Israeli officials find themselves in a bit of a dilemma. If international sanctions fail to halt Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, as seems likely, Israel sees military action as a necessity. But the United States is making it clear that at least for the short term, it will not take such a step and strongly opposes such action by Israel as well.
The Jerusalem Post quotes U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy to that effect from a press briefing today in Singapore.
“Military force is an option of last resort,” Flournoy said, echoing earlier statements by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. “It’s off the table in the near term.”
Kim Ghattas of the BBC takes that a step further, noting testimony before Congress last week by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the joint chiefs. In effect, Ghattas writes, Cartwright told Congress that “If Iran decides to go for nuclear weapons, the US may not be able to permanently stop this from happening unless it is willing to occupy the country.”
“Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, then asked Gen Cartwright whether the “military approach was a magic wand”.
Gen Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged it was not, adding that military action alone was unlikely to be decisive.
Senator Reed prodded further, getting the general to agree that a military strike would only delay Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon if Tehran decided to go nuclear.
The senator then went further, asking whether the only way to absolutely end any potential Iranian nuclear weapon programme “was to physically occupy their country and disestablish their nuclear facilities?”
The general answered: “Absent some other unknown calculus that would go on, that’s a fair conclusion.”
So if the United States takes military action off the table, will Israel act on its own? As the Wall Street Journal reports (subsc. req.), that’s a difficult calculus problem:
More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military’s thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel.
Iran could also disrupt the world’s oil supply by cutting off exports through the Persian Gulf, roiling international oil markets.
“What will Americans say if Israel drags the U.S. into a war it didn’t want, or when they are suddenly paying $10 a gallon for gasoline and Israel is the reason for it,” says retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former director of the Israeli army’s Strategic Planning Division.
Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, puts Israel’s predicament in blunt terms, as the Israel newspaper Haaretz reports:
In an interview with Army Radio, Indyk said that if Israel sees itself as a superpower that does not need any aid from the United States, then it can make its own decisions. However “if you need the United States, then you need to take into account America’s interests,” said Indyk.
Indyk, who is currently the vice president and director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, and also serves as an adviser to Mideast envoy George Mitchell, emphasized these interests in a New York Times op-ed published on Monday.
“This is no longer just about helping a special ally resolve a debilitating problem. With 200,000 American troops committed to two wars in the greater Middle East and the U.S. president leading a major international effort to block Iran’s nuclear program, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a U.S. strategic imperative,” wrote Indyk.
“Given Israel’s dependence on the United States to counter the threat from Iran and to prevent its own international isolation, an Israeli prime minister would surely want to bridge the growing divide. Yet the shift in American perceptions seems to have gone unnoticed in Jerusalem,” he continued.
“The shift in America’s Middle East interests means that Netanyahu must make a choice: Take on the president of the United States, or take on his right wing. If he continues to defer to those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking, the consequences for US-Israel relations could be dire,” wrote Indyk in the New York Times article.”
While the Obama administration is clearly taking a tougher stance toward Israel, the strongest U.S. opposition to an attack on Iran continues to come from within the Pentagon. It was the Pentagon that blunted efforts by Vice President Dick Cheney to force military action during the Bush administration, and its position hasn’t changed with a change of administration. Any attack on Iran, whether launched by Israel, the United States or both, would be an act of war with unknown consequences that the U.S. military would be forced to handle.
Stretched to its limits already by two long wars, with its supply lines in the region exposed, the U.S. military wants nothing to do with that assignment.