There is a significant chance that we may soon be at the point of no return over Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu and his more hawkish ministers seem convinced that the mixture of diplomacy and sanctions favoured by Washington has done nothing to curb the Iranian nuclear programme. No one can discount the possibility of an Israeli military strike within weeks or months, though it is always possible that Israeli spokesmen are engaged in a game of bluff, designed to galvanise the reluctant Americans who are desperate for more stability in the Gulf.
Only last week there was an intense row on this subject between Netanyahu and the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. The Prime Minister accused Obama of failing to draw a red line in dealing with the Iranian threat, thus failing to indicate when action might be taken against the Islamic Republic. Those who refused to do this, he argued, had no right to place red lines on Israeli action.
On this issue, Netanyahu has surely got it spot on. President Obama’s ‘wait and hope’ strategy has proved ineffective in dealing with the Iranian regime. Over the last 4 years, he has initiated an extraordinary programme of outreach to Iran, including nuclear talks with the Republic and a refusal to back military force in unambiguous terms. His goodwill led him to effectively spurn the Green movement during the bloody crackdown in 2009.
But today, Iran is a defiant power with little sign of being cowed. The country’s lesdership continue to make belligerent pronouncements threatening Israel and America with destruction. The most recent IAEA report indicates that the country has significantly increased its stockpile of enriched uranium while other reports suggest that there is an ongoing attempt to hide evidence of her illicit activities, including at the Parchin site. Thus while ordinary Iranian civilians are suffering, the regime’s nuclear aspirations remain intact.
Nonetheless, some prominent Israeli figures have spoken out against the wisdom of their country attacking Iran. Last year, former Mossad boss, Meir Dagan, decried such action as foolish and illegal and his scepticism was shared by former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and ex Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. They are joined in their view by President Shimon Peres, a man for whom good relations with the US are a sine qua non. Implicit in their argument is that Israel should reach an understanding with the US on any timetable for action.
Of course, American led action in principle is more desirable than a unilateral Israeli strike, given that the US has much greater firepower at its disposal. It also has the luxury of the Diego Garcia base and a number of aircraft carriers.
But there are clear problems with outsourcing Israel’s security to the United States. For one thing, Israel would have to accept America’s red lines for military action and these may differ significantly from her own. Already these red lines have shifted from demanding a halt to any uranium enrichment to allowing Iran some uranium enriched below 20%. Iran will have interpreted such shifting positions as evidence that the West is not serious about concerted military action.
From Jerusalem’s perspective, nothing short of the complete abandonment of Iran’s nuclear programme, under close international inspection, is needed. After all, they are forced to hear Iran’s genocidal rhetoric on a daily basis. Yet how you perceive a threat depends on your proximity to it. Living 8,000 miles away from the Islamic Republic, rather than 1,000, makes political compromise seem more attractive.
Israel cannot assume that a Romney presidency would be drastically different. Certainly Romney has spoken of “a moral imperative” to deny Iran’s leaders the bomb while also criticising the inadequate policies of the Obama administration. But only last week he stated that “We should continue to pursue diplomatic channels” as well as maintain the policy of “crippling sanctions”. He added: “That does not mean we should take off the table our military options”. In other words, his policy position and Obama’s are not that dissimilar. Their language would appear to be relatively interchangeable.
In any case, what Presidential candidates say before an election can be very different from what they say in the White House. One ought to remember that, prior to winning the Presidential race in November 2008, Obama made a number of statements that were highly supportive of Israel’s operations in Gaza. Once in power, he began to identify Israeli settlements, rather than Palestinian terror, as the primary impediment to peace. This was a form of egregious appeasement that has had a baleful impact on US-Israeli relations ever since.
Moreover, America’s record in preventing nuclear proliferation among rogue states is far from perfect. The most notable example was the inability of the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear facilities, despite the ‘agreed framework’ of 1994. It is entirely reasonable to assume that this reflected a failure of intelligence gathering at the highest levels.
If American intelligence were faulty with regard to Iran, it is conceivable that Washington’s red lines could be crossed with impunity. Israel would then be faced with the prospect of containing a nuclear Iran, a disastrous outcome. This would shatter Israel’s deterrent capability in the eyes of the world, most particularly in Tehran.
Quite simply, Israel cannot rely on any American administration when it comes to dealing with an existential threat of this magnitude. But if she is forced into a pre-emptive strike, either this year or next, it will only be because the US and her allies have appeased Tehran for too long.