Israeli stance on Iran risks alienating US


WORLD VIEW:Netanyahu’s pressure on Obama has exposed tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme

‘WHO ARE you trying to replace? The administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” Shaul Mofaz, head of Kadima, Israel’s largest opposition party, pointedly asked of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.

The latter’s intervention in the US presidential campaign this week to demand assurances on blocking Iran’s nuclear programme, construed by many as deeply partisan, may have been prompted by personal frustration at US stonewalling. Or it may be the result of a calculation that President Obama, mid-election, is particularly vulnerable and amenable to pressure from Israel. No dice, Obama says.

Either way, Netanyahu has done himself and his country no favours by again antagonising Israel’s biggest ally, providing “ammo” for his pal Mitt Romney’s contention that Obama is soft on protecting Israel, and by exposing publicly the divisions in Israel over his strategy.

On Thursday his deputy prime minister responsible for intelligence and atomic affairs, Dan Meridor, distanced himself publicly, opposing the strategy of demanding “red lines” or negotiation deadlines and taking a more nuanced view of a nuclear-armed Iran. Netanyahu has spoken of the danger of a second holocaust, but “I don’t want to speak in apocalyptic . . . holocaust terms,” said Meridor, a veteran of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. “I think that we are strong and we will overcome the challenges, but this is a serious challenge.”

Defence minister Ehud Barak issued a statement saying problems with the US should be worked out behind closed doors.

At issue is Israel’s concern that Obama’s promise that he will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon is too vague to represent real leverage. Netanyahu wants the US to pledge to enforce militarily a “red line” threshold setting a specific limit to Tehran’s stockpile of medium-enriched uranium linked to a technical assessment of how much it would require to create a bomb.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which on Thursday again rebuked Iran over concealing its activities, it has amassed enough low- and medium-enriched uranium that, with further enrichment, it could fuel as many as six nuclear weapons.

The US, like most of the international community, does not trust Iranian assurances that its programme is entirely peaceful, but does not relish the prospect of carrying out a military strike, and many experts – including top US general Martin Dempsey – doubt whether they could damage the dispersed, well-defended nuclear facilities.

Washington rightly views an Israeli strike in a similar vein – both as dangerously destabilising to the region, and as likely to embroil the US in military action to protect Israel from the inevitable retaliation.

Netanyahu said on Tuesday that “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel”. But, while there appears to be real support in Israel for pressure on the US for a “red line” or a deadline on the interminable negotiations with Iran, commentators suggest it is associated with strong opposition to an Israeli “go-it-alone”. Voters see deadlines set by the US as a possible way out of the conundrum, a constraint on Netanyahu.

The more basic question that is not being asked in the debate in the US, however, is the heretical one posed bluntly by the former New York Times editor Bill Keller in an effective article this week: “Can we live with a nuclear Iran?” Such is the power of the Israeli lobby that, even if Obama wanted to consider the option, it is politically unmentionable.

Yes, says Keller, even if Iran is able to produce a weapon. Traditional nuclear deterrence, the theory of mutually assured destruction that was for so long the cornerstone of US strategic thinking in the cold war, is capable of constraining Iran, he argues.

“Before an Iranian mushroom cloud had bloomed to its full height over Tel Aviv,” Keller argues, “a flock of reciprocal nukes would be on the way to incinerate Iran. Iran may encourage fanatic chumps to carry out suicide missions, but there is not the slightest reason to believe the mullahs themselves are suicidal.”

To the argument that a nuclear-armed Iran would make the relationship with Israel even more unstable, he responds that “history suggests that nuclear weapons make even aggressive countries more cautious. Before their first nuclear tests, India and Pakistan fought three serious conventional wars. Since getting their nukes they have bristled at each other across a long, heavily armed border, but no dispute has risen to an outright war.”

And, as a strategic option it is certainly not incompatible with a continuation of an international campaign to persuade Iran to abandon its enrichment programme or to force Tehran to confine it under supervision to peaceful use.

In truth, it may already be the assumption underpinning the real, unspoken US policy. Although US leaders are politically constrained to publicly back Israel and to threaten Iran that it will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, Obama’s reluctance to be more specific may well reflect a sober and realistic, unacknowledgeable calculation that stopping Iran from doing so may indeed be more costly than the realistic possibility of containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

In suspecting as much, Netanyahu may actually be right.

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