Netanyahu’s dangerous game


Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is playing a dangerous game by interfering in the US presidential election campaign on the side of Mitt Romney.


Israel has always sought, and received, support from across the political spectrum in US politics.  To that end, the Israeli lobby in the US has heaped dollars on both Democrat and Republican candidates for office, and has been rewarded by near unanimous bipartisan support in the US Congress.


This in turn has ensured that Israel has enjoyed unparalleled political support from the US in world affairs for the past half century.  It has also ensured that Israel receives more US aid than any other state in the world (over $3 billion a year), even though its GDP per capita is on a par with that of the EU, and that it gets access to modern US military hardware almost as soon as the US military.  Unlike almost every other government programme, US aid to Israel has been exempt from cuts by the Obama administration.


All this has been achieved despite the fact that its close alliance with Israel doesn’t obviously serve US interests, especially while Israel continues its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territories.  The existence of the alliance disrupts US relations with the Muslim world with its 1.5 billion people and vast resources.  If Israel didn’t exist, the US relations with the Muslim world would improve dramatically.


Bipartisan support in the US has brought about a state of affairs that is extraordinarily beneficial to Israel.  It is not wise of an Israeli Prime Minister to endanger that support by interfering in a US presidential election campaign on the Republican side.


Red lines

Netanyahu has been threatening to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear sites unless Obama hardens up US policy on Iran’s nuclear activities, by publicly setting “red lines” and committing to taking military action if Iran is deemed to have crossed those “red lines”. 


This demand chimes perfectly with Romney’s narrative that Obama has been “weak” on foreign policy and especially “weak” on Iran.  Famously, he and his Republican supporters have regularly accused Obama of “throwing Israel under a bus”.


While it is difficult to believe that Netanyahu’s intervention will make much difference to the final result, it has definitely been useful to Romney in backing his general message that the Obama presidency has been a failure in both domestic and foreign affairs.  The Romney campaign has been using video of Netanyahu making these demands in TV ads.


AIPAC worries?

There are signs that the Israeli lobby in the US is worried that Netanyahu’s interference on the Republican side may undermine its good work in maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.  On 18 September 2012, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading Israeli lobby group, issued a statement extravagantly praising the work of the Obama administration and the Congress:


“With Israel and America facing unprecedented threats and challenges in the Middle East, we deeply appreciate the close and unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel. President Obama and the bipartisan, bicameral congressional leadership, have deepened America’s support for Israel in difficult times.


"Under the leadership of Democrats and Republicans, working together, US-Israel security cooperation has reached unprecedented levels. …


“As Rosh Hashanah nears, AIPAC -- its leadership and staff -- extends to Israel’s strongest supporters heartfelt appreciation for the work of this administration and Congress to strengthen the US-Israel relationship.


“We stand ready to work together in the year ahead to enable both countries to meet the serious challenges we face, especially preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities.” (Jerusalem Post, 19 September 2012 [1])


To put it mildly, these sentiments are somewhat at odds with the view expressed repeatedly by Romney that the Obama administration has “thrown Israel under a bus”.


The statement also ignores the fact that Republicans in Congress have been very critical of Obama’s conduct with regard to Israel and Iran, throughout his presidency.  This omission is understandable in a statement which is clearly meant to emphasise the overriding principle that Israel should always seek bipartisan support in Washington.


The statement was issued shortly after a video came into the public domain in which Romney dismissed as scroungers the 47% of the US population who pay no federal taxes.  Perhaps, after that revelation, AIPAC concluded that Romney wasn’t going to win and the time had come to be very nice to Obama lest he exact revenge after his re-election.


Sabre rattling

Was Netanyahu ever serious about mounting a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?


I doubt it, given the near unanimous opposition from senior Israeli military and intelligence personnel, present and past.  The last head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, famously described such an attack as "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" in May 2011, a few months after he retired (see Haaretz, 7 May 2011, [2]).  Few senior politicians have spoken out publicly in favour of it, the one notable exception being Defence Minister, Ehud Barack.


Shaul Mofaz, the successor to Tzipi Livni as the leader of Kadima, has spoken out against, as has the Israeli President, Shimon Peres.  Mofaz has also criticised Netanyahu for meddling in the US presidential election, which he described as “irresponsible behavior and an error that harms the fabric of relations with [Israel’s] biggest ally” [3].


Polls have consistently shown a substantial majority opposed – a poll in early August found 61% of Israeli Jews against and only 27% in favour [4].


It is generally agreed that Israel hasn’t got the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme, merely to delay it for a year or two (see below).


Some Israeli casualties are inevitable as a result of Iranian missile retaliation – Ehud Barack has predicted that there would be 500 Israeli civilian casualties (which is surprisingly high given that Israel has a modern missile defence system, jointly funded and developed with the US).


Against this background, for Netanyahu to authorise an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a big gamble.  And he would certainly be held responsible for the outcomes and that might be fatal for him politically. 


My guess is that he was never serious about attacking Iran, that his sabre rattling was designed solely to put pressure on Obama to firm up the US position on Iran’s nuclear programme and make effective military action by the US more likely under the next President, whoever that is.


Dempsey replies

The US response to Netanyahu’s threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities was remarkable, not least because it involved something approaching public criticism of Israel.


This was delivered by the head of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, when he attended the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London as head of the US delegation.  He said (a) that, while Israel might be capable of delaying Iran’s nuclear programme (by a year or two, he said elsewhere), it was incapable of destroying it, and (b) that he didn’t want advance notice of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, because he didn’t want to be “complicit” (The Guardian, 30 August 2012 [5]).


