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
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.
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.
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:
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 )
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.
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, ). Few senior politicians have spoken out
publicly in favour of it, the one notable exception being Defence Minister,
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” .
Polls have consistently shown a
substantial majority opposed – a poll in early August found 61% of Israeli Jews
against and only 27% in favour .
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
during his presidency even on the narrow issue of its nuclear programme.
just after he came to power, as the New York Times reported on 1 June 2012 ,
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
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 . 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
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.
encouraged Brazil and Turkey to
broker the deal, writing a letter to President Lula, the text of which is in
the public domain . 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 )
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,
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.”
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
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.
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.
26 September 2012