Partners against Iran

Mullen's visit underlined Washington’s intensifying effort to keep closely coordinated with Israel.

mullen ben gurion airport 311 (photo credit: David Azagury / US Embassy)
mullen ben gurion airport 311
(photo credit: David Azagury / US Embassy)
The visit to Israel this week by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, underlined the growing urgency of the Iranian nuclear challenge, and the Obama administration’s intensifying effort to keep closely coordinated with Israel while grappling with that threat.
Mullen’s visit coincided with the announcement that Vice President Joe Biden will also come to Israel in the near future, again for high-level talks largely focused on the Iranian issue. The visit also came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Qatar and Saudi Arabia in order to shore up support for American diplomatic and military efforts in the region, ahead of visits by three of her top deputies and a reported upcoming trip by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.
The rhetoric from Washington is firm: Clinton declared to Iran that the US would “not stand idly by while you pursue a nuclear program that can be used to threaten your neighbors and even beyond.” Mullen was more curt still: Iran “cannot have a nuclear weapon, [or] nuclear capability,” he said here.
At the same time, however, there is profound concern in Israel that the fine words, even backed up by a new seriousness in seeking more effective economic sanctions, will prove insufficient to deter the ayatollahs.
Clearly, the flurry of visits by high-level US officials marks a heightened era of dialogue between Washington and Jerusalem, as the US steps up its campaign to resolve the Iranian crisis without a resort to force.
Mullen warned Israel tellingly of the “unintended consequences” of a military strike. Biden, the former head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, will doubtless also stress the administration’s conviction that there are still effective ways, and sufficient time, to force the Islamic Republic’s hand before we arrive at the stark choice: a nuclear Iran, or military intervention to prevent it.
FOR NOW, President Barack Obama has yet to add Israel to his travel plans. And eight months after his landmark visit to Cairo, and his outreach address to the Muslim world, his absence is keenly felt here. Obama the candidate received the usual rock-star treatment when he visited – and took time to tour Sderot – in 2008. Obama the president is a more suspect commodity – a friend of Israel and guardian of the strategic partnership, to be sure, but also a leader who has been publicly at odds with ours over the dimensions of a building freeze beyond the ’67 lines and over his assessment that progress on the Palestinian front can produce leverage on Iran rather than the other way round.
A presidential visit in the near future would certainly prove reassuring to many Israelis, and would disarm those critics who assert that our well-being is not a sufficiently high priority for his White House.
But whether their face-to-face meetings take place here or in Washington, there can be no doubting that further direct consultations between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be vital in the coming months – as the US president strives to force Iran to change course, and the possibility of this effort failing raises ever-greater concerns in Israel.
Israel has been publicly supportive of the American effort at engagement with Iran, even as it has privately complained about the lack of firm parameters guiding that engagement, the fudging of deadlines, the apparent capacity for Iran to exploit a well-meaning president’s desire for a diplomatic solution in order to buy time and close in on the nuclear weapons goal.
Ultimately, Israel must and will take the decisions it feels necessaryto safeguard its basic security interests. Ultimately, Israel willgauge the risks, assess the consequences, and act accordingly.
Today,in mid-February 2010, the US and Israel remain shoulder-to-shoulder inseeking biting sanctions against Teheran, to obviate the recourse tothe use of force. It is encouraging to see the succession of candid,straight-talking, high-level visits bolstering that coordination. It isa partnership that needs to be maintained at the very highest level aswell.