On many levels, US-Israeli coordination on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is better than ever. President Barack Obama and the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both say that Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. Both agree it is a threat to the whole world, and not only to Israel. Both support strong sanctions against the regime, sanctions which have been increasingly implemented by the UN, the US and the EU in the last two years. And both say they prefer to resolve the problem through sanctions and diplomacy, but that if those do not work, they will consider all options.
And yet, the headlines and stories in recent weeks are all about the differences between the two governments. This perception is nurtured by the fact that American officials are urgently meeting with relevant Israeli leaders in what is being cast by the media as an apparent effort to deter them from considering a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Surrounding reports of such meetings are comments and articles that feel like an orchestrated campaign to put pressure on Israel not to act. There have been front page stories saying that an Israeli attack on Iran would be extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed. Dennis Ross, the former administration official who is one of the nation’s leading experts on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote an op-ed indicating that diplomacy now has a chance to succeed because the sanctions are weakening and frightening the Islamic Regime. And the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, refers to the Iranians as “rational” in their decision making in speaking against an Israeli military strike.
Why is there this gap? If US-Israeli cooperation is so good, why is it also so bad?
At the root of the problem is one stark reality: for Israel, an Iranian nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime whose president speaks openly about Israel’s destruction, and which is supported by extreme Islamic leaders, is an existential threat. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was considered a more moderate voice, said on the subject of nuclear weapons: Iran is a big country and can survive ten nuclear bombs, Israel is a small country and one nuclear explosion in its center will destroy it.
For the US and the West, Iran is a major strategic challenge with great implications. But it is not seen as an existential threat to these societies.
It is through these different lenses that each country views the facts and strategies. Thus, it should not be surprising that divergent readings have emerged about what is going on in Iran and how to deal with the issue.
First, there’s the question of the rationality of the regime. General Dempsey’s comment is a statement that, from the Israeli’s viewpoint, could only come from the comfort and security of being an American.
The best insight into Israel’s perspective came from an Israeli expert who spoke several years ago at a conference in Washington, DC. He was asked: If Iran possessed a nuclear weapon, how likely is it that it might use it against Israel? The expert replied that Israeli intelligence agencies would probably say: “85% sure that Iran would not use the bombs, 15% we can’t say.” There is enough uncertainty and irrationality that Israel cannot live with such a threat to its very existence, a threat that no country should be expected to ignore.
There is also the issue of how much time is left before Iran goes nuclear. Not surprisingly, Israel believes that it will happen more quickly, using different criteria for the “point of no return” than the Americans. Does that make one assessment more accurate than the other? Not necessarily. Rather, it reflects a different mindset, a different sense of urgency that comes from the different sense of exposure.
This different mindset is also shown when discussing a military initiative. Both Americans and Israelis must question the likelihood of success and the potential for dire consequences such as terrorism, increased oil prices, and destabilization in the region. But the conclusion each reaches may once again differ significantly because of divergent starting points.
Although these differences are inevitable, as Americans, we should never forget that the two nations share the same goal that stems from our common interests and values. We must also understand that Israel faces a unique danger as Iran continues on its path to a nuclear bomb.