The quotes were accurate but the interpretations were wrong. U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney did indeed say, last Thursday, that Israel "might well decide to act first" to eliminate an Iranian nuclear threat. However, the headlines that claimed Cheney was apprehensive about such a development misunderstood the point he was making. Cheney is not worried about the Israeli context, nor is he warning Israel not to act without coordination with Washington. He is using the possibility of an Israeli operation against Iran to threaten Tehran, while shaking off American responsibility for that kind of escalation. His comment was not a warning to Israel but a means of deterrence against Iran.
In an interview with MSNBC, Cheney placed Iran at "the top of the list" of the world's "potential trouble spots." He reiterated the Bush administration's desire to avoid war and to use diplomacy to resolve the controversy over Iran's nuclear program - give and take with the European powers, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council and sanctions to force Iran to honor its commitments. This is an essential path for the Americans, who this time - more than in the case of Iraq two years ago - will need to enter a multilateral, international framework. In the meantime, the Iranians are using the time to examine how bothered they are by their temporary agreement to freeze the uranium enrichment process. Their representatives in the negotiations with Germany, France and Britain are not hiding their intention to reassess the agreement and disavow it, should it emerge that the damage to their nuclear program outweighs the diplomatic advantage of gaining time.
In contrast to the Iranian use of Europe, Bush's independent ally, Cheney cites Israel as an ally even less amenable to American control. One of the concerns, he noted in the interview, is that Israel is liable to act against Iran "without being asked. ... If in fact the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward."
As secretary of defense in 1991, in the administration of the current president's father, Cheney made use of a similar threat against Iraq, also in a television interview, which the enemy could receive and understand without mediation. Two weeks before the first American war against Saddam Hussein, Cheney told CNN that Iraqi use of chemical warheads against Israel was liable to result in an Israeli nuclear response. That was a rare comment in two regards. Senior U.S. officials publicly tend to ignore the Arab allegations that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. Cheney mentioned such weapons as though their existence were not in question, in a realistic tone, not one of denial, as a fact the foe (common to both the Americans and the Israelis) must take into account.
In contrast to the situation 14 years ago, Cheney this time refrained from talking about Israeli nuclear capability. Had he done otherwise, he would have implicitly raised the question of why Iran is forbidden to do what Israel is allowed to do (and perhaps reply that the difference is that Israel is not plotting to destroy Iran).
A nuclear Iran is in fact a common danger to Jerusalem and Washington, though each side in the partnership finds it convenient to cast the responsibility on the other. Israel wants to stop being an Iranian target and foist the burden of dealing with the issue on the international community, headed by President Bush. It is important for the Americans not to give the impression that they are eager to precede diplomatic discussions with a military strike, but also to remind the Iranians that their bluff in the nuclear poker game is liable to fall apart in the face of a card not part of the European deck - the Israeli joker.
In 1991 the U.S. administration, including Cheney's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, secretly extracted from Israel a commitment not to take independent action against Iraq. In 2005 the coordination between the two countries and the two armies is even greater. If Israel does take action, Bush and his vice president will be the last to be surprised.
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