Bottom Line of Congress Speech: Iran Strike Off the Table

Today, with the great powers seemingly determined to reach an agreement with Tehran, the chances of an attack being carried out after an accord is signed are smaller than ever.

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Iranians attend a rally commemorating the 36th anniversary of Islamic Revolution under Azadi Tower, Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015.
Iranians attend a rally commemorating the 36th anniversary of Islamic Revolution under Azadi Tower, Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Credit: AP

What can an Iranian intelligence officer learn from the declarations made this week by Israelis about Tehran’s nuclear project? The most disturbing question for the Iranians remains unchanged: How much of a risk is there that Israel will actually decide to attack their nuclear facilities?

The Iranian officer could glean information not only from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-quoted speech to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, but also from remarks made by two former ranking members of Israel’s defense establishment: the Mossad’s Meir Dagan and Benny Gantz, who just stepped down as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. The bottom line with respect to the statements made by all three figures is that at this time Israel is not seriously contemplating the military option against Iran, but is, rather, deep into the process of letting off steam.

It’s not that Netanyahu lacked opportunities to order an attack on the Iranian nuclear sites (Dagan recalled agonizing over the decision in 2012; Gantz referred implicitly to a dispute over that issue two years later). But Netanyahu didn’t do it, and that’s when there was still a modicum of understanding in the international community regarding Israel’s right to attack. Today, with the great powers seemingly determined to reach an agreement with Tehran, the chances of an attack being carried out after an accord is signed – certainly as long as Iran is not caught violating such an agreement in a major way – are smaller than ever.

Netanyahu showed a degree of restraint in his speech to Congress with regard to two aspects of the issue. He heeded the administration’s warnings not to reveal details of the agreement taking shape in Geneva (and suggested to his listeners that they do a Google search for the facts), and he did not repeat the tough, unreasonable demands that he put forward in the past: that the Iranians return to square one of the project.

The prime minister was also careful this time not to beat the war drums, nor to present the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities as a substitute for the agreement now being discussed between it and the six powers. The alternative to a bad agreement, he argued, is to impose a far better agreement on the Iranians. Some of the arguments he put forward, as a Washington Post editorial also noted (in contrast to the sharp – and expected – criticism in the New York Times), were definitely weighty.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has set a relatively limited goal – to prevent Iran from going nuclear “on his watch” – Netanyahu continues to insist that Iran’s ability to manufacture a bomb altogether be severely curtailed. He believes the administration’s new order of priorities in the region, which views the Islamic State, or ISIS, as the chief danger, is mistaken, and that Obama is deluding himself if he thinks that the West will have a full year to scuttle the manufacture of a nuclear bomb if Iran decides to violate the agreement. Moreover, Obama will have to work hard to come up with persuasive answers to Netanyahu’s objections, most of which are shared by Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.

In retrospect, Netanyahu achieved quite a bit in his battle against the Iranian nuclear project. The emphasis he placed on presenting a serious Israeli military option vis-a-vis the project, immediately after his return to power in 2009, did not necessarily persuade the Iranians, but it did upset the Americans. Without the threat of an Israeli attack in place, it’s doubtful that Obama would have set in motion the regime of international sanctions, which hobbled the Iranian economy, brought about the election as Iran’s president of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani and brought Tehran back to the negotiating table.

The final result that is emerging from these tremendous efforts is that Iran’s status as a nuclear-threshold state – that is, a year away from being able to manufacture a bomb (if Obama is right in his assessment) – will be regularized for a period of more than a decade under the agreement. That may be a far cry from what Netanyahu envisioned when he launched his struggle, but it’s not the end of the world. If Obama’s successors in the White House abide by the commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the coming decade could well go by without any real change in the situation.

That looks like a better result than what could have been achieved by an Israeli attack on Iran, undertaken without an American green light. In the summer of 2012, at the height of the dispute in Israel over the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Haaretz reported on the defense establishment’s evaluation that such a move would delay Iran’s manufacture of a bomb by not more than a year or two – and that was without taking into account other ramifications of an attack, such as the possibility of an Iranian counter-attack on Israel, or the risk that Washington would not support Israeli efforts to prevent Iran’s rehabilitation of its nuclear sites following an uncoordinated attack.

