Air force jet
Photo by Reuters
Text size
related tags

At 8:58 P.M. on Tuesday, Israel’s war against Iran in 2012 ended with a whimper, not a bang. The all-clear can be sounded for the time being. The war will not take place this year, or until further notice.

On Sunday morning, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ram Shmueli had taken the trouble to publicize a vigorous call against attacking on Iran. A dozen years ago, Shmueli was the commander of the Ramat David airbase. As head of intelligence at air force headquarters during the fighting in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, he promised in a press briefing to smash the head of Hezbollah with a hoe. His last year as intelligence chief ended the following summer, before the air force attack on the installation in Syria. He does not purport to be knowledgeable about the fine details of whatever it is that people been occupied with at air force headquarters, but he does have intelligent opinions.

“Lately,” Shmueli said this week in a conversation, “increasing numbers of experts have been explaining to us that there is no choice but to attack Iran, which constitutes an existential threat to Israel and maybe to the whole world. Having sat both in the cockpit and in the various intelligence circles, I am convinced that it is inconceivable for the Jewish brain not to be able to come up with a different way − smarter and more efficient − than launching a cycle of direct attacks.”

Clandestine action against a hated regime will contribute to dialogue between the two nations, Shmueli says. In contrast, “If we are arrogant and attack them while the ayatollahs are in power, we will wound their national pride and open an ‘account’ with the Persian people that will remain unsettled and bleeding even after the regime falls.”

Without any coordination between them, Shmueli’s views sound like an echo of the remarks made by a member of the Pahlavi family − a not-so-distant relative of the late, deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi − last week in the United States. Now a security and foreign affairs expert, the man was exiled from Tehran in his childhood when the shah was forced out, in 1979, was educated in Europe and America, and behaves like a Westerner. He speaks Farsi but cannot read or write it. When the name of his uncle Reza − the shah’s son, who still dreams of restoring past glories − comes up in the conversation, the man says jokingly, “Unfortunately, we share a family connection, but not the same bank account.”

Growing serious, the former Iranian agrees with the hypothesis that in the unlikely event of the restoration of the Pahlavis’ “Peacock Throne,” Reza, an enemy of the revolutionary regime, will insist on maintaining the nuclear project, conceived during his father’s rule. A new shah would do away with the program’s military character, but would not annul it: It is a national project being pursued by a regional power that strives constantly for prestige and influence.

The critical difference would lie in the severing of the connection between nuclear capability and the intention to use it. Iran under a pro-Western regime would not be different, in principle, from an Egypt or Turkey that has decided to go nuclear.

‘Room for flexibility’

The argument of the father-and-son-like pair, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, in favor of an attack has rested on the urgency factor. Against this, there has stood a double-barreled American argument. First, President Barack Obama’s desire to return to his house (the white one) safely, is an obvious given. As Obama explained to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom he asked to obtain an extension (on another matter) from his master Vladimir

Putin until after the November elections − after that date, the president expects to have “room for flexibility” (the inverse of Ehud Barak’s “immunity zone”).

Second, there is an intelligence assessment that Iran has not yet decided to cross the nuclear-arms threshold. It’s in this spirit that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (during a visit to the Persian Gulf) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, expressed themselves in the past few weeks. According to Dempsey, the time that the Obama administration is allocating to play out its engagement with Iran (a dialogue is likely to be renewed in about two weeks), and the assessment of the impact of economic sanctions against Tehran, cannot be measured in weeks or months, but in terms of the ability of intelligence to identity an Iranian move to cross the threshold.

Updating of the American National Intelligence Estimate of late 2007 was recently completed. According to what has dribbled out of Washington so far, the situation has not changed substantially. The amount of enriched uranium accumulated by Iran in the past four-and-a-half years, ostensibly for civilian purposes, has been added to the equation, but the conclusion remains the same: The project to develop and manufacture nuclear weapons was suspended in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq nine years ago − whether because that invasion terrified Tehran or because the downfall of Saddam Hussein made Iranians feel they no longer needed a nuclear project of their own.

