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Israel/Iran: Why Washington is Wrong

Alastair Newton - 27th September 2010

“In the gap between Washington’s and Jerusalem’s views of Iran lies the question: who, if anyone, will stop Iran before it goes nuclear, and how?”

Jeffrey Goldberg (September 2010)

The August edition of The Atlantic featured a long article by Jeffrey Goldberg which concluded that, ultimately, Israel would launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme. [1] Arguably, the only surprising thing about this article was that it was penned by an American. For Mr Goldberg’s conviction is a long way from the apparent near-consensus in Washington that this is not going to happen and much closer to the prevailing view in many European and Middle Eastern chancelleries that, as things stand, the real questions are: “not if but when?" and “what are the consequences?”. This article considers briefly why, in the broad, the Washington near-consensus may be misguided and Mr Goldberg is probably right.

Sanctions Bite But Not Hard Enough

The extent to which Washington genuinely believes that its recent success in significantly boosting sanctions against Iran will deflect Tehran from its nuclear aspirations is not clear. To judge from their recent firming up of arms purchases, GCC leaders certainly appear to have their doubts. [2]

For sure, US Treasury Under-Secretary Stuart Levey has a point when he claims that the intensification of sanctions (especially non-UN sanctions) is hurting – and even, possibly, “…beginning to give us the leverage we seek”. [3] However, although the impact of sanctions does appear to be exacerbating differences among the ruling elite in Tehran, according to Roula Khalaf (among others) there is, as yet, no clear sign of Iran bending to the will of the international community and backing away from its nuclear aspirations. [4] Furthermore, it is by no means clear that internal differences will reach the point where Iran’s Supreme Leader and ultimate arbiter on all things nuclear, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would be prepared to put to one side his well-documented opposition to engagement with the US – especially if, as some experts judge, he believes that just treating with the “Great Satan” would risk undermining the single biggest justification for the current regime. 

And even if Tehran were prepared to engage, given Tehran’s track record over the past five years or so, how could the international community be sure that this wasn’t just another case of playing for time? Indeed, in the absence of definitive and verifiable action by Iran consistent with at least reining in its nuclear programme, it is not unreasonable to assume that, at minimum, acquiring the wherewithal to develop a nuclear weapon may well be non-negotiable from Tehran’s perspective.

An Existential Threat 

This does really matter to Israel. 

The majority of Israelis, whether they believe Iran would use a nuclear weapon against them (as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does appear to think) or not, really do not believe they can live with a nuclear Iran. For, even if Tehran were not likely to bomb Israel (which I personally believe to be a reasonable proposition), the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the region which would almost inevitably result from a nuclear Iran would certainly pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. No Israeli prime minister, be it Bibi or one of his successors, is going to want to go down in history as having allowed such a threat to materialise on his/her watch.

Don’t Ask!

Which takes us back to Washington’s apparent conviction that Israel would still not bomb Iran, notwithstanding. This appears to be based on the premise that Israel would not do this without seeking permission from the US and that that permission would not be forthcoming (at least, not as long as Barack Obama is in the White House). 

To be fair, that premise may be half-right, i.e. it may well be the case that the Obama Administration would say “no”. But that is precisely why Israel would not ask but simply, as Mr Goldberg states, tell Washington as its planes took to the air to head to Iran. The key fact to bear in mind here is that the last time the Israelis asked US permission to do anything military about something which really mattered to them was in 1973, ie a pre-emptive strike against their neighbours. The US said "no" and Israel nearly got wiped out in the Yom Kippur war just a few weeks later.

For sure, bombing Iran is arguably much more serious and certainly much more difficult for Israel than other military operations Israel has undertaken against potential threats, not least in having to fly long distances through others’ airspace, including, possibly, US-dominated airspace over Iraq. But the thesis that the US would, if necessary, use force to stop Israeli planes reaching Iran doesn't stand up in practice (as Pentagon people have admitted on several occasions).

Not Without Consequences

Concerns about Iranian retaliation may be overblown. The fact is that viable retaliation options are really very limited in practice; indeed, the smartest thing Iran could do – and don't rule it out – is nothing more dramatic than an appeal to the UN Security Council. 

