Washington Watch: Brinkmanship could spark Middle East war

Opposition to an Israeli strike is strongest where support is needed most: in Washington, DC.

By
November 9, 2011 22:20
Iranian anti-aircraft missile defense system

Iranian anti-aircraft missile 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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When it comes to attacking enemy nuclear installations, Israel has an excellent record for springing surprises and getting the job done. Just ask the Iraqis and Syrians.

So why is everyone from the prime minister on down talking so much these days about paying a visit to Iran? Media in Israel and around the world have been filled with stories of how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak want to hit the Iranian nuclear facilities and are trying to convince the rest of the cabinet, over the objections of the military and intelligence leadership, to go along.

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The timing is interesting. There is no smoking gun, no revelation that the ayatollahs are on the verge of a breakthrough that would signal some urgency. So why now? The International Atomic Energy Agency has exposed the falsehood of Iranian claims that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Tuesday’s report included the revelations expected is that Iran has the knowledge, technology and resources to build and test a bomb within months, not years.

Netanyahu’s campaign for cabinet backing doesn’t mean an attack is imminent, but rather a chit to be used when and if he decides.

President Shimon Peres has said he sees an Israeli attack as “more and more likely.” The nation is about evenly divided over whether to attack, although 80 percent expect it will provoke retaliation by Iran and its proxies Hizbullah and Hamas.

But the opposition is the strongest where support is needed most: in Washington.

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Netanyahu’s real strategy appears to be aimed at convincing the international community to dramatically tighten the political and economic squeeze on Teheran to scrap its weapons program.

So far Russia and China have been running interference for the Iranians, and Israel hopes its war talk, together with the IAEA report, will convince them to cross over from the dark side.

It seems hardly coincidental that in the past week Israel has test-fired a ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to any target in Iran, conducted joint exercises with the Italian air force on long-range missions and aerial refueling and held a large-scale civil defense exercise simulating a missile attack on central Israel. At the same time, the US and Israel announced plans for their “largest” and “most significant” ever joint military exercises, including simulating Israel’s ballistic missile defense.

Israeli leaders have long been frustrated that most countries do not take the Iranian threat as seriously as they do, even those like the Gulf Arabs, who have the most to lose if Iran gets the bomb.

WITH IRANIAN facilities widely distributed and often hidden deep underground, it is hard to find anyone who believes an attack – Israeli or American – could do more than set back the Iranian nuclear program by a few years, but advocates say that will buy time for more pressure to force a policy change or, best, regime change.

In reality, an attack is more likely to provoke wider conflict and economic disruptions that could have global repercussions. If Israel attacks, with or without American backing or even knowledge, Washington will still be seen as either complicit or too weak to control its ally.

Iranian officials have made credible warnings that if attacked they would not confine their retaliation to Israel but will go after the Great Satan and its Arab friends as well.

That includes closing the Straits of Hormuz though which pass ships bearing more than a third of the world’s supply of oil and gas, targeting the US Fifth Fleet and hitting American military and commercial facilities in the Gulf.

An American military official called Iran “the biggest threat to the United States and to our interests and to our friends in the region.”

Tens of thousands of Americans, military and civilian, are in the area, in Iraq on Iran’s western border and Afghanistan on its eastern border, and in countries throughout the Gulf.

Iran could be expected to attack Israel with its long-range Shahab-3 missiles as well as its network of allies, particularly Hizbullah in Lebanon, which has an estimated 50,000-plus missiles supplied by Iran and Syria, as well as Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. Syria could join in as a diversion from its uprising at home.

If an Israeli attack sparks a third major Middle East war, retaliation can be expected against American interests and friends. That could potentially cause more damage to US-Israel relations than to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

You can forget what GOP presidential wannabes Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and some jingoists on the right have been saying about backing an Israeli attack on Iran. The American people are fed up with the two Middle East wars we already have and don’t want another one.

They are likely to be unforgiving, even if they sympathize with Israel’s motivation.

Israeli analyst (and my fellow Jerusalem Post columnist) Barry Rubin points out: “An attack would not stop Iran’s program but only delay it, while guaranteeing that Teheran would be in a state of war with Israel and far more likely to use nuclear weapons.”

In The Atlantic, Jeffery Goldberg wrote that “an attack could legitimize the very program Israel is hoping to wipe out.”

Israel’s fears are legitimate, as is its frustration with the failure of other countries to take strong enough action. This is particularly true regarding enablers like Russia and China, which are aiding and abetting the Iranian program.

But brinkmanship can be a very dangerous game and war frenzy can prove difficult to contain, especially if the enemy doesn’t think you’re bluffing and decides to act first. It’s a lesson Egypt learned that the hard way in 1967.

The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He writes regularly for Anglo-Jewish newspapers and is the former legislative director of AIPAC and Washington representative of the World Jewish Congress.

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