Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nuclear Iran and the US-Israel “special relationship”

27 July, 2008

Since the November, 2007 Annapolis summit conflicting, sometimes contradictory statements from Washington throw into doubt President Bush’s commitment towards Israel and his intentions regarding Iran. On 26 July Israel’s prime minister made explicit reference to the problem in a report in DEBKAfile, In secret note, Olmert says Bush has deserted Israel against Iran. As reported, the prime minister openly accuses Bush of taking “strategic steps toward rapprochement with Iran…violating agreements between the two countries (Israel and the United States).” The prime minister went on to characterize Washington’s actions as posing a “threat to Israel’s security and indeed survival…” While the November summit saw public disclosure of US contacts with Iran, they had been ongoing for months. I believe that, while the past seven years have seen a significant change in how the US views the “special relationship” with Israel, Israelis have always read more into the American commitment than was warranted, or wise.

We need go no further back than July to understand the background to the Olmert note. A 10 July Jerusalem Post article, Rice: US will stand by Israel on Iranian threat, although far more subtle than Olmert’s note to Bush, illustrates the developing problem. The headline refers to Rice apparently warning Ahmadinejad that, "we will defend American interests and the interests of our allies." Who precisely those “allies” are is not specified, but the Post assumes she means Israel, and perhaps that is so. But Rice’s language is diplospeak, kept intentionally vague to allow deniability should conditions or convenience necessitate. But is Rice’s vague reassurance sufficient to justify the assumption that, should Israel decide to go it alone against the Iranian bomb, that “America is behind you, Israel” as the Post headline suggests? The very next paragraph has Rice limiting even her vague offer of assistance to providing a “missile defense as a key means of complicating (my italics) Iran's ability to threaten the Region (again my italics)." And what about Bush’s previous threatened use of military force to encourage Iran to abandon her nuclear ambitions? Surely Bush meant US and not Israeli force to back up that threat? After all, the Region means first of all those Arab oil fields, then the US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly Israel has an interest in the Iranian bomb; but the main thrust of the Iranian threat is not Israel but America’s strategic interest, the Arab oil producing states. In his rush to find a face-saving exit from Iraq, to help fellow Republican McCain get elected, is Bush willing to compromise those oil fields and the war in Afghanistan? Is anything not expendable under the expediency-driven Bush Doctrine?

So now, regarding the defense of Arab oil and American troops, it appears that Bush has thrust the IDF as front-line defender against the Iranian threat. But not even this sacrifice gains Israel administration support and thanks. Following his recent visit to Israel Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff went on record as saying, “Washington has not given Israel a "green light" to do anything.” That statement closely accords with Robert Gates, Bush’s Defense Secretary's public position that “widening the conflict in Iraq by attacking Iran does not fit the current strategic thinking.” According to the US Defense establishment, Israel appears a “loose canon,” a threat to American interests.

A 13 July Post article, 'Bush gave Israel amber light to attack,' clarifies the White House position regarding an Israeli attack on Iran. A Bush spokesman defined “amber light” as, "get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you're ready." Shades of the old warrior Bush; at least until his spokesman informs Israel that she should “not count on the US to lend it military (my italics again) support." And probably not diplomatic backing either.

So, according to Defense and reinforced by Bush, attacking Iran is an extension of Iraq and not another, and perhaps most important front line in Bush’s wavering War on Terror.

Which is not to say that Bush negotiating with Iran has not been productive, even successful; in fact its success underscores the failure of his preferred policy of military over diplomatic engagement: Sh’ia Iran did take the Mehdi Army of Sh’ia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr off the battlefield. And quid pro quo, Rice recently offered diplomatic relations to Teheran. It is even reported that the US and Iran are cooperating in war game exercises in Pakistan.

