BOSTON — The dogs of war have been howling now for months, and as President Barack Obama meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu there is the very real possibility of yet another war against a Muslim country, this time Iran.
With a less-than satisfactory ending of the Iraq war, and an even worse failure in Afghanistan staring him in the face, the last thing Obama wants right now is to be sucked into a conflict with Iran. He knows that would open the door to unintended consequences all over the volatile Middle East. It would most probably send oil prices soaring and bring back recession, thus dimming his chances for re-election. He also knows that if Israel goes it alone, there is no way that the United States won’t be blamed throughout the Muslim world, given its close alliance with Israel.
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Israel has made it very clear that, although it would prefer the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, it is prepared to go it alone if necessary. Israel is saying, in effect, if you cannot join us, at least do not hinder us in what we see as an absolute necessity to head off, or at least delay, Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons.
Israel says to the United States: You are further away from Iran and infinitely more powerful than we are. You can afford to delay longer to see if your sanctions work. But we have less time because if we wait, Iran’s bomb-making facilities will be so scattered, and put so deep underground, that the weapons we have won’t make an impression.
America says to Israel: You can only delay an Iranian bomb, not prevent it, and once you attack then Iran can claim victimhood, pull its fractured people together, and go all out for the bomb. We don’t believe Iran has made a final decision on whether or not to weaponize their nuclear program.
Israel says to America: Don’t underestimate the power of delay. When we attacked Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 the delay bought us, and the world, many years. More recently we attacked Syria’s bomb plant and now we have a completely different situation in Syria.
There may be disagreement in both America and in Israel itself about the existential nature of the threat. Israel has, with a couple of hundred nuclear weapons, a pretty good deterrent. The threat is existential only if you believe that Iran is so fanatical that it would be willing to risk nuclear obliteration just to get at Israel.
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When I was in Israel a few months ago, many well-placed Israelis told me that what the US, Israel, and many Sunni Arab countries do agree on is that an Iranian bomb would cause nuclear proliferation throughout the region. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the US to “cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake,” and the Saudi king has made it very clear that if Iran goes nuclear, so will Saudi Arabia. So might Egypt or even Turkey. And as an Egyptian told me recently, “with Iran you would have some constraints over a nuclear bomb. In Saudi Arabia, if the king says go bomb somebody, there are not the same restraining hands to keep his finger off the trigger.”
In the last analysis, Israel is saying to the United States: If we agree not to bomb Iran, and if we wait beyond the time we have the capacity to be effective, you have to promise us to go in and do the job when and if it becomes apparent that sanctions, sabotage, and other pressures aren’t going to work.
In his interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama appears to have done just that. “I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United Sates says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon we mean what we say," the president said. He indicated that a “military component” would be only a last resort.
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Of course the United States, with its B-52 bombers and superior bunker-busting bombs could do real and permanent harm to Iran with multiple raids going on for weeks and months. Israel, as a practical matter, really has only one shot, and that will not be enough to do much damage.
To get at Iran Israel has to fly over either Turkey, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia — Iraq has no means to resist. But even if Turkey, Jordan or Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to look the other way for one raid, it is unlikely that they would agree to permit Israel free passage in their airspace for multiple raids. This means Israel has the power to bring down upon itself, and the West, all unforeseen consequences of going to war against Iran, but not the power to do much harm to Iran to make it worthwhile.
Thus Israel’s best card has always been to try and force America’s hand — to get an American guarantee that it will use force if Israel holds its hand. This is what former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried and failed to get George W. Bush to agree to. And this is what Netanyahu will try to wrench from a reluctant Obama.
At the end of the day, if Israel really is convinced that Iran presents a threat to their very existence, why would it refrain from using its own nuclear arsenal in a pre-emptive strike? This is not something anyone wants to talk about, however.