A delay in lift-off

Netanyahu thus did not act in the military arena when he still had a practical opportunity to do so. Dagan, who retired as Mossad head in January 2011, about half a year after initial reports that Israel was considering an attack on Iran, referred to that period last week in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. According to Dagan, the prime minister “wanted to go all the way,” but “all the professional bodies involved were against. Netanyahu would have had to take full responsibility for the decision He did not decide on an operation, for which he did not want to bear responsibility. In my whole life, I never saw him take responsibility for anything.”

Gantz, who, even out of uniform speaks as though he’s still wearing one, told Channel 2 this week that the attack plan never reached the stage of an operational order, or “lift off and fly,” in his words.

Dagan’s interviewers at Ahronoth, veteran journalists Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, added a new explanation for the decision to forgo an attack in the summer of 2012, the last date when such a decision was still practical and still being agonized over. Netanyahu, they wrote, was counting on a victory in November 2012 by the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, but Obama was reelected, and, after Rouhani was elected Iranian president in June 2013, he embarked on the negotiating track.

Today, too, even if the heads of Israel’s security branches share most of Netanyahu’s objections to the looming agreement, this is apparently not enough to prompt them to recommend a military attack now. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, too, is more moderate than his predecessor, Ehud Barak, on this issue.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, former director of IDF Military Intelligence, took part in the initial discussions about Israel’s options at the start of Netanyahu’s second term. Unlike his colleagues, he is not talking about this even now, as Zionist Union’s candidate for defense minister.

In Washington this week to address the AIPAC conference, Yadlin told Haaretz that Netanyahu turned his speech in Congress into political PR, thus creating a rift between the Democrats and the Republicans over support for the Israeli stance. Instead, he said, the premier should have focused on a diplomatic process: “To leave Israel in a position of relevance in terms of the discussion on the agreement, Netanyahu should have talked about the parameters for a good agreement, one that would ensure that the Iranians remain at least a year away from acquiring a bomb.

“At the same time,” he continued, “he should have worked out understandings with the administration, a kind of parallel agreement between Israel and the United States, which would stipulate the action to be taken should Iran violate its commitments in the accord with the powers.”

However, any such move became impossible in the wake of the souring of relations with the administration. “Grumbling is not a work plan. You can’t just say ‘no’ all the time,” Yadlin said.

Even though Netanyahu’s visit to Washington dominated the political agenda in Israel in the early part of the week, three days later, it’s hard to deny the feeling of an anticlimax. There are undoubtedly cabinet ministers, newspaper columnists and fans who are still riding high on the exultation they got from the prime minister’s articulate speech on Capitol Hill, but it’s hard to know how much of all that actually got through to the average voter, who is preoccupied with problems of housing, health and livelihood.

If Netanyahu’s goal was, as he declares, to block a bad agreement with Iran, it’s possible that the speech actually worked against this, because some of the Democratic senators who oppose Obama’s moves actually scrambled to defend the affronted president. And without a two-thirds majority of senators, the opponents of the agreement cannot outflank Obama via the Senate.

The scale of the damage that the speech inflicted on Israel-U.S. relations will only become clear with time. Certainly, the confrontation was caused in part by the administration’s choice to make it clear that it was affronted by Netanyahu’s move. The president and his advisers made hay with the provocation concocted by Netanyahu and the Republicans, and exploited it to rally Democratic senators who have otherwise been critical of the administration’s policy on Iran. But the prime minister’s behavior over the years has clearly contributed to the aggravation of the hostility toward Israel in the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party – hostility that already exists because of the deadlock in the Palestinian channel and Israel’s ongoing occupation.

Indeed, it is the Palestinian issue, not the Iranian one, that Obama might choose to focus on in settling accounts with Netanyahu after the March 17 election, should Netanyahu form the next government. Indeed, the administration’s frustration following the failure of the recent peace initiative of Secretary of State John Kerry, combined with the personal anger at Netanyahu, could lead to a series of moves, such as a refusal to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council – which would kick off the term of the next government on the left foot, as the Hebrew expression goes.

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