Monday, July 27, 2009

The Iranian Nuclear Threat, Obama and Israel, by Gidon D. Remba, Israel Horizons, Summer 2009

As published in Israel Horizons, Summer 2009 (and the Meretz USA blog: Part 1 and Part 2)

Barack Obama was swept into the White House promising to reverse the Bush administration’s aversion to diplomatic engagement with new overtures to the Arab and Islamic worlds. While the Obama administration remains committed to direct talks with Iran in the wake of its fraudulent election and brutal suppression of peaceful protests, the message has been leavened with new signals. The administration will not yield to the demands of Republicans, Israeli government hardliners, AIPAC and others in the organized American Jewish community to enact “enhanced sanctions” now. It understands that doing so would quash any hope of Iranian openness to a deal preventing the development of highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium and nuclear arms through a new system of robust monitoring.

Obama now says that there is a September “time frame” for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program. If by then Iran has not accepted the invitation to talk, the United States and “potentially a lot of other countries” are going to say “we need to take further steps.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is planning a “Washington Day” on Sept. 10 that “would bring together 300 to 500 leaders from across the United States to press for [new] sanctions legislation.” But the ongoing schism among clerical leaders within the Iranian regime may make it impossible for even secret talks with the US to begin within that short a time-line.

The administration will need to co-opt Congressional leaders to resist any action on new sanctions legislation, if it believes there is a chance for an arrangement with Iran. This will lead to new tensions between President Obama and much of the organized Jewish community, who will be calling even more vociferously for the administration to abandon diplomacy and ratchet up economic pressure on Iran.

On the other hand, if, after a fair trial, diplomacy fails, and the administration decides, in concert with other countries, to move ahead with new sanctions, those who pressed for a backup plan to engagement will demand a new Plan B in case enhanced sanctions prove unable to halt Iran’s march down the nuclear path. The Obama administration could develop a new policy based on nuclear deterrence and containment of Iran, as General John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, has suggested.

In short, the US, Israel and the Arab world would live with a nuclear Iran, one which might have the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Prying Syria from Iran’s orbit through an American-backed peace accord with Israel would reinforce this approach, weakening Iran strategically. Or Israel could, more insistently than before, demand US acquiescence or support for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Alan Dershowitz opined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Has Obama Turned On Israel?”: “If the Obama administration were to shift toward learning to live with a nuclear Iran and attempt to deny Israel the painful option of attacking its nuclear targets as a last resort, that would…weaken the security of the Jewish state.”

But it’s far from clear that opposing an Israeli preemptive strike would harm Israel’s security. It may well be the converse: an attack on Iran may be the single most dangerous course, embroiling the US and Israel in a new, unwinnable, catastrophic region-wide war.

Vice President Joe Biden recently signaled a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that Israel has the sovereign right to pursue a military option after the diplomatic window closes. “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do…if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

Both Biden and Obama made clear that the door remains open to engagement with Iran, but Biden suggested that if Iran wishes to avoid a host of negative consequences—“isolation” and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike—its leaders had better engage soon with the US on the nuclear issue. Alluding to the administration’s commitment to pursue negotiations with Iran despite Israeli objections, Biden stressed that “there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. What we believe is in the national interest of the United States…we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world.”

Would the US deny to Israeli aircraft over-flight rights in Iraq? The Vice President offered that “Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.” Translation: Iran should consider that even if the US were to deny over-flight rights to Israeli planes seeking to reach Iran via Iraq, Israel might still opt to strike Iran some other way, if Iran does not come to terms with the US.

In the very same news cycle, it was reported that an Israeli sub (which can be equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles) traversed the Suez Canal with Egypt's permission, putting it in closer range to Iran in case Israel opted to launch a preemptive strike or a second strike. At the same time, the Mossad chief reportedly assured Netanyahu that the Saudis had agreed to Israel overflying their territory in a mission that would serve their “common security interests”—a report immediately denied by the Saudis, as expected. Nevertheless, Iran was meant to get the hint.

President Obama wasted no time in clarifying that the US had “absolutely not” given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East," said the President.

Ynet reported on July 16 that two “Israeli missile-firing warships sailed through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, ten days after a submarine capable of launching a nuclear missile strike. The Times of London quoted an Israeli official as saying, ’Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran. These maneuvers are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats.’ The report described [the naval maneuvers] as ‘a clear signal that Israel was able to put its strike force within range of Iran at short notice.’”

Are such threats of Israeli military action simply bluster, a way of exerting pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the US? Or will Israel launch a preemptive assault on Iran?

Israeli Strike or Bust?

Neoconservatives have lost no time beating the drums of war and insisting that the time for an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program is now. “With no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable,” urged John Bolton. Ridiculing the administration’s willingness to attempt direct talks with Iran as a “theological commitment to negotiations”—a projection of Bolton’s own ideological opposition to them under any circumstances—Bolton asserts that there is no point to waiting for talks to play out with Iran.

