US Must Stop Mixed Signals on Iran
Can Israel Go It Alone?
Would Israel really attack Iran without at least tacit approval from Washington? Could Israel do so without such approval? At the very least, Israel would need approval simply to get permission to fly over Iraq, whose airspace is controlled by the US military, not the Iraqi government in Baghdad. As columnist Aluf Benn put it in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "Defense experts say that without a green light from Washington, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to send in the air force." Kam adds, "In my judgment, it is somewhere between difficult to impossible for Israel to do it alone, for both technical and political reasons."
Most analysts here believe that a solo Israeli attack would, at best, set back Iran's nuclear program by several years--not that this would necessarily be a deterrent to Netanyahu & Co. It's widely believed that, in their view, even a temporary delay in Iran's nuclear capability would be an improvement on the current course. It's worth recalling that Israel sought an explicit go-ahead from the Bush administration for an attack last year, which President Bush--presumably fearing massive conventional retaliation from Iran in both Iraq and Afghanistan-- sensibly refused, a rare moment in his tenure when he did not accede to Israeli wishes.
It's also clear that President Obama seeks to resolve the standoff with Iran through diplomatic means. He's abandoned the confrontational rhetoric of his predecessor and continues to extend peace feelers to the Islamic Republic. Tehran's response has been mixed, but at least a new mood of negotiation is in the air.
Israeli strategists, however, see this new mood as threatening, not hopeful. Any US rapprochement with Iran--especially if carried out on terms that acknowledge Iran's status as a regional power--could, they fear, undermine Israel's "special relationship" with Washington. As Iran analyst Trita Parsi put it in a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Iran would then "gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel."
It's within the realm of possibility, for example, that Washington could work out a grand bargain with Tehran terminating its policy of regime change and ending sanctions in return for Tehran's vow never to weaponize its nuclear program. Intrusive international inspections would presumably guarantee such a bargain, but Tehran's national pride would remain intact, as it would be allowed to retain the right to enrich uranium and develop a peaceful nuclear infrastructure.
There has even been some recent slippage in Washington's language when it comes to demands placed on Iran--with an insistence on an end to all nuclear enrichment evidently being replaced by an insistence on no weapons development. To Israel, this would be a completely unsatisfactory compromise, as its leaders fear that Iran might at some point abandon such an agreement and in fairly short order weaponize.
Given Obama's new approach, it might seem that Israel is stymied for now. After all, it's hard to imagine Obama giving the go-ahead for an attack. Just this week, Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that he thought such an Israeli attack "would be ill-advised."
Other factors, however, play in the hardliners' favor: the Obama administration's new special envoy for Iran, Dennis Ross, is himself a hardliner. Last year, Ross was part of an ultra-hawkish task force that predicted the failure of any negotiations and all but called for war with Iran. Ross is a man who not only knows how to play the bureaucratic game in Washington, but has powerful backers in the administration, and his views will have plenty of support from pro-Israel hawks in Congress.
The attitude of another key sector in decision-making, the high command of the US military, may also be evolving. Washington's dilemma in Iraq is not nearly as dire as it was two years ago. The nightmare envisioned by the American generals running the Iraq campaign in recent years--that, in response to an attack on its nuclear facilities, Iran could send tens of thousands of well-trained commandos across the border and inflict grave damage on US forces--has faded somewhat. The Iraqi government's military has much better control of the country today, with insurgent violence at far lower levels. The Shiite Mahdi Army and Iran-connected "special groups" seem to be mostly quiescent.
Of course, the situation in Iraq is still unstable, and any attack on Iran could easily throw the country back into ungovernable chaos. Still, given the role we know American commanders played in nixing such an attack in the Bush years, the question remains: Has resistance to such an attack lessened in the military? It's unclear, but an issue worth monitoring, because American commanders were the most consistent, persuasive voices for moderation during the Bush administration.
It should go without saying that an Israeli attack on Iran would have disastrous consequences. No matter what Washington might claim, or how vociferously officials there denounce it, such an attack would be widely understood throughout the Muslim world as a joint US-Israeli operation.
It would, as a start, serve as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist Islamist groups. In addition, an outraged Iran might indeed send commandos into Iraq, aid armed Iraqi groups determined to attack US and government forces, shoot missiles into the Saudi or Kuwaiti oilfields, and attempt to block the Straits of Hormuz though which a significant percentage of global oil passes. Washington would certainly have to write off desperately needed cooperation in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any attack would only strengthen the reign of the mullahs in Iran and reinforce the country's determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent force that would prevent future attacks. And keep in mind, Iran's nuclear program has overwhelming public support, even from those opposed to the current regime.
Given the Netanyahu government's visible determination to attack, an ambiguous signal from Washington, something far less than a green light, could be misread in Tel Aviv. Anything short of a categorical, even vociferous US refusal to countenance an Israeli attack might have horrific consequences. So here's a message to Obama from an observer in Israel: Don't flash the yellow light--not even once.