A war in the gulf, which would spread to include Israel, is liable to erupt as a consequence of American-Iranian friction in the Strait of Hormuz, even though Washington will want to avoid any such development this year. At the end of October, a week before the American elections, a major exercise called “Austere Challenge 12” will be held in Israel and in the Mediterranean, with the participation of 4,000 troops from the European Command and the Sixth Fleet. Obama will be able to cast himself as Israel’s defender against Iranian missiles.

The unifying thread of Obama’s policy (exactly like that of his predecessor, George W. Bush), from Iraq via Afghanistan and Libya and through Iran and Syria is that although unilateral American action in self-defense and for the sake of its vital national interests is permissible, an effective and long-lasting result is best achieved within the framework of an international alliance. This is explicitly what Obama and Panetta are saying to Israel: With all due respect for your declarations of independence, please don’t disturb the international effort to organize.

In the Western democracies an alliance like this rests on governments; in the East, which is fragmented among tribes, communities and districts, it is based on ties with the army and security services. Of all the entanglements, past and present, Obama is granting priority to Afghanistan − he and not Bush is responsible for events there in the past three years, including the blunders by the military that made it possible for civilian massacres to occur − and to Syria. While waiting for regional allies (Turkey and the Arab League) who are essential for an operation against the Assad regime, the U.S. Army is collecting intelligence and preparing the infrastructure for operational plans. Dempsey boasted about the Pentagon’s good relations with “all the armies” around Syria − meaning the Turkish, Iraqi, Lebanese, Jordanian forces and also the Israel Defense Forces.

What price concessions

No Israeli prime minister, including Netanyahu, has dared defy an American president in a crisis over the long haul. In that context, it’s fascinating to read the transcripts of the conversations held by Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli ambassadors to Washington, particularly Simcha Dinitz, with “Naftali,” the code name given to Henry Kissinger. In the Yom Kippur War, in the political developments afterward and in the period of the American “reassessment,” the real question was when Israel would give in under pressure and what price it would exact for its concessions.

Exactly 25 years ago, during the period of the Reagan administration’s confrontation with Iran, but while the Iran-Iraq war continued to rage, 37 men aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Stark were killed in an accidental attack by an Iraqi warplane. By contrast, according to a recent war simulation conducted by U.S. Central Command, the Iranians are liable to kill 200 Americans with a single missile in response to an Israeli attack. Accordingly, even if Ehud Barak scorns the gravity of scenarios that would see “only” 500 Israelis killed (though to market the scale of the disaster, he likes to claim that one Israeli killed is equivalent to 35 Americans) − the meaning of that American scenario is that the blood of the 200 dead Americans would be on Israel’s head.

The moment the whole dispute is framed in these terms, Israel has no practical option to attack in contravention of American pleas and warnings.

On Tuesday evening of this week, at 8:20, Pentagon spokesman George Little stated, “Supporting the security of the State of Israel is a top priority of President Obama and Secretary Panetta ... During the rocket attacks earlier this month, the Iron Dome system played a critical role in Israel’s security. When nearly 300 rockets and mortars were fired at southern Israel, Iron Dome intercepted over 80 percent of the targets it engaged, saving many civilian lives. The Department of Defense has been in conversations with the government of Israel about U.S. support for the acquisition of additional Iron Dome systems, and intends to request an appropriate level of funding from Congress to support such acquisitions based on Israeli requirements and production capacity.”

Thirty-eight minutes afterward, Defense Minister Barak responded by publicly thanking Panetta and himself (“The decision is the result of contacts between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon”).

When Barak thanks the Obama administration “for helping to strengthen Israel’s security,” he is abandoning the pretension to act against Iran without permission before November. For all intents and purposes, this is an announcement of the war’s postponement until at least the spring of 2013.

Since Netanyahu will only agree to deferring realization of his dream, rather than shelving it for all time, the linchpin of his platform in the Knesset elections − this autumn or next spring − will be that he and only he can save Israel from Iran.

For his part, Obama, if he’s reelected, will demand that Israel contribute its share to the denuclearization of the Middle East, and he will simultaneously renew his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.