Needless to say, Israel was not best pleased with Dempsey’s message.  The use of the word “complicit” was particularly upsetting, since it carries with it the implication that an Israeli attack on Iran would be a “crime”.  It also implies that, if Israel attacks Iran, it’s on its own; that the US won’t to come to its aid, even if Iranian retaliation results in substantial Israeli civilian casualties.


However, if Iran were to retaliate against US assets in the Middle East, for example, its military bases in Bahrain and Kuwait or its warships in the Persian Gulf, then Israel would not be on its own.  In that event, the US would have the perfect excuse to mount a prolonged “shock and awe” air campaign against Iran of the kind that it visited upon Iraq in 1991 and 2003, to destroy not just its nuclear facilities but, as far as possible, its total military capacity.


The only sure way of preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons, if it had a mind to do so, is for the US to invade Iran and occupy it indefinitely, but a sustained US bombing campaign of this kind would set back Iran’s nuclear programme for many years.


On its own, Israel is incapable of mounting such a sustained campaign.  It doesn’t possess a sufficient number of aircraft capable of reaching the most important Iranian nuclear facilities, which are spread across a wide geographical area, nor a sufficient number of airplanes capable of providing refuelling facilities in the air. Furthermore, no matter what air route the Israelis choose to reach the targets, their aircraft would have to overfly several Arab states, which will not welcome Israeli use of their airspace and may even attempt to shoot them down.  All in all, an Israeli military strike would be a risky business with a doubtful outcome.


In the best case scenario for Israel, its attack may inflict limited destruction on only a few targets – without achieving any significant disruption of the Iranian programme.


Obama’s commits “act of war” against Iran

No matter who is elected president in November, a US military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a live possibility during the next administration.  There is no good reason to believe that Obama is less likely than Romney to mount such an attack.  


It is true that Obama does not publicly draw the line at Iran having the “capability” to develop nuclear weapons, as Romney echoing Netanyahu has done.  But Obama has made no effort to come to terms with Iran during his presidency even on the narrow issue of its nuclear programme.


Instead, just after he came to power, as the New York Times reported on 1 June 2012 [6], he authorised cyber attacks on Iran in conjunction with Israel.  This involved the introduction of what became known as the Stuxnet worm into the centrifuges at the enrichment facilities at Natanz, which succeeded in putting about thousand of them out of action temporarily.


(Under the Obama administration, the US has formulated a new strategy declaring that a computer attack from a foreign nation can be considered an act of war that may result in a military response [7].  By that definition, Obama committed an act of war against Iran in 2009 and Iran is entitled to respond militarily against the US.)


Obama rejects swap deal

In May 2010, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and President Lula of Brazil brokered a deal whereby Iran agreed to exchange 1,200kg of its low enriched uranium (LEU) for 20% enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which was supplied by the US in the 60s and is used to produce medical isotopes.


Obama had encouraged Brazil and Turkey to broker the deal, writing a letter to President Lula, the text of which is in the public domain [8].  But, when the deal was done, he rejected it, on the grounds that it did not require Iran to halt its enrichment programme, when in his letter of encouragement to Lula he said he was prepared to allow enrichment to continue.


The deal involved Iran swapping around half of the LEU that it had enriched up to then, LEU that would no longer be available for further enrichment to weapons grade, if Iran was of a mind to do so.  As Obama wrote in his letter:


“For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile.”


But he rejected the deal, and proceeded to promote a Security Council resolution imposing further, rather mild, economic sanctions on Iran.


(For details of this, see my article On “dealing with Iran in Irish Foreign Affairs 5/3, September 2012 [9])


Then, in December 2011, the US Congress passed legislation at the behest of the Israeli lobby that require the US administration to bully other states around the world to stop buying Iranian oil on pain of being cut off from the US financial system.  This was accepted by Obama, who dared not offend the Israeli lobby.  These sanctions are not approved by the UN, but they are likely to make life miserable for a lot of Iranians thanks to Obama.


Settled in 2005

The nuclear issue could have been settled in 2005, before it was referred to the Security Council, if the US had been prepared to accord Iran its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to uranium enrichment.


At that time, in negotiations with the UK, France and Germany, Iran proposed a wide range of measures to give confidence internationally that its nuclear activities were for civil purposes.  Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 23 January 2012, Peter Jenkins, the UK Ambassador to the IAEA from 2001 and 2006, said of this offer:


“With hindsight, that offer should have been snapped up. It wasn’t, because our objective was to put a stop to all enrichment in Iran.” [10]


That was the US position under the Bush administration, but there is no reason to believe that it has been changed by Obama – and without a change there will be no settlement because Iran is not going to surrender its right under the NPT to uranium enrichment.  A settlement is there for the taking if Obama was to recognise that right and act upon it.  But he hasn’t done so.


A much bigger game

Obama knows that Iran hasn’t got a nuclear weapons programme.  He knows that in report after report the IAEA has found no diversion of nuclear material from Iran’s nuclear facilities for weapons (or any other) purposes – because Iran’s nuclear facilities, unlike Israel’s, are under IAEA supervision.  He knows that, should Iran set about producing highly enriched uranium, the IAEA, and the world, would know more or less immediately.  So, why not settle?


The only plausible answer is that there is a much bigger game being played by the US.  That Obama doesn’t want to settle, that in reality his quarrel with Iran is not about its nuclear activities at all, but about preventing Iran becoming a major power in the Middle East in opposition to the US.  A change in regime to one that is prepared to do US bidding would be ideal, but that is probably outside the realms of possibility.


For now, the US game seems to be to keep the pressure on Iran by ferocious economic sanctions and other means, leaving open the option of military action, justified as a measure to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons – which is why the nuclear issue cannot be put to bed.



David Morrison

26 September 2012