Is Israel Again Weighing an Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities?

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (L) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem October 3, 2011. (Photo: Win McNamee / Reuters)

“I think the most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Israel on Tuesday, stressing that the Israeli government needed to act in concert and consensus with the international community. Israeli reporters noted his repeated use of the word together when it came to dealing with Iran. Panetta’s comments, coming barely a month after the U.S. reportedly agreed to deliver 55 bunker-busting GBU-28 bombs to Israel, were widely viewed as an “down, boy” message to any adventurist bomb-Iran impulses on the part of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Curiously enough, the very same day, recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan also saw fit to publicly tamp down hysteria over Iran’s nuclear progress, and to pour cold water over any “military option” for dealing with it. Dagan, who has previously publicly decried the idea of bombing Iran as “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” and warned that it could plunge Israel into a conflict it couldn’t win, again publicly pooh-poohed the military option, saying there were more effective ways of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. And he stressed that Iran was nowhere close to being able to build a bomb.   Dagan and the official U.S. intelligence assessment concur that while using its nuclear program to acquire the technological means to build a bomb, the Iranian leadership has not yet taken a strategic decision to actually build such a weapon.

Indeed, an unnamed senior Israeli official fretted in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday  that “Iran very well could continue on its current course for a while, during which it continues to enrich uranium like it is today but without going to the breakout stage and publicly making a nuclear weapon.” Maintaining the ambiguity of having — but not exercising the option to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel IAEA inspectors and build a weapon, the paper wrote, “avoid(s) providing the world with the justification to either increase sanctions or to use military action to stop it.”

Indeed, right now there’s precious little support anywhere in the international community for starting a war with Iran on the grounds that it has acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons. Netanyahu has always preferred discussing the existential threat he insists Israel faces from Iran — although even Barak has publicly challenged the idea that Iran would risk obliteration by launching a nuclear attack on Israel — to dealing with the Palestinian question, but the “Arab Spring” has drained the life out of his claim that action against Iran carries the support of moderate Arab regimes. President Hosni Mubarak, often rolled out as Exhibit A in that argument, is gone, and the generals that replaced him moved immediately to normalize relations with Iran. And much of the Arab world has responded to the turmoil of the past year by moving increasingly out of the U.S. orbit.

Turkey, whose regional influence is growing — at the expense of both Iran and the United States — may be a NATO member state, and as such agreed recently to install an anti-ballistic missile radar on its border with Iran, but it has challenged the U.S.-Israeli approach to dealing with the Iran nuclear issue. In a recent interview with TIME, Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan said Turkey opposes “the presence of nuclear weapons in our region,” but has seen no evidence to back the assumption that Iran seeks to weaponize nuclear material. “And let me ask you,” he continued, “who is under threat? Is it Israel or the countries in the vicinity of Israel that are under threat? Israel has nuclear weapons. How can you explain this to me? There are no sanctions on Israel, but all the other countries in the neighborhood are suffering from sanctions… It would be unacceptable for us to ratify this approach. There’s injustice there.”

And even Iran’s most intractable Arab foe, Saudi Arabia, is not on board for a military campaign against Iran despite its fervent opposition to any move by Iran to weaponize nuclear material. Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia supports sanctions to pressure Iran to refrain from pursuing nuclear weapons, but the influential former intelligence minister Prince Turki al-Faisal told a conference in Geneva last month that “military strikes would be entirely counter-productive”. And he made clear that Riyadh was not simply calling on Iran to renounce nuclear weapons, but instead, like Turkey and Egypt, is pressing to make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone — in other words, to include Israel’s nuclear capacity in the equation, rather than protect its monopoly on strategic weapons. Needless to say, Israel has shown little interest in such proposals, but the idea of winning the support of other states in the region for an unprovoked attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities seems increasingly far-fetched.

Still, Israel’s strategy all along is to encourage the belief in the Iranians that Israel will launch air-strikes once Iran’s nuclear progress crosses some undefined red line — well, less undefined than flexible; Iran has crossed every previous red line set by the Israelis and the U.S. in respect of acquiring nuclear technologies. So the latest round of chatter could be nothing more than the by-now quotidian Israeli saber rattling designed to make Iran believe that it faces imminent military action. Israeli observers have argued that because winter weather makes such complex air strikes more difficult, Israel has a two-month window of opportunity to launch an assault on Iran’s nuclear facility. And some in Israel make the case that President Barack Obama’s political vulnerability, and his concern to avoid being seen to be clashing with the Israeli leadership, make this an optimal moment to present Washington with a fait accompli by bombing Iran, on the assumption that the U.S. would have no choice but to back Israel up in the aftermath.

But the pressures Obama might face in the political system would likely be counterbalanced by those from the U.S. military, whose leaders have long made clear their belief that an Israeli military strike on Iran would have disastrous consequences both for Israel and for U.S. forces throughout the Middle East. Also, Netanyahu is more cautious than many in Israel’s political establishment when it comes to starting wars. And he’ll also know that initiating hostilities with Iran could fatally weaken Washington’s ability to shield Israel from international isolation on a scale suffered by the South African government during the apartheid era — which, of course, is what the Palestinian leadership is pressing for, in order to create leverage to force Israeli to agree to withdraw from the territories it captured in 1967.

So we may as easily be looking at another round of posturing without serious intent, based on the idea that the Iranians need to believe that Israel is poised to start a war to stop Iran acquiring the capacity to build nuclear weapons, in order to deter its nuclear activities (although there’s no evidence that this approach has worked over the past five years). But Netanyahu’s claims of Iran representing an intolerable threat will have been helped by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei’s comments last weekend rejecting the Palestinians bid for U.N. recognition of a state based on the 1967 lines, calling Israel a “cancerous tumor” that could not be allowed to survive in the Middle East. Indeed, as Iranian scholar Trita Parsi, who has studied the Iran-U.S.-Israel relationship over decaes, wrote last weekend, the dangerous escalation of rhetoric amid the absence of communication channels between the U.S. and an increasingly isolated, embattled and skittish Iran raise the danger of an unintended lurch into tragedy. He warns of declining American influence creating a vacuum that a number of competing forces are jockeying to fill, and that the decision-making of key players is increasingly shaped by domestic politics rather than strategic calculation. Parsi writes:

This near-collapse of statecraft is clearly visible in Israel. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to limit its foreign policy maneuverability to whatever its fragile governing coalition can endure. Disproportionate foreign policy risks are accepted in order to prolong the life span of the coalition at the expense of Israel’s long-term interest…

“In Iran, political cannibalism within the Iranian elite has reached new heights. While this has not necessarily given birth to a new Iranian adventurism (beyond the harsh rhetoric), it has paralyzed the state and weakened its ability to maneuver in a changing strategic environment. This is particularly the case when it comes to crucial issues such as its relations with the United States…

“This paralysis is all the more dangerous in an environment in which the parties aren’t on talking terms. This has led to a collapse of statecraft and an increase in bluster that could prove quite dangerous. One small spark could cause a conflagration.”

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