by Barry Rubin
Does President Barack Obama now love Israel? Is he lying to help his reelection bid? Precisely what is the meaning of this or that sentence in his AIPAC speech?
All of this debate misses the point. What is needed here is not a partisan view or one which focusses on Obama himself but rather a strategic analysis.
Here it is:
Whether he realizes it or not, Obama changed history with his AIPAC speech. What he did is to make a war between Israel and Iran almost inevitable, let’s say more than 90 percent probable, most likely some time in late 2013, 2014, or 2015.
What a lot of people are going to miss is not that Israel now thinks Obama is reliable — it doesn’t — but that Israeli leaders know he has now locked publicly into a major commitment. If Israel ever were to attack an Iran on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, how is Obama going to bash Israel for doing so after telling it to do so? In effect, then, Israel has traded patience for freedom of action.
Obama laid out a very clear chain of events. If and when Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, then the U.S. government will support an attack by Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities. It might even join in with such an attack.
This is a commitment that cannot be retracted. It will apply whether Obama wins or loses the election. It will apply if he changes his mind. Some will see his action as heroic; others will see it as reckless. But it makes no sense to see it as false or to nitpick about his precise definition of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
Here is Obama’s simple chain of argument:
–The U.S. government officially and publicly recognizes that Israel cannot and should not accept Iran having a nuclear weapon.
–Iran having a nuclear weapon is a tremendous and unacceptable danger to U.S. interests.
–If Iran obtains even one nuclear weapon, that will prove sanctions have failed.
–Consequently, at that time Israel is entitled to use force to prevent Iran from having such weapons or to destroy any that exist.
–Indeed, according to Obama, Israel must attack Iran at that point. After all, if Obama says Israel cannot live with an Iranian nuclear capability, how can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be less concerned about Israeli security than the president? And how can Obama then ignore what he said would be completely unacceptable for U.S. interests by not backing such an attack or even participating in it?
The phrase often quoted from Obama’s speech — that U.S. policy will not take any instrument off the table — is not important. It is the standard U.S. line we have heard for years. Obama has now gone far beyond this. The new U.S. position is that if Iran builds a single atomic bomb, that means force sufficient to destroy its nuclar capacity entirely is the only instrument on the table.
What is important is that Obama’s speech provides a green light for an Israeli attack.
The question is only one of timing. Obama asks Israel to wait in order to give sanctions a chance to work. But we know that sanctions are almost certain not to work, since work is defined as Iran giving up its drive for nuclear weapons. And there is no reason to believe that this will happen.
What might avoid this outcome? I can only think of two alternative developments. Either Iran will stop just short of actually building nuclear weapons even though it has the necessary material and knowledge, or the regime will be overthrown. Both are doubtful outcomes.
Perhaps there is a third possibility: If sabotage of various kinds can forever keep postponing the success of Iran’s program year after year into the future. Possible but not likely.
Otherwise, an armed collision is going to be inevitable. There will be an Israeli attack and thus a war.
For better or worse, Obama’s speech marks the total success of the Israeli campaign — abetted by both its friends and enemies — to heat up the situation. Believing that Israel was about to attack Iran, although I think this wasn’t true, Obama has sought to stall for time in a way that suits his own interests.
Like most politicians, Obama prefers to defer tough decisions to the future when, one can always hope, the worst won’t happen. Yet often, such a strategy makes the future outcome of the decision-making process inevitable. Of course, Obama wants Jewish support for his reelection campaign. But this isn’t all about Israel or the Jews by any means.
Obama needs to portray himself as a strong leader, one who doesn’t fear confrontation or the use of force. Moreover, a high proportion of the American public views Iran as a threat, indeed the number one foreign threat to their country. His action is going to be generally popular at home, especially because it doesn’t have any consequences between now and the November election.
Many will applaud this. I don’t. In my opinion, it would be better to set the bar at Israel’s freedom of action if it ever determined that there was a threat of nuclear attack from Iran. After all, such a framework would make war or a nuclear conflict less likely whereas the principle of attacking at the point where Iran might have weapons at all makes war and a possible nuclear conflict later on far more likely.
Yet Obama has explicitly rejected containment, which in this context makes it clear that there can be no scenario in which Iran has nuclear weapons but their use is deterred by early-warning stations, the threat of American or Israeli attack, and defensive measures.
In addition, Obama escaped past apparent commitments by invoking the national interest as making it preferable for the United States not to do something. But now he has defined destroying Iran’s nuclear capability as a basic U.S. interest. He has left himself no way out.
By the way, has Obama considered Russia’s warning that it will defend Iran in his new policy? With Vladimir Putin back in power, will this contribute to a U.S.-Russia confrontation?
And did Obama consult any U.S. allies or Congress on this policy? What happened to his much-advertised multilateralism? And this is from the man who savaged his predecessor over Iraq, when Bush did have a UN and a congressional resolution basically authorizing the use of force?
Some believe that Obama will back off this commitment. But what’s he going to do if Israel attacks in a year or two? Say that he wanted Israel to wait another week or month to make sure the United States accepted the intelligence that Iran now had nuclear weapons?
And consider this: The Iranian government would now be perfectly justified in regarding any Israeli attack as an attack also by the United States. Obama has thrown away any possibility of distancing the United States from an Israeli operation or any credible deniability of responsibility. The Tehran government would be far more likely to attack American institutions, personnel, and shipping after an Israeli attack.
We are now on the road to war. That’s what is important, not whether Obama gained votes or whether he is sincere or at precisely what second U.S. policymakers decide Iran has met the conditions for getting bombed.
This is huge and it is an unprecedented U.S. position that can be summarized as follows: Iran gets nukes. Boom!Barry Rubin
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