Netanyahu’s Iran dilemma

Can Israel trust the US to take military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program?

Iranian Presidnet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at OIC in Mecca 370 (R (photo credit: Susan Baaghil / Reuters)
Iranian Presidnet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at OIC in Mecca 370 (R
(photo credit: Susan Baaghil / Reuters)
What makes the Israeli dilemma over Iran so acute is the clash between two fundamental pillars of national security: The Begin doctrine, which holds that Israel cannot allow any neighboring state to go nuclear, and the Ben-Gurion tenet that Israel should not undertake significant military action without the support of at least one major power.
With the window for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities rapidly closing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon have to choose between Ben-Gurion’s recognition of Israel’s limitations and Begin’s conviction that, in the final analysis, Israel cannot rely on or defer to outside powers.
That decision is likely to be made in the very near future, some time before the American presidential election on November 6. Netanyahu tends toward a strike. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had been pushing hard for Israeli action, is having second thoughts.
The big question is whether between now and election day, the US Administration can convince Netanyahu that come hell or high water, America can be trusted to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and that it will use force, if necessary.
In this context, the projected late September meeting between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama is crucial.
Netanyahu argues that a nuclear Iran would mean weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a fanatical regime threatening to eradicate Israel; a nuclear umbrella for terrorists; possibly a “dirty” terrorist bomb; and the rapid emergence of a multi-nuclear Middle East, in which Israel finds itself hamstrung in the face of terrorist and other provocations. He is convinced that Iran can only be stopped by force, and that time for Israeli action is running out.
He acknowledges that an Israeli operation against Iran would be a risky business – primarily because of the likely Iranian and Iranian-proxy missile and rocket response and the strains an unsupported strike would put on Israel’s ties with America. But he insists that these risks pale in comparison to the dangers inherent in a nuclear Iran.
For Netanyahu there are two time frames for an Israeli attack: Before the Iranian program is too far advanced and too well protected for Israel to launch an effective strike, a so-called “zone of immunity” expected to occur within about a year; and a shorter, more relevant window – the run-up to the American election. Netanyahu believes that if he attacks then, Obama, for electoral reasons, would be forced to back him. That would not be the case once the election is over.
But there is another side to the election window. Because Obama, also for electoral reasons, is so opposed to an Israeli strike now, Netanyahu may attempt to extract far-reaching American commitments in exchange for an Israeli pledge not to act during the run-up.
For example, a clearer American undertaking to use force against Iran should diplomacy and sanctions fail, and a promise to supply Israel with heavier, bunker-buster bombs, thereby deferring Iran’s “zone of immunity” and giving Israel more breathing space.
Either way, Netanyahu seems set to try to exploit the election situation. Israeli critics insist that post-election, that could prove a huge mistake. A reelected Obama could seek to settle the score – by bullying Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue or even cooling the strategic alliance.
US officials and the American military are firmly opposed to an Israeli strike because they believe it is likely to prove counterproductive.
They argue that while it would cause only partial damage to Iran’s nuclear program, it could lead to regional conflagration, draw the US into a new conflict against its will, break the hard-won Iran sanctions coalition, send oil prices soaring and give Iran a pretext to go nuclear.
And for Obama there is the added worry that the detrimental impact on the US economy could prove lethal to his reelection prospects.
The Americans are convinced that only they have the military capacity to mount a really effective strike and that, because of their superior firepower, they have plenty of time until Iran enters a “zone of immunity” against American attack. In their view, there is still a window for diplomacy and sanctions, and precipitate Israeli action could only get in the way. These differences led to a string of highly publicized verbal tiffs between Israeli and American leaders, culminating in a late August warning from Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that America would not be dragged into war by a premature Israeli strike. “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it,” he declared.
Given this explicit American distancing, Netanyahu needs to ask himself fundamental questions before deciding to act alone. First and foremost, how effective is an Israeli strike likely to be? Iranian nuclear sites are spread all over the country, some in deep underground bunkers. On paper at least, it would take more sorties than Israel can launch and, in some cases, heavy bunker-busters it does not have to do a thorough job. It would seem the best Israel can hope for is to delay, not destroy the Iranian program.
