The US and Iran: Calling Netanyahu’s bluff

Now that the US has in effect called Netanyahu’s bluff, will the Israeli leader make a fateful throw of the dice?

Israel''s Prime Minister Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
'Options short of war, according to Netanyahu, will almost surely be unavailing', writes Grenier [Reuters]

As the US presidential election on November 6 approaches, the pressure in Israel is rising.

Stations have been set up to distribute gas masks, underground bomb shelters are being prepared, and a social-media early-warning system is being tested to alert the public of incoming missiles from Iran or south Lebanon. Such missiles, it is supposed, would form part of the response from Iran and its allies to an Israeli first strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Strident warnings from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have been unrelenting. In a recent, widely noticed interview in Haaretz, a “senior Israeli official” – assumed by many to be Defence Minister Ehud Barak – has claimed that Israel is confronted with an unprecedented threat to its existence, and that time is quickly running out: “If we do not act, it’s almost certain that Iran will go nuclear. If we do act, there’s a good chance that Iran will not go nuclear for a long while.”

Options short of war, according to Netanyahu, will almost surely be unavailing: “Sanctions and diplomacy,” he said last month, “have so far not set back the Iranian programme by one iota”. Much is made of the “zone of immunity” which, it is claimed, Iran will have shortly established for itself, when military means at Israel’s disposal will no longer be sufficient to strike key hardened Iranian nuclear facilities.

Few in Israel doubt Netanyahu’s seriousness, and fear of a nuclear Iran is surely widespread, but many are strongly opposed to launching a precipitate attack without the clear support, if not the active involvement, of the United States. In a recent, typical poll, 61 per cent of Israelis opposed an attack on Iran conducted without the consent of the Americans.  Shaul Mofaz, former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, head of Kadima, and leader of the opposition in the Knesset, has lashed out against what he describes as Netanyahu’s “dangerous and irresponsible” policy towards Iran.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres, reflecting the concerns of many, said a few days ago that “It is clear to us now that we cannot do this alone. It is clear to us we need to work together with America.” That view, we are told, is widely shared within the Israeli defense and intelligence establishments. The military people charged with conducting a preemptive strike on Iran are the most likely to resist starting something that they know they cannot finish on their own. They are the ones who realise, despite the uninformed and wishful thinking of some civilians, that long-range air attacks on Iran are unlikely to have more than a marginal impact on its nuclear programme unless they are sustained. Israel cannot sustain these attacks. Only the US can.

But the Americans have made clear that they want to wait. It is at least part of Netanyahu’s calculation that credible threats of an Israeli strike during the US presidential campaign season and the Obama administration’s desperate desire to avoid it will motivate the US to trade Israeli assurances of near-term forbearance for a more credible and irrevocable US commitment to employ military force if and when evidences of the failure of economic sanctions and the imminence of a hardened Iranian nuclear weapons capability converge.

A spate of competitive political pandering between the Obama administration and Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the latter’s end-of-July visit to Israel may have raised Israeli hopes in this regard. Romney attempted to create political space by essentially restating current administration policy with a visceral vehemence that the current American president clearly lacks. Israeli leaders, who have seen much American political pandering in their time, are better equipped than most to interpret its meaning. When viewed in the cold light of day, assertions by both Democratic and Republican standard-bearers, replete with pledges of support for Israeli security and generous in their understanding of Israel’s need to take responsibility for its own survival, have a clear meaning in the context of an Israeli strike on Iran: “I’ll hold your coat.”

The fact is that no one in Washington has any enthusiasm for a conflict with Iran, and will certainly not seek hostilities so long as a credible alternative exists to halt Iranian nuclear development – nor, most likely, even after the alternatives have expired. A Washington establishment that currently has many tactical reasons to assert that “containment is not an option” is likely in the end to embrace containment when it is clear that there is no other option. Many Israelis fear this; some, perhaps including Netanyahu, already understand it.

As passions in Israel over this issue rise to a fever pitch, the reaction in Washington is strangely muted and detached. Washington has ceded all initiative on the Iran issue to Israel, and an air of fatalism has set in. This is more than strange, as Washington has a great deal more to lose than Israel should hostilities break out. Israel, having limited exposure, will be able to weather Tehran’s response, both direct and indirect, far more easily than the Americans. For the US, the question as to whether an Israeli strike will draw them into a protracted conflict in the Gulf will essentially be out of their hands, and will depend upon the Iranians. The dangers to their naval assets in the Gulf, the threat of skyrocketing oil prices, the undermining of domestic political support in allied Arab countries, and the near-certainty of asymmetric terrorist attacks around the globe will just be the beginning. In the event of a sustained military confrontation with Iran, the US position in Pakistan, and therefore in Afghanistan, will be thoroughly undermined.  

It would be a serious miscalculation of Netanyahu’s apocalyptic view of the Iranian threat to suppose that his posturing of these many past months has simply been an exercise in blackmail, but blackmail of the Obama administration has been an important part of his current policy. He admits publicly that he would prefer to see the US take military action against Iran, rather than Israel. That is more than understandable, because the only really effective military action to be taken would have to be taken by the US, and the main point of an Israeli attack would be to precipitate it. Netanyahu has made clear the price which would have to be paid to avoid military unpleasantness with Iran in the midst of a US presidential campaign: Clear, irrevocable US red-lines which would trigger an American attack on Iran should sanctions and diplomacy fail. Neither Obama nor Romney, bellicose words notwithstanding, will provide them.

Though it may not have been their conscious intent, the Americans have in effect called Netanyahu’s bluff. If he doesn’t realise it, he soon will. The ball is clearly in his court. Should he decide that the status quo will inevitably work against Israel’s strategic position, and perhaps even invite catastrophe, he is quite capable of making a fateful throw of the dice. The question now is: Will he do it?

Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG Partners, a financial consultancy firm.