Barak will have to pass an attack on Iran through a reluctant U.S.
Any talk of military action against Tehran is taking place in the shadow of this November's U.S. elections. But if Israel does strike, ordinary civilians will be leading the aerial attack.
Ladies and gentlemen, let us introduce the Israelis who will fly off and bomb Iran, on an errand assigned to them by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
Should this mission get a green light, the bomb squad could consist of a lawyer, the director of a business and a pilot from a commercial airline - these are some of the day jobs of our combat pilots and navigators. They are people we meet every day on the street, in stores, at a university; they are persons of high civilian status, and lower status; their helmets hide curls or hair or bald heads; they are reservist officers aged 25 to 52, more or less.
Flying combat squads have permanent members (a commander, two deputies and additional pilots ), but they are supplemented by navigators and others who hold positions in the air force on training bases (or are on study leave ), and also by some reservists. All keep in shape and train so they are in a position to do their duty, be it in Iran or elsewhere. Should they be called on for the Iran operation, they will mobilize without hesitation, whether or not they believe the order came down from political echelons after careful consideration of all operations and not just as a political gimmick.
Though members of such a bomb squad would be privy to secret details of the region to which they would have to fly, they would not have access to "macro" details superior to that of any other citizen in the country. Like everyone else in this country, these bomb squad members would want answers about the rationale for the raid. And like everyone else, they hear senior cabinet ministers issue public warnings to Iran. But unlike other citizens, they know that these warnings could turn into military orders that endanger their lives.
Meantime, whenever the idea of an Iran raid comes up, officials in Washington keep telling Netanyahu and Barak "No." In the past, this "no" was mentioned in faint, diplomatic tones; recently it has become blunt and loud. National security adviser Tom Donilon and national intelligence director James Clapper, who both recently visited Israel, have started to speak quite explicitly about Iran.
Clapper sounded like former Mossad head Meir Dagan and head of the IDF intelligence branch Aviv Kochavi, when he estimated recently that Iran's leadership, starting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has yet to reach a decision about the country's nuclear program. Should a decision be reached, Clapper noted, its implantation would not be completed for at least a year.
Interviewed a month ago by U.S. talk show host Charlie Rose, Donilon chose not to comment specifically about Ehud Barak's orientation ("We are close to Barak and to the Israeli government," he said ), and made clear that Obama wants to give diplomatic routes and sanctions a chance to work.
International pressure on Iran is reaching a new stage. Pressure will now focus on oil and money; in the background, there remains the possibility of utilizing "all assets" - meaning a military option. Advisers like Donilon are indicating that Washington's preference is to let Tehran consider possible policy scenarios that might be deployed by the United States, and to allow the Iranians to choose a prudent course.
At the end of January, Donilon added that the United States is determined not to allow Iran to undermine stability in the Persian Gulf and in the Arab world. America will not allow Iran to act aggressively and ruthlessly exploit the Arab Spring, "which is proposing ideological alternatives to Iran's Islamic Revolution," suggested Donilon.
There are alternatives to Iranian oil: Saudi Arabia and Iraq have increased their oil production. Should the Iranian government respond to an invitation issued by the European Union's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, and set a date for negotiation, he Americans will "meet with them" as well for a dialogue which will raise the nuclear issue, according to Obama's advisers and spokesmen.
Khamenei will decide
Before he decides that there is no option other than waging a strike against Iran, Obama will test every possible discussion option, and appeal directly to Khamenei - in an overture that will capture attention around the world. Obama is many months away from reaching this stage - he will not want to embroil the Americans in a war before the November elections.
Were he to agree to an Israeli attack, Obama would lose control of events in the Persian Gulf. Khamenei would be the one to decide whether to regard an IDF operation against his country's reactors as a joint Israeli-American venture, coordinated (in the ayatollah's view ) by a series of visits undertaken by Israeli ministers and army officers in America, and vice versa; Khamenei would decide whether or not to launch attacks on American targets. Should Iran choose to expand the war and view Israel as a "little Satan," rather than the embodiment of evil, the result would be that Jerusalem would drag America into a regional war. Each American casualty, and all U.S. dollars invested in the war, would be wrapped around Israel's neck.