Moreover, if an Israeli strike is perceived as a failure, it would be a huge setback for Israel’s overall deterrent posture and for its relations with the international community, especially America, whose express wishes it would have defied.
On the other hand, Netanyahu may believe that if, against the odds, Israel manages to bring off what is seen as a successful operation, its international standing would soar, possibly even creating a readiness for crucial international follow-up action. The precedent of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would have been established. This could encourage other powers to follow suit if Iran attempts to rebuild, and also turn growing numbers of Iranians against the nuclear project for fear of what future strikes might cost them.
Clearly, Netanyahu recognizes that for military reasons and for the sake of international consensus, it would be far better if America were to take the lead against Iran. But he has gnawing doubts. Can he rely on American promises? What if while waiting for American action, Iran moves into the “zone of immunity” from Israeli attack? That would leave Israel totally dependent on an American-led strike which may never come.
Netanyahu also fears that Iran might go nuclear overnight, without Israel or the US knowing ahead of time. Can he afford to wait to find out? Moreover, he is concerned about ongoing diplomacy. If Obama and the international community reach a deal with Iran, will Israel be able to trust it? And could negotiations with Iran lead to some kind of “Dimona for Natanz” equation? (See Anatomy of Negotiations, page 20.) The key question on the viability of an Israeli strike, though, is the likely follow-up. In other words, what happens the day and the decade after. If Israel is roundly censured and Iran allowed to rebuild its nuclear facilities, the longterm effects could be disastrous. Israel could find itself facing a vengeful nuclear Iran and a deteriorating relationship with the US.
Is this something Netanyahu can afford to risk? It is essential for Israel that any strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities be followed up by whatever it takes to stop Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program – diplomacy, sanctions, and even further military attacks if need be. This kind of concerted action is far more likely if the US leads a military operation against Iran than if Israel does.
This is the heart of the Israeli dilemma: Unlike the attacks against stand-alone nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, an Israeli strike will not be able to destroy Iran’s multifaceted nuclear program, only delay it. In the aftermath, Israel will need American support to stop Iran rebuilding. But if it attacks in flagrant disregard of express American wishes, that support is unlikely to be forthcoming. And without it, nothing will have been achieved.
Netanyahu has intimated that if the US were to draw clearer red lines for Iran, he might be persuaded to stay his hand. In a mid-August article in the Washington Post, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin suggested steps Obama could take to convince the Israeli leader – and Iran – that he means business.
He could visit Israel and announce in the Knesset that he is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran, by force if necessary. But since that is unlikely to happen any time soon, he could, in Yadlin’s view, take five more immediate steps: Notify Congress in writing that he reserves the right to use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear; signal bellicose US intentions through a heightened military presence in the Gulf; provide Israel with advanced military technology to enhance its capacity to derail Iran’s nuclear program and extend the “zone of immunity” time frame; state publicly that America will not allow Iran to reconstitute its nuclear program after an Israeli or an American strike; make a public commitment to the security of Israel and other American allies in the Middle East.
One way or the other, the question of USIsraeli coordination over Iran is likely to be resolved in the planned upcoming Obama- Netanyahu summit. Netanyahu hopes that if he projects confidence in the chances of success of an Israeli strike, he may be able to persuade Obama to back it. The more likely scenario though is Obama will convince Netanyahu not to take military action because, if need be, the US will. The Americans have already begun putting detailed operational plans on the table. And one of the main reasons Barak has changed his mind over the need for an Israeli strike is because of what he saw on this score during recent visits to Israel by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld.
Netanyahu needs to find a synthesis between the Ben-Gurion and Begin doctrines. But if he has to choose between preventing Iran from going nuclear and the strategic alliance with the US, he must choose America every time, even if it means living with a nuclear Iran.
The trick is to have both – a non-nuclear Iran and a strong, healthy alliance with the US – by working with America, not against it.