Monday, March 15, 2010

America, Iran and the “Showdown in Jerusalem”

According to recent news reports the controversy surrounding the visit by Vice President Joe Biden was, and would have remained, a tempest in a teapot. Only after the vice president’s hour and a half consultation with the White House the night of his state dinner with Netanyahu did the event become a high profile media fiasco.

Ramat Shlomo, topic of the controversy, is a suburb of Jerusalem previously recognized by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of Israel in a future peace accord. So while the timing of the Shas party’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s announcement of plans to build on the site two years in the future may be politically suspicious, the decision itself was not. Other than its timing there was nothing in the issue itself to justify the controversy.

Soon after arriving in Israel Biden began a series of meetings with Israeli leaders. While the talks touched on peace talks assumed to be the primary reason for the visit, the real conversations reportedly centered on Iran and the bomb. The substance of those discussions prompted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to summon Defense Secretary Gates, just flying out of Afghanistan, to make an unscheduled stop in Riyadh for “urgent clarifications."

What might have so alarm the Saudi king that prompted him to issue that summons; what might have warranted Gates agreeing to the unscheduled stopover? According to Israeli military sources, the summons immediately followed "the failure of US Vice President Joe Biden's talks with Israeli leaders to resolve their differences on Iran."

That Biden was unable to convince Israeli leaders should come as no surprise since administration Iran policy to date has nothing by way of success to show for more than a year of conciliatory gestures towards the Islamic Republic.

With the departure of its director Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed what had been widely known outside of the American intelligence community, that Iran had for years failed to comply with United Nations resolutions, had evaded inspections, and was now in an advanced stage of developing a nuclear weapon. Soon after the IAEA disclosure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s boasted that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium to 20%, also known as the “breakthrough level” to weapons grade uranium. A few days later President Obama announced that he was, yet again, delaying his “final deadline” for “strong” sanctions.

Israel is not the only country in the region troubled by administration reluctance to take on the Iranian nuclear threat, as the Saudi summons to Gates demonstrates. Just two weeks earlier the president dispatched Secretary of State Clinton to Riyadh with the same message Biden brought to Israel: support the Obama sanctions effort, trust administration assurances. And the Saudis reportedly gave the secretary the same reply, but without the public upheaval from Washington following Israeli skepticism. The United States, the Saudis observed, is thousands of miles and an ocean away, so might be comfortable with a long-term sanctions program. But for states in the region the Iranian threat sits across a narrow water way, only seconds distant as the rocket flies. The only assurance that would satisfy the king would be the president’s pledge to back up those sanctions with military force, something recognized and approved by more than 60% of surveyed Americans.

And, as if the message to the president needed further evidence of how its hesitancy was seen by the Arabs, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, second only to Saudi Arabia in importance, told the press that his country and Israel "see eye to eye on the Iranian issue."

What is obvious from the above is that America’s approach to Iran does not inspire confidence in her allies, including Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. That the United States is reconciled to, and willing to accept a nuclear armed Iran is something totally unacceptable to Iran's neighbors across the gulf. This being the case no amount of assurance by the president’s emissaries will serve to convince, to reassure. By their concerns expressed in the press Arab oil producers view American policy as more directed at protecting its interests in gulf oil and its transport than with the survival of the regimes producing it.

And, following seven years of chairman of Admiral Mullen’s repeated concern that an attack on Iran would result in “unintended consequences,” Israel is forced to agree with the Saudis that the Obama Administration long since concluded that an Iranian bomb is a fait accompli, that America’s Iran policy is of appeasement, containment and deterrence.

Since it is unrealistic for the administration to expect Israel and the Arabs to fall on their swords for the superpower, President Obama must choose between equally undesirable alternatives. To prioritize Afghanistan over Iran will, in the end, likely result in the loss of American influence over the region, and its oil.

Alternatively the United States can begin to behave as “the world’s only superpower,” fulfill its obligations to defend the region and its oil. But this will require Obama use the real threat of force to deter Iranian ambitions. And be prepared, should threat fail to deter, to carry through on those threats.

There is precedence for an alternative to America joining the fight. In 1957 President Eisenhower intervened to save the Egyptian president by forcing the withdrawal of England, France and Israel following the 1956 Suez War. By saving President Nasser Eisenhower unleashed a decade of radical Arab nationalism, opened wide the door to Soviet influence in the Middle East. Today, by coincidence, a resurgent Russian is supporting Iran. And those same conservative Arab oil producing monarchies, threatened forty years ago by Nasser’s radical secular Arab nationalism are today threatened by Ahmadinejad’s radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The Obama Administration expresses concern that defiance by Israel presents the United States as weak on the world stage, so places American global interests and her military forces stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan in danger. I suggest that America is judged by its actions, not by those of such mini-states as Israel and Saudi Arabia, or even Syria and Iran. That reputation is earned and, unfortunately, deserved. Let the United States act as the superpower she insists she is and no one would doubt or challenge her strength.

Today the United States is a hesitant giant. But in the fast-evolving Iranian situation hesitation is not an option. The administration’s only choice is to either lead, follow or get out of the way. In the final analysis Admiral Mullen’s mantra is correct: whichever course Obama takes will have “unintended consequences.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Israel’s coming war with Iran

When it comes to the Middle East the only apparent consistency in American policy appears to be confusion.

At least since 2006 there has been a struggle within the White House to define a clear strategy confronting the problem of Iran. Through six years of his presidency George W. Bush regularly threatened military action. But, as the war in Iraq dragged on and Iranian influence in the former Sunni state grew, Bush needed Iranian influence to contain the Shiite militancy supported and encouraged by the Islamic Republic. Even threat itself grew less frequent until, by 2006 Bush's closest advisers were warning that a US attack on a third Muslim country would harm American interests in the region.