Many this week cited an Israeli attack scenario published by The New York Times on February 19. This report, however, did not contain any original information. Its facts could be gleaned in an extremely penetrating and expansive report produced by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which circulated three years ago. The main significance of the Times publication was the timing of the public signals dispatched by Israel's anonymous spokesmen to Obama: the prize can be won, but it won't be easy. Not that it will be hard for Israel - the difficulties will be borne by others.
As it turned out, the important item published by The New York Times preceded the description of a military raid. This item stated that the Republicans, who are struggling to find a candidate with a fighting chance against Obama, have, at long last, found a stick with which to poke the President: rising gas prices.
On the streets of Tel Aviv or Haifa, consumers will wonder what the fuss is about: fuel prices in California or New York are about half of those in Israel. Yet in recent months, gas prices have risen about 30 cents a gallon; all told, the prices have roughly doubled since Obama was sworn into the White House in January 2009.
Republicans who support an American or Israeli operation against Iran, which would probably result in inflated gas prices, are the same politicians who currently berate the President for rises in fuel costs. Obama needs to protect himself against such attacks and try to stave off future hikes in gas prices, lest he lose voters to his rival in the upcoming Presidential race.
A new lobbying effort organized to close ranks with Israel's position, "United Against a Nuclear Iran," is being careful not to specifically advocate the attack option. The organization cites intelligence assessments holding that Iran will not have a nuclear military arsenal before 2015. The organization states that "it has no official relations with a foreign state."
Question of time
Edward Luttwak, a veteran observer of the Pentagon and the White House, wrote this week in the Wall Street Journal that under the previous U.S. administration, the Americans really only had one military option regarding Iran - an "air war" rather than "air strike." The U.S. army refused to narrow an operation to strikes on specific nuclear targets; it insisted upon expanding the air campaign to include strikes against a number of other targets. That is a good way to kill a military plan: Agree to a military option, but only on condition that it turns into a full-scale war, something that a President cannot endorse.
In his fourth year in office, Obama is surrounded by military advisers who show a distinct lack of enthusiasm for any proposal to attack anything other than weak targets. As Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, this is not the time to battle against the strong - his reference was applied to Syria's President Bashar Assad and his army.
Members of the U.S. army's ground forces, who would become embroiled in a land war should air strikes not meet the objectives of an operation against the "strong" in Iran or elsewhere, are currently preoccupied by salary and family health insurance matters - after returning to the United States from prolonged stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not thrilled about the idea of another long absence from home. Polling conducted among U.S. servicemen indicates that the two Presidential contenders they most favor are Obama, who fulfilled his promise to pull the troops out of Iraq, and the isolationist Republican, Ron Paul.
In one week, the prospect of an IDF operation in Iran was denounced by Japan's prime minister, Britain's foreign minister and Germany's defense minister. World powers are putting up a united front on the Iran issue. They are not pro Iran, but they are against Israel. Iran's leadership can sense that Israel's bellicosity is premature. The IDF's leadership points to the fragility of the region's political situation, and how it could be further undermined by the fallout of an Israel-Iran confrontation. The collapse of the regime in Jordan, or masses of demonstrators marching toward the borders on the Gaza Strip or in Lebanon - these are a few examples of potential fallout.
IDF chief Benny Gantz, and top officials in the defense ministry, need to take such possibilities into account. It's hard to imagine that a broad look at regional scenarios and possible repercussions of attack moves would yield a recommendation for an attack on Iran. When Obama thinks about the war-promoters in Israel's current political constellation, he has in mind Netanyahu, who will persist about the problem posed by Iran's nuclear program but is flexible about the timing of any military response to it, and Ehud Barak.
Should members of Israel's bomb squad presently be wondering whether they will be called upon to attack Iran's nuclear reactors, the answer to their ruminations is to be found in President Obama's unwillingness to serve as a subcontractor to Barak and Netanyahu. The point in contention right now between Jerusalem and Washington has to do with timing.
Netanyahu will arrive at the White House on March 5, and in all likelihood Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials from the two countries will fly back and forth in the upcoming weeks to discuss issues of timing and deferral. At any rate, the U.S. elections will allow the moderates to postpone any action until after November.