Nevertheless, there are legitimate concerns that Iran could opt to pursue one or more of the following options:

  • Attacking shipping in the Strait of Hormuz – but that would almost certainly stir the US into military action against Iran to keep vital oil supplies (around 20 percent of the global total) flowing;
  • Missile attacks on US bases in the GCC – which would also serve mainly to provoke major US action;
  • Launching missiles at Israel – unlikely to prove very effective; and,
  • Firing up Hizbollah to launch missile strikes against Israel – for which Israel most certainly has well-developed contingency plans (and which Hizbollah might, in any case, be disinclined to do).

That none of these necessarily looks too attractive is not to say there are no major consequences arising from an Israeli strike, notably: 

  • A massive oil spike in the immediate aftermath of the strike (a probability bearing on inevitability, as insurance companies immediately withdraw cover on any vessel entering the Strait of Hormuz). But how long this would last remains to be seen – and would depend on Iran's reaction to a large extent, i.e. we could see it fade very quickly; 
  • Tehran-inspired terrorist attacks on US and other western targets in the GCC countries and Iraq – very likely but not likely to pose a major threat. 
  • A massive diplomatic row, of course and a general deterioration in relations across the region (GCC leaders may secretly be pleased but would have to deal with a bad reaction on the street);
  • If Israel were to use airstrips in Iraqi Kurdistan as a stepping stone to get its planes back home (a possibility), then real problems in Iraq downstream, i.e. this is the sort of thing which could cause Kirkuk/Mosel to explode and for the sort of fall-out between the Kurds and Baghdad which would be almost impossible to repair;
  • Possibly some really interesting political developments within in Iran. Consolidation of support for the regime initially is highly likely but six months ex-post things might just look very different;
  • A marked further deterioration in Israel/Turkey relations; and,
  • A marked deterioration in relations between the Obama administration and Israel – but not between Congress and Israel thereby limiting the scope for the Administration to play hardball.

Timing May Be Key

Mr Goldberg believes that Israel may make its move in the Spring of 2011. That may prove to be prescient. But there are good reasons for leaning towards a later date.

First – and, perhaps, foremost – this remains a tough call for Israel and one which Mr Netanyahu may want to put off for as long as he feels he reasonably can. While intelligence on Iran’s progress is likely far from complete, it does appear probable that we are still at least three to five years away from Iran having a viable nuclear weapon. So, in principle at least, Israel does have time even if it has also to weight the fact that, even through slow progress, Iran is continuing to acquire knowledge of the nuclear cycle etc. which will not easily be destroyed or even set back.

Secondly, for the past couple of years Israel has shown a willingness to allow the international community time to exhaust all other options to trying to deflect Iran from its nuclear aspirations. It seems likely that, especially with the latest sanctions truly hurting, the Israelis will continue to stay their hand for now until it is clear that sanctions will not suffice. 

Furthermore, the opprobrium which the Israelis stand to incur with the US should be reduced somewhat with the US military is out of Iraq, scheduled for the end of 2011 (and unlikely to be extended given electoral considerations in the US in 2012). Similarly, though less critically, the “surge” in Afghanistan is supposed to be over by then, meaning that there will be fewer US troops there to be exposed to the possible risk of Iranian retaliation.

Putting all this together and barring unexpected developments and/or new information on Iran’s progress towards its goals, late 2011/early 2012 may be the most opportune timing if, indeed, Washington is wrong and Israel does resort to the military option.

Alastair Newton is Senior Political Analyst at Nomura International plc. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Nomura International plc. 

NOTES

[1]  “The Point of No Return” by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, September 2010

[2]  See, eg, “Iran fear triggers arms surge” by James Drummond and Carola Hoyos, Financial Times, 21 September 2010.

[3]  “Sanctions buy leverage, says Washington” by Daniel Dombey, Financial Times, 21 September 2010.

[4]  “No compromise as sanctions bite in Iran” by Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 16 September 2010.

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