Then, in 2007, came the appointment of Admiral Michael Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At an early news conference the admiral warned of “unforeseen dangers” should the US attack Iran. American policy was shifting from confrontation to sanctions.

When, later in 2007 the sixteen intelligence agencies contributing to National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded “with great confidence” that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, American interest in forcing Iran into compliance seemed to evaporate completely.

Today, one year into the Obama successor administration, the zigs and zags of the Bush Administration continue. One day sanctions with hits of a military option, the next sanctions as its own end and today we learn that not only are sanctions a thing for the future, but that the administration has reverted to "secret" talks with the Iranian regime.

And America’s vice president and long-time friend of Israel Joe Biden visits Israel apparently to inaugurate the latest round in futile Israel-Palestinian peacemaking. Except, as it turns out, the real purpose of the visit is to inform Israel that beginning now the two “allies” are marching in lock-step regarding Iran, with the senior partner, dazed and confused, leading the way.

No wonder that Turkey, astride the strategic crossroads of a Russian or Iranian advance on the Middle East, long-time ally of the United States and Israel, has been increasingly friendly towards Iran and Syria, increasingly distant from Israel.

No wonder that, at their recent Damascus summit Syria, Hezbollah and the Emirate of Qatar all agreed to host Iranian Revolutionary Guards on their territory. Of course Syria and Lebanon have long-since welcomed an Iranian presence. But Qatar? The emirate is host to America’s largest airbase outside the United States, an airbase whose sole purpose is to protect Qatar and its Arab oil producing neighbors from the Iranians.

No wonder that, on her recent visit to the Middle East, the Saudi king lectured America’s Secretary of State that sanctions may or not eventually prove effective, but the Iranian threat is immediate and demands an immediate American response.

Given American confusion, its abandonment of diplomacy-backed-by-threat-of-force, an Israeli response to this American created and exacerbated problem is increasingly likely. But, while Mullen and the US are using his “unforeseen dangers” as reason not to attack, feeble as the excuse, the dangers are real; and more so for Israel, a country a fraction of the size and influence of its super power ally. So, while it is increasingly likely that Israel will at some point be forced by American complacency to act, the conditions under which she does so must be carefully weighed and orchestrated to minimize those risks.

The recent warning by Defense Minister Barak that an attack by Hezbollah would be viewed by Israel as an attack by its sponsors suggests the path Israel may follow.

The gravest threat to Israel is not in engaging Iran in a four-front war with bordering Syria, Hezbollah, Gaza behind an Iranian missile shield, but in the repercussions by a world plunged into yet a second round of economic distress due to the war. The Iraq invasion triggered an oil price spiral that eventually reached its peak in the global Great Recession. An attack on Iran will bring on a second and likely far more severe shock to the price of oil. Its impact to a global economy just beginning to emerge from recession may well tip the world into an economic depression. And the initiator of the war, not the United States but Israel, would be blamed.

In such a situation Israel would find herself isolated, not just by Europe, but by its long-time “ally,” the country most responsible for the runaway Iran crisis, the United States. Nor will that isolation end with cessation of hostilities, because the resulting financial crisis will be long-lasting, its resentments also long-lasting.

Israel isolated is Israel vulnerable, and her enemies in the region will quickly appreciate the opportunity. And those enemies, Shiite-Sunni rivalry temporarily set aside, will take advantage of the unique opportunity and strike.

Under this scenario Israel will have neither military nor diplomatic cover, just Jews against Muslims. In virtually every war Israel has been forced into or chosen, in the end she was dependent on an outside source for munitions and arms. In the 1973 Suez War Nixon authorized the massive resupply airlift only after Israel agreed to American terms regarding the outcome of the conflict. Minus that airlift Sharon would not have had the supplies to cross the Canal and surround the Egyptian Third Army. Minus that airlift it would have been Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that would have been threatened, not Cairo.

The United States today is ordering Israel into compliance. The risks involved in open defiance of the order are dire. So Israel will have to avoid the appearance of initiating the attack.

How this might be achieved was hinted at in Defense Minister Barak’s warning that an attack by Hezbollah would be considered an attack by her masters in Syria and Iran. In diplo-speak this suggests a warning to Iran to keep Hezbollah on a short leash. But where conditions are ripe, and Hezbollah or Hamas test Israel, and the test escalates? According to the rules laid out at that recent Damascus summit, should Hezbollah or Hamas or Syria find itself at war with Israel the others are sworn to join the war. An Iranian misstep in support of her allies would be a causus belli no less than when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran in 1967. Under such a direct provocation Israel would have justification for defending herself against Iran, and the nuclear facilities become open and justifiable targets. With the onus of aggression removed, although the impact on the global economy would be the same, the onus for having initiated the war would be on Iran, not Israel.

But let's be clear that, regardless of which country initiates the conflict, once combat between Israel and Iran commences the United States will have to participate actively in defense of Gulf oil and shipping. Even today, in addition to that massive air base in Qatar there are two aircraft carrier battle groups patrolling the waters of the gulf. The United States is already involved.

Should war break out under these condition the US would be drawn into the conflict and, as a participant, would be in a position to, in the end, enter a quid-pro-quo with the ayatollahs allowing the regime to survive, but with full and verifiable compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency oversight. Israel could emerge not only victorious again, but stronger. The appearance of provocation on the world diplomatic stage could well make the difference.