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a ‘Plan B,’” he continues, “which would allow Iran to have a ‘peaceful’ civil nuclear power program while publicly ‘renouncing’ the objective of nuclear weapons. Obama would define such an outcome as ‘success,’ even though in reality it would hardly be different from what Iran is doing and saying now.” But the point of negotiations is to establish an intrusive inspections system not unlike the one that succeeded in preventing Saddam from re-developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a fact that Bolton finds too inconvenient to acknowledge.

In April 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, said to Stephen Hadley, then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser: “Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated.” Soon after he became prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu repeatedly issued warnings about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons: “These are not regular times,” he said. “The danger is hurtling toward us. The real danger [is] underestimating the threat. . . My job is first and foremost to ensure the future of the state of Israel…the leadership's job is to eliminate the danger. Who will eliminate it? It is us or no one.”

Such statements from Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have stoked apocalyptic fears among the Israeli Jewish public, and much of the mainstream American Jewish leadership. A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has written that “If President Obama’s diplomatic efforts and subsequent tougher sanctions fail, then the president and the world should understand and support Israel's engagement in military action, if it so undertakes, to halt or delay Iran's capability of dropping a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv. One Holocaust is enough for the Jewish people.”

The “mad mullahs” picture of a regime driven by a martyr complex—a nation of irrational, undeterrable suicide bombers—has become firmly rooted in the Israeli Jewish psyche. But a series of reports has cast doubt on this view of Israel’s situation—and on the entire incendiary complex of fears propelling us towards an Israeli attack on Iran. Yediot Ahronoth security correspondent Ronen Bergman reported that “Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former chief of military intelligence, described Israel's public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat as ‘distorted.’ His view—which is shared by many in Israel's security and intelligence services—is that Israel is not Iran's primary target,” nor its main motive for seeking a nuclear weapons capacity, and therefore, “Israel must not attack Iran unilaterally.”

Israel’s intelligence services recognize, continues Bergman, that “throughout its 30 years of existence, the Iranian regime has shown pragmatism and moderation whenever its survival was at stake. And the Iranians clearly understand that a nuclear attack against Israel would lead to a devastating Israeli counterstrike that, among other things, would mean the end of the revolutionary regime. Finally, the Mossad and military intelligence believe that the real reason the Iranians are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons … is to deter US intervention and efforts at regime change.”

It is widely understood among those who have closely studied the Iranian regime that it operates according to the principle of maslehat, “expediency,” taking a cost-benefit approach to decision-making. “Far from being a suicidally ideological regime,” observes Iran expert Mohsen M. Milani, “Tehran seeks to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic while advancing the country’s interests through negotiations.” Internal repression and d├ętente with the US both serve these ends, as they did for post-Tiananmen China and Soviet Russia.

According to Dr. Reuven Pedatzur, a miltary affairs scholar at Tel Aviv University, an exhaustive study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded that “it is questionable whether Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program, or even to delay it for several years.” The odds of success from a military point of view are not great, the study's authors conclude. Second, Israel would only attack Iran's known nuclear sites. But it is likely that following such a strike—which would be unlikely to succeed even against the known sites—Iran would accelerate its uranium enrichment efforts in its secret sites, thus negating any possible benefits of a successful attack.

Third, Iran would certainly retaliate against Israeli targets with Shahab-3 missiles, as would Hezbollah and Hamas with many thousands of their own rockets, while also dispatching waves of suicide bombers into Israel. “Hezbollah now has some 40,000 rockets; Israel does not have a response to these rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.” The Israeli strike would also sow instability throughout the Middle East and potentially spur attacks against US forces and American allies in the region, while squelching Iran’s reformist movement.

The Pentagon’s top military and civilian leaders have long opposed an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that military action “could have grave consequences and would be very destabilizing.” Mullen also suggested that President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise. But the window for diplomacy to avert a dangerous Middle East nuclear arms race is closing, he warned.

Will Israel continue to huff and puff and threaten that it might hit Iran? Will it strike? Israel is unlikely to attack while the US is attempting to engage Iran; such action would jeopardize Israel’s good relations with the United States. But what if diplomacy, and sanctions, fail?

Political scientist Steven Cook has suggested that “all those indications portending an Israeli attack – the strike against Syria in September 2007, the large air exercises over the Mediterranean in the summer of 2008, and the recent countrywide drills that the IDF’s Home Command conducted [and Israel’s more recent naval maneuvers, coupled with the upcoming Arrow missile interceptor tests at a US missile range in the Pacific]—might actually indicate that Israel is trying to figure out how to deter Iran, rather than attack it.”

But security analyst Bergman has reached less sanguine conclusions from his conversations with Israeli government officials: “As Iran approaches nuclear weapons capability—some time in 2010, according to current Mossad estimates—an increasing number of people in Netanyahu's circle will adopt the view that Israel needs to take action and that the United States will be understanding of Israel's needs. And if the Obama administration is not so understanding? Israel may decide that the existential danger posed by a potential second Holocaust warrants risking even a serious rift with the United States. Ultimately, the fear of a nuclear-armed state whose leader talks openly of destroying Israel may outweigh the views of the country's intelligence experts.”

Gidon D. Remba is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change (, a nonprofit organization which supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and advocates for a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. He also edits the group’s “Say No To War With Iran” site ( and blogs at Tough Dove Israel ( He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, 1977-1978, during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.

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