Not that alternative ways of viewing the diplomatic dance between the principles do no exist. The most popular of these describes the US and Israel as playing “good cop, bad cop,” (with tiny Israel cast as “bad cop”) in an effort to encourage Iran to abandon the bomb. But if true, the ruse is unlikely to succeed, and such a high stakes gamble is so risky in provoking the war it is intended to avoid that the idea is beyond reckless. During the Cold War the US and the USSR also threatened each other with ballistic missiles. But those adversaries were separated by thousands of miles and had many minutes to evaluate intentions, and possibly stand down. In the Middle East the adversaries are separated by mere hundreds of miles and seconds from lift-off to impact: a powder keg with a hair trigger.

As the Olmert protest confirms, the Bush Administration seems to be changing the rules also regarding the “special relationship” between the two states. From the dawn of the partnership in the 1960’s, Israel served the US as background deterrent, a mostly implied counter to threats by radical nationalist regimes towards the conservative oil producing monarchies. Since the Bush presidency, and especially since the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, Israel appears to have been assigned a more active role in American policy. For example, Lebanon II: Bush saw an opportunity to confront Iran through Hezbollah, so encouraged Israel in the run-up to the war. But he overestimated the speed with which Israel could overcome the Iranian proxy. So, as the war dragged on, Rice ordered Israel to halt ground forces south of the Litani River, all but assuring an inconclusive end to the war (the long range missile batteries and Hezbollah leadership were based far to the north of the river). For Bush “inconclusive” was but a minor setback in his confrontation with Iran. But for Israel it meant a loss of military credibility, a sign of weakness and vulnerability.

Since the end of the Second World War and the exit of Imperial England the United States became protector and defense shield for the Arabian oil producers. Oil, not the survival of the Jewish state, was and continues America’s strategic priority. But Israel, small, isolated and vulnerable understandably craves security in alliance with a super power. This goes a long way in explaining why generations of Israelis have clung to and exaggerated the "special relationship” with the United States. The tone of Olmert’s note to Bush sounds as much the reaction of a deceived sibling as a defrauded partner. For Israel the relationship is family, a mutual commitment; for the United States it is more a matter of business, of convenience. Certainly US domestic politics had, over the years, played a part in encouraging a "special relationship." But with the weakening of Jewish identity in the United States, and particularly of younger Jews towards Israel, with American Jews less likely to vote as a bloc, even political considerations are a lesser factor in American politics.

Assuming Israel is without military or diplomatic cover in her war of nerves with Ahmadinejad, can and should she act alone? According to some Israeli intelligence analysts an Iranian missile counterstrike would be effectively countered by Israel's missile defenses. Those same sources contend that Iran’s main local allies, Hezbollah and Syria, are unlikely to join in the war. Assuming this to be the case, what might Israel achieve by attacking Iran? At best, those sources suggest, Iranian production of the bomb would be delayed for a year or two.

And what of the costs? Should Israel go it alone she can expect fallout resulting from the following: the attack would pose a heightened threat to Gulf oil and transport which would immediately and dramatically increase the cost of oil; American and EU troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been threatened, and are targets for Iranian missiles; anti-west agitation on the Arab and Muslim street would provide volunteers and feed terrorism world-wide; oil price rises would likely increase the global economic recession and, just possibly, result in economic depression. And while Israel would be blamed for it all, Bush and the US, the bottom-line responsible party for protecting the region and its oil from the Iranian threat, would get a free pass.

Or Israel could stand down as front line cats paw for a questionable US military and diplomatic ally in the conflict with Iran, which likely would force her super power partner to accept responsibility for a problem the offshoot of a disastrous Bush Middle East policy. The primary threat of a Sh’ia Iranian bomb is not, after all, the Little Satan Israel but the Sunni oil producers across the Gulf, and their Great Satan defender.

In the event the next US administration fails to recognize and accept responsibility for its own strategic interests then Israel can always reevaluate her options. After all, Israel is assumed to have a nuclear deterrent and delivery system generations ahead of any likely adversary, while the Iranians are still in the early stages of development and production.

Israel need not be in a hurry to strike. In this instance time is on Israel’s side.

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