Letter From Herzliya: Collision Course
March 19. There has been great international uproar, combined with sensational headlines, about the question of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some favor an attack; others oppose it. Yet almost everyone seems to accept that Israel is about to attack Iran. a This debate, often crossing the line into hysteria, has absolutely no justification: An Israeli attack on Iran is not imminent. a True, Israel has said that it would not allow Tehran to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons and that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was one way to prevent that. Equally, however, Israeli leaders have repeatedly stated that they would strike only if Iran was about to get nuclear weapons and all alternatives had been exhausted.
Clearly, this is not yet the case. Iran is still far from obtaining such weapons—at minimum it will take a year and probably several—and even longer from being able to fire them at Israel atop ballistic missiles.
At the same time, israeli leaders have two concerns. First, they warn that Iran is hardening its nuclear facilities—burying them deeper underground and moving them further out of range—perhaps making it impossible for a bombing attack to succeed.
Second, they want to push the world, and especially the West, to further increase pressure on the Iranian government through tougher sanctions as well as other measures. By making it clear that Israel might feel compelled to strike Iran, the world might be scared into acting more forcefully.
In a speech at AIPAC’s annual conference in March, President Obama appeared to support Israel’s goals. He stated that his policy was to ensure that Iran did not obtain nuclear weapons.
The president also said that Israel’s concerns were fully warranted, noting that the country “must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat” and justified Israeli military actions if all other alternatives had been exhausted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also made his case at the conference, and the next day the two leaders met. Does this mean Israel had won an important victory?
There are three issues involved in answering that question.
First, there is the matter of timing. The president called for giving sanctions more time to work. This is largely a fiction. While sanctions are already damaging Iran to some extent, they are insufficient to force the Iranian government to back down from its objective.
Iran is willing to pay a high price for continuing its uranium-enrichment program—and neither sanctions nor diplomatic efforts are going to stop them. Iran will continue to go full-speed ahead.
This leads to the second debate: How to decide and define where the red line is, when the time has come to act.
The divisions between Israel and the White House about this issue have been overestimated. Israel wants to deny Iran the capability to build nuclear weapons. The president, on the other hand, is focused on not allowing the actual nuclear weapons; this means that Iran could obtain or create everything it needs for nuclear weapons but stop short of building them.
The media and analysts have made a big deal over this issue, but they omitted a critical point: Iran has to want to stop its nuclear program. This debate might be a case of the world deciding what a country should do without that country’s actual agreement.
The Middle East, its people and dictators do not often follow what Western politicians and “experts” say is the “smartest” policy for them. Recall, for example—one of many—that the Palestinians should long ago have made peace with Israel and obtained their own state. Iraq should not have invaded Iran or, later, Kuwait and then claimed to be building weapons of mass destruction—“mistakes” that resulted in Iraq losing three wars. More recently, Egyptians should have voted for moderate democratic parties and not the radical Islamist candidates.
In short, if Iran wants to obtain nuclear weapons as well as build long-range missiles to carry them, the differences between Israeli and American definitions of when to stop the country will not matter.
And this leads us to the third and, possibly, biggest issue: Was President Obama sincere in his support of Israel at the AIPAC conference? Is it conceivable that his advocacy is all an attempt at gaining Jewish votes by promising something that would not be delivered if he is reelected? Unfortunately, the answer to the latter question is “yes.” But what people on both sides of the partisan divide do not understand is that matters are not so simple.
To go back on his commitment would require not only that the American government itself does nothing if Iran obtains nuclear weapons but that it would also oppose Israel doing anything.
Historically, Israel has shown that it knows how to take the initiative when it is threatened. In 1967, with no real support, it staged successful preemptive attacks on both Egypt and Syria. In 1982, with far less American backing than it recently received at AIPAC, Israel launched a preemptive war on Lebanon.
If in the future Israel decides to launch a military attack to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, statements by the president in March provide the needed basis of American support.
And if he loses the election, a Republican president can act far more decisively than President Obama by simply citing his commitment. Here is how that policy currently stands, as stated at AIPAC:
—Iran is a dangerous country that threatens both American and Israeli security. Given that fact and prior statements by Iranian leaders, Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons because it credibly might use them.
—Sanctions and other measures should be given time to work.
—But if they do not work, Iran must be stopped. Containment—meaning some way to live with a nuclear-armed Iran by trying to ensure it never uses the weapons—is not acceptable.
So what is the bottom line? if Iran is about to obtain nuclear weapons, the only option is an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. That is why I am positing that Israel has traded patience in exchange for a green light from the United States for attacking Iran if it proves necessary.
And given the situation, using either the Israeli or the American definition of when an attack must occur, it is likely that a strike would happen sometime between 2013 and 2015.
What factors might change this scenario?
— If Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program, perhaps negotiating an agreement with the United States and other Western countries.
— If Iran stopped short of obtaining weapons but retained the capability to quickly build them.
—The overthrow of the current regime or a revolutionary uprising so large that it disrupts the regime’s ability to govern.
Given the nature of the Iranian regime and its publicly stated goals, all of these outcomes are extremely unlikely.
If we think of Iran as a train rushing down the track straight toward another train, likely to ignore switches leading it onto another track, sooner or later a collision with Israel will occur.
No matter how hard Washington might try to negotiate with Tehran, Iran’s leadership will ensure that no deal is made. No matter how high or low the United States and other Western countries set or enforce sanctions (and there are plenty of holes, with China, Russia and Turkey doing whatever they want), the Iranian leadership will not capitulate.
This brings us back to that third issue, whether the president would fulfill his commitments, given his cool attitude toward Israel and dislike for Netanyahu.
No one can satisfactorily answer that question. Yet there is another point here that is almost universally misunderstood: How much would it matter?
Once a president of the United States has laid out an approach, he is setting a course for the country. Of course, in the future, to pick dates at random, Israel could secretly tell the United States on January 28, 2014, that it believes the Iranian government will have nuclear weapons on July 5, and American counterparts could say that Iran needs three more months.
If Israeli planes were to take off, say, on August 23 to begin a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations, even without explicit American agreement, Washington would be in no position to try to stop them.
The United States would have to both support Israel’s actions and accept its consequences, which might include anything from Iranian efforts to block tanker shipping in the Persian Gulf to Iran-sponsored terror attacks on American targets and military installations abroad.
That is how international affairs work. There are scores of cases from the past in which national commitments led to a consequence, whether or not the leader was sincere in making them.
Of course, a leader’s ability to implement his policy and face the resulting crisis is a relevant consideration. Nevertheless, here is what is really important: Up until now, the American government has opposed an Israeli attack on Iran; now it is merely a debate over timing.
In addition, there are things that Israel and, possibly, the United States can do to delay that moment of truth. Sanctions, yes, but, even more important, covert operations—blocking Iran’s supply of needed components, sabotage, assassinations of key scientists and officials and computer viruses (remember Stuxnet?) among them. All these efforts push the clock back.
Yet, at whatever speed, that train is still moving down that track, straight toward the oncoming train.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA). His latest book is Israel: An Introduction (Yale University Press).