Iran and Israel: Best and worst-case scenarios

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

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

Can we “handle the truth” about the Iran-Israel crisis, or has the debate become so partisan, ideological and acrimonious that it is impossible to agree on even the most basic facts?  This piece is an attempt to put into perspective where things stand in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s major policy speech on the crisis at the Annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, and his White House summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before the talks there was widespread speculation that the already tense relations between Washington and Jerusalem officially, and Obama and Netanyahu personally, would get even worse.   There were fears of a huge gap between the positions of the President and the Prime Minister and a rerun of the finger-pointing confrontation by Bibi in his photo-op session at the White House one year ago.  There were some equally exaggerated hopes that the two leaders would totally agree on each and every point diplomatically, strategically and militarily.

As it turned out, the optimistic hopes were more “realistic” than the doomsday scenarios of a major and public split between the State of Israel and its most essential and dependable ally, the United States of America.  In his remarks to AIPAC, Israel’s official lobbying agency in Washington, President Obama made it absolutely clear that the U.S., in his words  “has Israel’s back.” He also reiterated the strong statement from his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine that he is “not bluffing” in his warnings to the Iranian regime that “all options are on the table,” including, as a last resort, military force.  Of greatest significance is the President’s clear acknowledgment, in his interview and speech, that Israel as a sovereign nation has the right to defend itself, a fact that Netanyahu strongly reiterated in his White House photo session with the president.

Obama did stress that he believes that a “window remains open” for Iran to agree to drop its plans for the development of nuclear weapons, and while that seems unlikely, he did agree to take part in the resumed nuclear talks, along with France, Great Britain, Russia, China and Germany.  He also wants to give the “crippling sanctions,” which are already having a strong effect on Iran’s troubled economy to play out–especially in July when the European Union’s stringent sanctions regime kicks in.

Is there some daylight between the positions of Israel and the United States in the aftermath of the Bibi-Barack talks?  Of course there is, and that is as it should be.  While Israel and the United States are sister democracies, and while there has been–and continues to be–strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel partnership, the interests of Washington and Jerusalem are not–and never have been–identical.  The President of the United States has to take into account the grave implications of any kind of military engagement, especially in view of the withdrawal from the bloody conflict in Iraq, the continued violence in Afghanistan and the generally explosive situation in the entire Middle East and North Africa, especially the ongoing carnage in Syria.  For its part, Israel regards the “red line” to be before Iran has all the pieces in place to develop a nuclear weapon, believing that it cannot afford to take the risk that Iran could have enough enriched uranium and enough secure facilities buried deep underground as to render the military option impossible.

And so, we can ask, at the risk of “thinking the unthinkable,” what are the best and worst-case scenarios as the clock keeps ticking in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington? Let’s start with the “best possible” scenario:  Iran, as a result of a combination of harsh economic sanctions and adroit diplomacy, agrees to end completely its drive to develop nuclear weapons and allows credible inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency unimpeded and regular access to any and all sites where such weapons could be developed.  Taking into account the fanaticism of the Iranian regime, headed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who are both on record as wanting to destroy Israel (in Ahmadenijad’s words, to “wipe Israel off the map”) it seems unlikely that this “best-case scenario” is going to happen.

And a worst-case scenario?  Israel, without U.S. backing, launches its own attempted preemptive strike against nuclear sites in Iran, and fails to inflict a crippling blow to the Iranian program.  The attack unifies the currently divided Iranian leadership and the Iranian public.  Iran launches a massive retaliation with conventional long and medium-range missiles and their clients, Hezbollah and Hamas, fire tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, hitting both major Israel cities and smaller towns.  The world, through one-sided United Nations resolutions condemns Israel as the aggressor, and the Jewish State suffers its greatest setback since its inception in 1948.

Let us hope and pray that the “worst-case” scenario will not happen not only for the sake of Israel and the Middle East but also for the interests of the United States and its allies.  These next few months will certainly be another “time which will test men’s and women’s souls.”  The stakes are extremely high, with Israel legitimately fearing an existential threat from a fanatic, theocratic and apocalyptic regime bent on its destruction.

In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world came extremely close to a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Thanks to the creative diplomacy of then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a face-saving formula was found for the Soviet Union and its Cuban client to “blink” and remove the missiles from Cuba.  In exchange, the United States agreed to remove some Jupiter missiles from Turkey (which were already obsolete and crumbling) and to agree not to launch another Bay of Pigs style invasion against Cuba.  A potentially cataclysmic crisis was averted.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Israel-Iran Crisis of 2012 are separated by 50 years and involve vastly different components, we can hope  and pray that a path can be found to bring the Middle East–and indeed the world–back from the brink of a potentially devastating war.