Last Monday’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama at the White House was not as tense as expected. It even appeared that the two leaders were able to arrive at some sort of a middle ground. Just the same, the meeting didn’t produce any assurance that Israel wouldn’t attack Iran. On the contrary, the President uttered words that the Prime Minister had clearly wanted to hear: That Israel has the right to do as it sees fit in order to defend its sovereignty.
Israeli leaders insist that if they don’t attack Iran soon, their opportunity to prevent the Islamic Republic, the President of which has long been calling for the destruction of Israel, from acquiring nuclear weapons would permanently disappear. Israel doesn’t want Iran to be able to enrich uranium. This for them is the red line– the point that calls for exercising the last resort, which is the use of force.
The problem is that the United States has a different idea of where that red line is drawn. The White House merely states that the Islamic Republic should not transform its nuclear facilities into assembly lines for nuclear bombs. The consensus is that it will take around five years before Iran can manufacture its own nuclear bomb, which means that the Americans have a longer time table than the Israelis.
For their part, the Iranians insist that their nuclear program is designed solely for peaceful purposes. Intelligence reports, however, suggest otherwise.
Obviously, a nuclear-armed Iran would have destabilizing effects on the Middle East. First of all, it could trigger Iranian aggression. The world has seen a sneak preview of how this would look like when Tehran tried to flex its naval muscles in the Straight of Hormuz recently. Secondly, it could embolden Iran’s terrorist proxies like the Hezbollah to step up their terror attacks. Thirdly, it would trigger arms races between, on one hand, Iran and Israel, and, on the other hand, Iran and the Sunni Arabs. Such arms races would be doubly dangerous due to the lack of a direct hotline among the involved actors, coupled with their long history of mutual hostilities. Fourthly and perhaps more importantly, it could result in transfer of nuclear technologies to terrorist organizations as well.
But an Israeli attack on Iran would have equally destabilizing effects too.
In the short term, it would invite retaliation from the Islamic Republic. True, the ayatollahs and President Mahmoud Amadinejad have limited linear military options, save for some token missile strikes. But the non-linear attacks from Iran’s terrorist proxies in Israel could be devastating, and so would naval hostilities in the Straight of Hormuz. This would surely bring oil prices up and the global economy down.
In the long term, on the other hand, an attack on Iran would only make its leaders more resolute in acquiring a nuclear bomb, since they would see Israel as a real and direct threat. Indeed, direct Israeli threat could be used as a justification for Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and pursue its weapons program. More importantly, an Israeli attack would strengthen the current Iranian regime domestically. In the face of a foreign threat, the various Iranian factions would surely unite behind the Supreme Leader, the clerics, and the President; thereby undoing the gains of the Green Movement.
I hope somebody in Tel Aviv is advising Prime Minister Netanyahu that an airstrike now would only delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear program, and only for a couple of years at most. The costs, on the other hand, would be immediate instability and renewed political capital for the Islamic Republic to carry on its nuclear schemes in the long term.
President Obama understands these, which is why he has been quite anxious to prevent the Prime Minister from ordering the air strikes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have that much leverage over the Israeli leader, since he is facing a re-election campaign.
Fortunately for the President, the Iranians are stalling. Tehran has responded positively, for instance, to the invitation of European Union Foreign Policy Chief Lady Catherine Ashton to conduct fresh negotiations regarding proposed inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The proposed talks would involve Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing. Among these actors, it is China that has real leverage over Iran, and there are analysts who say that Beijing, wary of another Middle East fiasco that might send oil prices skyrocketing, might soon pull some levers over Tehran.
But will this show of goodwill from the Islamic Republic dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu? Or would he merely call this phony and order the attacks anyway?