Sunday, March 4, 2012

Showdown Over Iran

by Jacob Laksin

Relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama have been famously strained over the past three years, but their upcoming meeting this Monday may be the tensest moment to date.

While both sides have been tight-lipped about the topic of discussion, it’s clear the dominant issue will be how to deal with Iran’s nascent nuclear threat. Despite agreeing on the nature of that threat, the two sides depart dramatically in their assessments about how advanced Iran’s nuclear program is and the steps necessary to halt its continued development.

The Obama administration favors a more passive approach. In the administration’s view, there is still sufficient time to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Believing that U.S. and European sanctions passed this summer can slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Obama has consistently argued that a two-track policy of stiffer sanctions and muscular diplomacy should be given a chance to work.

That assessment delays a military reckoning for Iran, but even administration officials concede that it is rooted in part on wishful thinking. James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, admitted in January that “so far” sanctions had not convinced Iran to change its behavior. Instead, he said, the administration was hopeful that continued pressure held out the “prospect that they could change.” Accordingly, Obama will likely pressure Netanyahu to hold off on a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities until sanctions have been given a chance to work.

Netanyahu is unsympathetic to that view. As he has pointed out in the past, sanctions have been tried before, with little deterrent effect on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The current Israeli view is that a strike will have to happen before the summer in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Still, Israel recognizes that the Obama administration is unlikely to support such an attack. That is one reason why Israeli intelligence leaked this week that Israel would not give the U.S. warning of an impending Israeli strike, thus leaving the U.S. with plausible deniability in the aftermath. Although that is unlikely to sit well with the Obama administration, Israel believes it has little choice, and little time, if it wants to destroy Iran’s weapons capability before it becomes fully operational.

If Israel’s red line action is lower than Obama’s, it’s because the Israeli assessment of Iran’s nuclear project is more dire. American intelligence agencies have hedged on the question of weather Iran truly seeks a nuclear bomb, as opposed to a nuclear program. Israel has fewer doubts. This week, for instance, Israeli officials pointed to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s findings that Iran has accelerated uranium enrichment, a precondition for a nuclear weapon’s program, and is increasingly moving its nuclear operations deeper underground, likely to avoid their being targeted in an aerial attack. It has hardly allayed Israel’s concerns that Iran, demonstrating its traditional contempt for international law, recently denied IAEA inspectors permission to visit a key military site.

Yet the issue runs deeper than differing strategic assessments. Because of its geographical proximity, Israel considers Iran an existential threat and not simply a troublesome rogue state. It’s not just that Iran has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction. The more serious issue is that, with it’s backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as it’s arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles within striking range of Israel, Iran is already waging the war of destruction it has long threatened. That reality is all too clear in Israel. A strategic study released this week by Bar Ilan University points out that Iran’s nuclear ambitions, combined with the fall of Arab states and the rise of Islamic revolutionary regimes, has created a “deteriorating security environment for Israel.” Clearly, Israel feels it needs to act — and soon.

That is not to say that there is no room for common ground on Iran. The Obama administration has indicated that it might be amenable to Israeli appeals for a more urgent and forceful response. Thus, ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival, the administration has been sending signals that it could still endorse a military solution to Iran’s nuclear program. For instance, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said this week that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options for a strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. So that there was no mistaking the message to Tehran, Schwartz added: “What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area.”

If that is indeed a sign that the U.S. is prepared to consider military options, it would be welcome news for Netanyahu. Polls suggest that the Israeli public is reluctant to undertake a strike against Iran without U.S. support. To that end, firmer backing from the White House would provide much-needed reassurance that even if the U.S. won’t officially sanction an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear sites, it is at least open to the possibility. Given Netanyahu and Obama’s apparent personal dislike for one another, Monday’s meeting may not be a happy reunion. But with so much at stake for Israeli and U.S. security, there is hope that it may still prove a productive one.

Jacob Laksin


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