The Bibi-Obama clash
Analysis: Israel-US ties hit another nadir over disagreements on response to Iran threat
The Iranian theater is simmering these days. Iran’s
economy is in trouble, the ruling conservative camp is threatened domestically and internationally, and the regime is anxious. Even though almost all sides are not interested in a confrontation, the situation may very well boil over and lead to military escalation. That’s what happens when the interests of the major players contradict each other, even on the same side of the court. Israel
and the United States
are facing a head-to-head clash the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, as part of an ongoing crisis stemming from lack of faith between the two countries’ leaderships.
But first we must understand the Iranian interest: To reach the so-called “nuclear threshold” while at the same time completing the missile program and fortifying Tehran’s nuke sites to make them immune, or almost immune, to an aerial strike. Iran aims to achieve all this without facing stifling economic sanctions already formulated by the US and the West but not yet imposed. In a few months, Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad
may be able to overcome Syria’s
domestic uprising. Then, Iran’s ability to threaten Israel and the West via the immense arsenal of missiles and rockets handed over to Syria, Hezbollah
and the Palestinians in Gaza will be doubled.
In short, Iran is playing for time. To that end, it waves carrots and sticks in the West’s and mostly in America’s face. The major stick is a blockade of the Hormuz Straits.
The threat is meant to boost oil prices, a move that will undermine the unstable European economies and America’s recovering economy, while at the same time enriching Iran’s coffers, which are desperate for cash. The Straits are also a national symbol and placing it at the eye of the storm is meant to rally the Iranian nation around its leadership.
On the carrot side, Iran has suddenly informed that International Atomic Energy Agency of Tehran’s willingness to respond to the IAEA’s
“questions” regarding nuclear arms development. Thus far, Iran refused to discuss relevant information, claiming it was fabricated. Moreover, IAEA inspectors were invited to visit Iran’s new uranium-enrichment facility, deep underground in a Revolutionary Guards base near the city of Qom. These two developments are supposed to take place towards the end of the month, with at least two months elapsing before the IAEA drafts a report.
The Iranians are also signaling their willingness to re-launch negotiations with the Europeans, Russia, China and the US on the nuclear program, which Tehran says is meant for peaceful purposes. However, Iran presented a condition: No sanctions during the negotiations.
Israel’s interest is to thwart Iran’s plans. The concern here is that not only will Tehran advance its nuclear program, but also manage to fortify it and move its facilities so deep underground that an Israeli strike would be ineffective. It’s also clear that if only they decide to do so, the Americans possess the resources to paralyze Iran’s nuclear program, even if an Israeli strike only achieves partial success. The critical question is what would happen if the Iranians fail to stop despite the paralyzing sanctions. Will officials in Washington decide to strike under such circumstances? There’s no certainty at all.
By the time the Americans weigh their options and make a decision, the Iranians may complete their fortification project, thereby causing Israel to miss the last chance to launch a successful, effective preventative strike. This is the reason why Israel pushes the US and Europe to impose the gravest possible sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks, while also proceeding full steam ahead with the secret war on Tehran.
Israel claims that only should the West exert heavy pressure, which would make Iran’s regime fear for its very survival, there would be a slight chance for practical results. Hence, Israeli officials at all levels of government are aiming to convince the West that a military option must be a realistic threat. For that reason, Jerusalem is also aiming to show that it would not hesitate to launch a strike, even at the price of a missile attack on our home front. By the way, Israeli experts estimate that the response would be must less devastating and bloody that what is commonly believed.
Israel is not willing to coordinate a strike with the US in advance, justifying the refusal by showing concern for America’s global status and interests – so that if Israel strikes alone, the US would not be accused of collaboration. It is very possible that these types of considerations prompted Israel to postpone the major missile defense drill planned for April. Despite this, should Netanyahu decide to strike, he will give the Americans enough time to put their forces in the Persian Gulf on alert, so that they don’t suffer great harm as result of the Iranian response.
The intelligence information available to Israel and to the US is very similar. Hence, America’s top officials do not reject Israel’s assessment regarding the pace of the Iranian nuclear project’s development. However, the US has a variety of vital regional interests that must be secured. Moreover, the means possessed by the Americas for handling the nuke threat are much more effective and powerful than Israel’s. Hence, the Obama
Administration’s “Iran strategy” and the timetable for executing it almost necessarily clash with the moves desired by decision-makers in Jerusalem.
The essence of America’s strategy is to prevent Iran from securing nuclear arms but at the same time do everything to avoid military conformation, as not to cause oil prices to skyrocket. Such blow, at the time of economic recovery, would hurt Obama’s re-election chances in November. Iran can also disrupt America’s efforts to put a dignified end to the military intervention in Afghanistan.
This is the core of the conflict. The Americans want to give their strategy a chance and more time, and show patience in respect to the imposition of stifling sanctions. Obama and his associates also demand that Israel refrain from striking, coordinate its moves, and where possible avoid any step that could infuriate the Iranians and push them away from the negotiating table, including assassinations of nuclear scientists and mysterious explosions attributed to Israel.
For that reason, Secretary of Defense Panetta, who approves mass assassinations of Taliban and al-Qaeda members by drone, rushed to condemn the latest killing in Tehran and even hinted to Israel’s involvement. All of it was apparently done in order to appease the anxious Iranians and bring them to the negotiating table.
The story is different in respect to the Hormuz Straits, where the Iranians managed to complicate matters. As opposed to its advice to Israel, the US shows zero tolerance to an Iranian threat against the West’s energy sources and Arab oil producers. In a letter sent to Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei, Obama announced that should the threat materialize it would be perceived as a declaration of war, thereby prompting a commensurate response.
The double standard shown by the US regarding the Iranian issue outrages Israel’s forum of top eight government ministers and pushes the ties between the administrations to yet another nadir. Indeed, the confrontation has almost become open. Netanyahu’s angry statement regarding the need to immediately impose painful sanctions on Iran was uttered even though it clearly undermined Obama’s campaign.
The Americans are sensitive to the president being portrayed as indecisive and as one who fears the imposition of sanctions, an image that may also harm him among Jewish voters. Hence, Washington made sure to hit back. The decisive message has been conveyed via the media as well, for example through Roger Cohen’s latest column in the New York Times which urged Netanyahu to refrain from striking Iran and interfering in American politics.
This week, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey,
will arrive for talks with senior Israeli security officials. He will aim to convince Israel to show restraint and coordinate its moves by making note of the generous, almost unprecedented military aid offered to Israel by the Obama Administration. Another American card will be general clarification as to US military plans and preparations to curb Iran’s nuclear project. Should all else fail, Dempsey may also share the extreme scenario that would prompt the US to act.
In response, the American general will ask, and apparently not get, an Israeli pledge to coordinate any unordinary operation. However, Jerusalem is expected to offer a pledge to act responsibly and show restraint as long as Washington and its allies firmly utilize their strategy for curbing Iran’s nukes. After all, when Israel’s strategy clashes with what’s good for America’s economy and with the re-election chances of a serving president, officials in Jerusalem better think twice. Moreover, even here officials admit that the pressure on Iran is starting to bear fruit.
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