the direct and dire threat to his nation’s existence.

Even if Obama wholly shares that primary concern – and his recent language indicates he does, as he has sharply and clearly indicated Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons – the American president still may view the issue of military action in a broader context.

His concerns, for example, include building and retaining support from the American people for such action; maintaining constructive relations with Israel’s neighbors (which from a long-term perspective is critical); whether he believes America is prepared for another potentially lasting military incursion; and Iran’s impact on the world at large.

As American diplomats travel around the world to persuade other countries to support the U.S. effort to block Iran’s weapon development, they do not frame it as an issue that pertains only to Israel, Obama told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a recent sweeping interview.

“We frame it as: This is something in the national-security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community,” Obama said in the interview.

Despite the subtle nature of these issues and international relations in general, the personal relations between the leaders, and how they each play to both their own constituencies and those of their ally, can be a major factor in the countries’ moves going forward.

“They got off on the wrong foot,” said one long-time observer and scholar. “Now it’s hard to make things right when they need to.”

Yet, Carla Klausner, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of “A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” says “the gestures [Obama and Netanyahu} make are very important.”

For his part, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting last week, and in the Goldberg interview, Obama emphasized that he does understand the existential threat to Israel.

Compounding the trust question is the backdrop of an election year and his opponents’ constant hammering on the president’s alleged softness and lack of solidarity with Israel.

But tough talk is cheap, Obama implied at a press conference in which he reminded the American people that he is commander-in-chief and that it’s wisest in this dangerous situation with Iran to proceed carefully and keep up international pressure.

“War talk can cause others to move toward war,” said Leila Sadat, professor of international law at Washington University and director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute. “It can actually provoke the very thing we are trying to avoid.”

Among conservative commentators, the rap on Obama is that he is signaling weakness by turning to the United Nations, international sanctions against Iran and an approach to build a case that attacks on Iran should come only after peaceful, international means have been exhausted.

Yet this criticism has flaws associated with for at least two reasons.

“Obama has been very aggressive in the use of force,” Sadat said, citing the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan nearly a year ago and drone attacks on other terrorist leaders in the Middle East. “He’s no pussycat, this guy. He’s much tougher than the former inhabitant of the White House. There’s no shadow of a doubt in my mind that he’ll do whatever he needs.”

Moreover, there is evidence that economic sanctions are having at least some positive effect. American and European governing bodies have directed measures at limiting the ability of Iran’s central bank to interact with other financial institutions, and the European Union has agreed to stop buying Iranian oil effective July 1.

The trust issue, then, is one that comprises actual insecurity, political machinations, separate but overlapping sovereign needs and perceptions of the conduct of each leader. Against that backdrop looms a cost-benefit analysis about whether and when to move to a military option.

The war equation

A majority of Americans appear to echo Obama’s statements that Iran should be stopped from having nuclear weaponry. Whether and when the U.S. or Israel should take action is another question.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows 58 percent of Americans want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if that means taking military action; 30 percent would avoid military conflict, even it Iran develops nuclear weapons.

However, Pew found, if Israel attacks Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program, 39 percent of American would support it, while 51 percent say the U.S. should stay neutral. Five percent would be opposed to Israel attacking.

Given the apparent disconnect of these poll results, and for broader strategic purposes, it seems obvious that, if possible, Israel and the U.S. should act in concert, ideally with the tacit if not public approval of key European and Middle Eastern states.

The costs of engaging a physical attack are substantial regardless of cooperation. “I think it is important to recognize, though, that the prime minister of Israel is also head of a modern state that is mindful of the costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously,” Obama answered.

Lack of cooperation would make the situation even more perilous for Israel, if not downright improbable. It’s highly doubtful that Israel can bomb Iranian targets without mid-air refueling help from U.S. tankers, without the deck of an American aircraft carrier somewhere in the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Sea or the tacit approval of Arab countries or Turkey for overflight of its jets.

The cost of any physical attack could be enormous, and a unilateral approach by Israel could exacerbate the situation. Israel could be blamed for much of the fallout—and further its isolation, regardless how much states in the region might privately support its action, as they did when Israel bombed an Iraqi reactor and presumably destroyed on Syria was building a few years ago.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” warned that if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations, Iranian counter attacks could cause Israel serious problems for years. Without coordinated effort with America—advance knowledge of the strike, military study and preparedness, mobilization—the effects might be vastly more serious.

If on the other hand Israel and the U.S. and other key nations work together, as appears to be possible with renewed multilateral talks, then they may buy time and keep a coalition together that upholds Israel’s long-term interests, which are the same as other countries’ interests: a non-nuclear Iran now and far into the future.

In its January/February issue, Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations, carried several informative articles that consider the possible ramification of attacking Iran.

Two Georgetown University professors, Matthew Kroenig and Colin H. Kahl, took opposing points of view. Kroenig argues that a military strike is required to stop Iran’s efforts, and it should be done sooner rather than later. Kahl argues that such an action will only set back the program a few years, make Iran a sympathetic victim to many and kick off devastating repercussions for the U.S., Israel and Western countries that have supported isolating Iran.

Indeed, a nuclear Iran would be highly destabilizing throughout much of the world, many analysts argue. But not all.

Some, like Paul Pillar, writing in the Washington Monthly, say that Iranian leaders would not be so reckless as to use a nuclear weapon to attack Israel or Western targets, despite what they may say for domestic consumption and their supporters in the Islamic world.

“Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in the near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves,” Pillar writes.

Pillar and others argue that a nuclear Iran would be restrained by the sobering realization of its leaders that using a nuclear weapon would ensure Tehran’s destruction by the United States and other countries.

This “balance of nuclear terror” between Iran and Israel would replicate the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance during the Cold War—which continues today with a reduced number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Faulty or fair intelligence?

But the cost that may mitigate action is the one that world leaders fear most—the obtaining of nuclear weapons by Iran. That concern makes the determination about how long to wait one with severe implications.

How accurate are intelligence reports from ground and satellite sources generated by U.S., Israeli and other Western countries? This is one are in which little is known by the general public, simply because of the nature of intelligence. But there is no shortage of speculation and guesswork.

So much turns on this aspect of the planning effort. Obama and his advisors have indicated in recent days there is skepticism about whether Iran has or will soon reach a breakthrough point in its level of nuclear development. This lack of certainty was echoed by former Mossad leader Dagan in his interview with CBS.

Obama and his advisors are betting that their intelligence is sound enough to proceed for some period of time—for now, only a few months has really been suggested, with anything beyond that fomenting more severe risk—with continued sanctions and diplomacy.

Israel may not want to engage in that gamble, for wholly understandable reasons.

A lot comes down to information that cannot be verified outside the most high-level loop: What is the available intelligence, and what is being shared between Israel and the U.S. (and possibly other partners)?

If a working level of trust has been established between the American and Israeli leaders, intelligence sharing, cooperative planning and decision-making, for negotiation, diplomacy, sanctions, threats and ultimately military action, can effectively proceed.

And, of course, for Israel to strike Iran with its jets is a great logistical challenge and one once again founded on the need for strong intelligence data regarding locations, timing, capabilities and the like.

The way Obama and Netanyahu left things between them, it appears, for now, Israel will let the Obama administration pursue its deliberate policy of using every means short of war to solve the problem. How long that tolerance will last is anyone’s guess.