During the election campaign last year, Joe Biden caused a mini-flap by suggesting that within his first six months in office, Presaident Barack Obama would be tested in an international crisis by one of America’s enemies. Increasingly though, it looks as if that crisis will be triggered by one of America’s alleged friends – Israel – in the shape of a decision to unilaterally bomb Iran.
A few weeks ago, David Samuels on Slate gave a detailed account as to why bombing Iran could be seen by Israel as being in its strategic best interests. While Iran’s growing nuclear capability would be the ostensible target of an Israeli attack, even some elements in the conservative Israeli press are not claiming that to be the real concern. It is Iranian influence in the region that has to be reduced to rubble, as much or more than its powers of military projection. Here’s Emily Landau for instance, writing in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post:
[The failure of Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran] would also leave the Middle East exposed to the major fear that states in the region harbour – not a calculated Iranian attempt to strike with nuclear weapons, but rather the enhanced and dangerous regional clout that Iran would gain by achieving nuclear status (whether assumed or proven).
The mullahs, so this brand of thinking goes, have to be taken down a peg. It is Iran’s status in the region – its influence on the government of Iraq, its support for Hezbollah, its influence in Syria, Jordan etc etc that concerns not just Israel, but the conservative Sunni regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well. Last week for instance, the al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo dutifully trotted out a conspiracy theory whereby everybody in the entire region was picking on poor old Hosni Mubarak, with Iran and its Hezbollah ally being at the top of the list.
First and foremost, an Israeli strike would kill Obama’s tentative overtures to Iran stone dead, and the resultant regional outrage would bring the US firmly back into the Israeli camp. As Samuels explains :
The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.
A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel’s value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran….
An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel’s capacity for game-changing military action. The idea that Iran can meaningfully retaliate against Israel through conventional means is more myth than fact. Even without using nuclear weapons, Israel has the capacity to flatten the Iranian economy by bombing a few strategic oil refineries, making a meaningful Iranian counterstroke much less likely than it first appears.
……Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won’t work.
So, there’s the insane logic. Samuels even manages to convince himself that from this new position of strength, Israel would then negotiate a two state solution for the Palestinians. Use the warplanes to bring Iran back down to size – and supposedly, earn a private round of applause from the Gulf States, Egypt and the Saudis for doing so, even though they would profess outrage in public – and also prise the US away from its philandering dalliance with the mullahs in Teheran. Deflating Iran would bring Hezbollah and Hamas down to size as well.
Can Obama stop himself from becoming a hostage to Benjamin Netanyahu if the new hawkish Israeli government is intent on going down this dangerous path? Not really. There will even be some among Obama’s top advisers (eg Rahm Emanuel) who would probably support an Israeli attack on Iran.
Ironically, the appointment to the Obama administration of two strong advocates of a moderate policy of engagement with Iran – namely Ray Takeyh to the office of Middle East emissary Dennis Ross, and Vali Nasr to the office of Richard Holbrooke – may succeed only in making the Israelis feel there is a need for military action sooner, rather than later (Takeyh was calling for diplomacy with Iran when I did a story for the Listener on this topic five years ago). As Samuels notes in an aside, the Russians have also been stalling on delivering a batch of surface to air defensive missiles to Iran, lest those defences should also give the Israelis a further excuse for immediate action.
A few days ago, The Times announced that an attack could be imminent. in a story headlined “Israel stands ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites”. The actual story though hedged its bets, indicating that such action –which would involve transit over Iraqi air space – may still be months away. In the meantime, plenty of practice is being done by the Israelis :
Among recent preparations by the airforce was the Israeli attack of a weapons convoy in Sudan bound for militants in the Gaza Strip.
“Sudan was practice for the Israeli forces on a long-range attack,” Ronen Bergman, the author of The Secret War with Iran, said. “They wanted to see how they handled the transfer of information, hitting a moving target … In that sense it was a rehearsal.”
Israel has made public its intention to hold the largest-ever nationwide drill next month.
Colonel Hilik Sofer told Haaretz, a daily Israeli newspaper, that the drill would “train for a reality in which during war missiles can fall on any part of the country without warning … We want the citizens to understand that war can happen tomorrow morning”.
Israel will conduct an exercise with US forces to test the ability of Arrow, its US-funded missile defence system. The exercise would test whether the system could intercept missiles launched at Israel.
Can Obama restrain Israel in the coming months – assuming that he really, really wants to?