How the US made Israel responsible for Iran; and then abandoned her

How did Israel inherit responsibility for dealing with the Iranian nuclear weapons program from the United States? That it is an Israeli problem seems conventional wisdom in almost any article in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Atlantic and world media (including Israeli). Whatever happened to America’s responsibilities under its agreements with the Saudis and the other oil producers, its military shield? What of the fact that Iran’s nuclear ambitions grew to its present dangerous level due to a decade and a half of two successive administrations avoiding the issue?

Current rationalization by administration apologists maintains that the US does not engage in preemptive actions (forgetting, apparently the Bush Doctrine asserting precisely that policy); that unless and until that Iranian bomb is operational, or a hair-breadth away, something not anticipated by Defense Secretary Panetta for,

roughly about [sic] a year right now… We know generally [sic-sic] what they’re up to.”

And just in case Iran doesn’t already believe the US wont attack,

Washington used covert back-channels in Europe to clarify that theUS does not intend to back Israel [should she attack]!”

There are, of course, defensible and credible excuses for avoiding another Gulf war. The oil price spiral attending Bush’s invasion of Iraq served as tripwire for the most serious global recession since the 1930’s; another such war could well repeat the crisis, or worse. Bush would also have been concerned that making demands on Iran might well result in bad press at home as US combat casualties against Iranian-backed insurgents rose. Which may also partly explain how Bush arrived at his “sanctions” policy for dealing with Ahmadinejad: sanctions signal reduced threat to the ayatollahs while providing the Saudis the appearance of doing something.

As for the new president, Obama was elected as the anti-Bush; he would certainly not be expected to be more aggressive than his predecessor!

For policy makers so inclined, disregarding Iran’s decades-long ambition to go nuclear should have set off alarm bells in Washington, should have warned that un-challenged the end result would be either war to eliminate the threat, or a nuclear arms race by America’s abandoned “allies,” the Saudis, Egypt and Turkey. It should have been obvious that the longer the US ignored the problem the more severe the consequences in both global economic and military threat. This would have been obvious if, that is, the US considered confronting Iran as in America’s “national interest.”

Is the US contractually obligated to defend the Saudis, et al, or is it just expected based on a smile and a handshake?

Following the Second Word War the United States replaced the retreating colonial powers Britain and France as regional hegemon. An important responsibility was to protect the West’s Middle East oil interests and the Suez Canal. Acknowledging this role the US entered into a mutually binding defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. The idea of “mutuality” being a fig leaf since in 1951 the House of Saud had little ability to defend even itself. As to US motives:

The United States developed a vested interest in Saudi Arabian security as a key provider of crucial energy supplies. To solidify America’s friendship with Saudi Arabia and its resolve to defend an ally from potential threats, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia exchanged notes constituting an agreement relating to mutual defense assistance in 1951.” (The Enduring United States-Saudi Arabia Security Agreement)

But for the new international superpower, realpolitik and ideology clashed almost from the start. Seeing itself through the prism of its own colonial victory over British imperialism America’s new role as neo-colonialist created an identity crisis. So when Egypt’s Free Officers undertook to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy, and to later challenge British control of the Suez Canal, the US sided against the “imperialists” and with the “revolutionaries.” In fact the US not only quickly recognized the successful coup d’état but even helped bring it about: it was the CIA that destabilized the Farouk government paving the way for the coup. As it turned out the “Officers” would later spurn the US in favor of its Cold War adversary the USSR causing the US idealists several decades of heartburn.

In 1979 it appears that it was an executive decision by President Carter without this time the use of the CIA to depose America’s ally of 26 years (shades of Obama and Mubarak), the Shah of Iran. As for the “people” on whose behalf Carter intervened to bring “freedom and democracy,” most were arrested, tortured and murdered; of those lucky enough to flee before the ayatollahs consolidated power, some survived while others were later assassinated. In the end,

the toll taken among those who had participated in the revolution was far greater than that of royalists. This revolution — like others — had devoured its own children.” 

And today that inheritor regime which American idealism helped install is perhaps months away from possessing a nuclear weapon, a clear and present danger to all its neighbors: the result of ideology trumping common sense.

So how did Israel become pawn to America’s policy of avoidance, illusion and delusion, and what are the consequences to Israel for walking into the trap? To answer this requires a bit more history.

During the Bush Administration the Defense Department and the military were both firmly against “allowing” Israel to attack Iran (Israel was already elected to the job!). Clearly ambivalent even regarding their own designated role for Israel the administration vacillated between support and opposition for the attack. Bush would one day publicly encourage, the next Gates vehemently oppose. One day Israel would be given a green light, the next red, the following yellow. Never during the Bush years or since has the US owned responsibility for the crisis, or for its treaty obligations to defend its regional allies and dependencies.

Assuming Israel carries out its assigned role, what likely consequences will she face?

If Israel has hesitated until now to attack it is likely because of anticipated international fallout. The EU has been teetering on collapse due, in part, to recession triggered by oil price inflation brought on by Bush’s 2002 “Iraqi Freedom.” Another spike in the price of oil will likely have consequences there, costing Israel an important market and possible diplomatic isolation. The US, involved in its own recession, distracted by its perceived China challenge, has gradually shifted priority of attention from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Possibly feeding this gradual exit from the Middle East is a new-found abundance of shale oil in the US and around the world reducing the strategic importance of the Middle East.

When Obama backed Turkey during the Mavi Marmara incident, that represented a clear message that Israel was no longer considered America’s principal regional ally. When Obama sent that back-channel message to Iran reassuring that Israel is on her own should she attack, that went a long step farther. There will likely be serious global consequences resulting from an Israeli attack, and if “innocent” American military lives are also lost, rather than “protecting” Israel in the UN, buffering international condemnation and retribution, Israel may find the US a member of that chorus.

Over the years Israel has defied the United States when it felt necessary: the 1967 Six Day War; the attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981; on the Syrian reactor in 2007; all against public American warnings and threats. But these “defiant” acts of self-defense took place at a time when the US was deeply engaged in the region, far more dependent on an Israeli forward military position and supply depot. Today, if not yet clear, Israel is no longer considered indispensable to American national interests.

Lest my concerns be taken as opposition to the need for an ultimate military solution to the Iranian bomb i have long appreciated the need. A regional nuclear arms race is, and should be, far more frightening than any consequences resulting from that country becoming a nuclear power. I wrote about Bush bluster, and retreat; of Obama “red lines” and retreat. Iran is America’s responsibility. Responsible also for allowing the threat to fester, its costs to the world allowed to increase. America can far more easily sustain the international consequences of using force to eliminate a clear and future danger to the region, to the world through nuclear terrorism, nuclear-armed terror states; to itself. Allowing, forcing Israel to act in place of the superpower is an act of abject cowardice. An act that may possibly result in mortal danger to Israel.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.