The following analysis will be featured in the forthcoming issue of ISRAEL HORIZONS, the quarterly publication of Meretz USA. The writer, Gidon D. Remba, is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change, a nonprofit organization which supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and advocates for a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. He also edits the group’s “Say No To War With Iran” site and blogs at Tough Dove Israel. He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, 1977-1978, during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.
Barack Obama was swept into the White House promising to reverse the Bush administration’s aversion to diplomatic engagement with new overtures to the Arab and Islamic worlds. While the Obama administration remains committed to direct talks with Iran in the wake of its fraudulent election and brutal suppression of peaceful protests, the message has been leavened with new signals. The administration will not yield to the demands of Republicans, Israeli government hardliners, AIPAC and others in the organized American Jewish community to enact “enhanced sanctions” now. It understands that doing so would quash any hope of Iranian openness to a deal preventing the development of highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium and nuclear arms through a new system of robust monitoring.
Obama now says that there is a September “time frame” for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program. If by then Iran has not accepted the invitation to talk, the United States and “potentially a lot of other countries” are going to say “we need to take further steps.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is planning a “Washington Day” on Sept. 10 that “would bring together 300 to 500 leaders from across the United States to press for [new] sanctions legislation.” But the ongoing schism among clerical leaders within the Iranian regime may make it impossible for even secret talks with the US to begin within that short a time-line.
The administration will need to co-opt Congressional leaders to resist any action on new sanctions legislation, if it believes there is a chance for an arrangement with Iran. This will lead to new tensions between President Obama and much of the organized Jewish community, who will be calling even more vociferously for the administration to abandon diplomacy and ratchet up economic pressure on Iran.
On the other hand, if, after a fair trial, diplomacy fails, and the administration decides, in concert with other countries, to move ahead with new sanctions, those who pressed for a backup plan to engagement will demand a new Plan B in case enhanced sanctions prove unable to halt Iran’s march down the nuclear path. The Obama administration could develop a new policy based on nuclear deterrence and containment of Iran, as General John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, has suggested.
In short, the US, Israel and the Arab world would live with a nuclear Iran, one which might have the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Prying Syria from Iran’s orbit through an American-backed peace accord with Israel would reinforce this approach, weakening Iran strategically. Or Israel could, more insistently than before, demand US acquiescence or support for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
Alan Dershowitz opined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Has Obama Turned On Israel?”: “If the Obama administration were to shift toward learning to live with a nuclear Iran and attempt to deny Israel the painful option of attacking its nuclear targets as a last resort, that would…weaken the security of the Jewish state.”
But it’s far from clear that opposing an Israeli preemptive strike would harm Israel’s security. It may well be the converse: an attack on Iran may be the single most dangerous course, embroiling the US and Israel in a new, unwinnable, catastrophic region-wide war.
Vice President Joe Biden recently signaled a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that Israel has the sovereign right to pursue a military option after the diplomatic window closes. “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do…if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”
Both Biden and Obama made clear that the door remains open to engagement with Iran, but Biden suggested that if Iran wishes to avoid a host of negative consequences―“isolation” and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike―its leaders had better engage soon with the US on the nuclear issue. Alluding to the administration’s commitment to pursue negotiations with Iran despite Israeli objections, Biden stressed that “there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. What we believe is in the national interest of the United States…we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world.”
Would the US deny to Israeli aircraft over-flight rights in Iraq? The Vice President offered that “Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.” Translation: Iran should consider that even if the US were to deny over-flight rights to Israeli planes seeking to reach Iran via Iraq, Israel might still opt to strike Iran some other way, if Iran does not come to terms with the US.
In the very same news cycle, it was reported that an Israeli sub (which can be equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles) traversed the Suez Canal with Egypt’s permission, putting it in closer range to Iran in case Israel opted to launch a preemptive strike or a second strike. At the same time, the Mossad chief reportedly assured Netanyahu that the Saudis had agreed to Israel overflying their territory in a mission that would serve their “common security interests”―a report immediately denied by the Saudis, as expected. Nevertheless, Iran was meant to get the hint.
President Obama wasted no time in clarifying that the US had “absolutely not” given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East,” said the President.
Ynet reported on July 16 that two “Israeli missile-firing warships sailed through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, ten days after a submarine capable of launching a nuclear missile strike [did the same. The Times of London quoted an Israeli official as saying, ‘Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran. These maneuvers are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats.’ The report described [the naval maneuvers] as ‘a clear signal that Israel was able to put its strike force within range of Iran at short notice’.”
Are such threats of Israeli military action simply bluster, a way of exerting pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the US? Or will Israel launch a preemptive assault on Iran? To be continued.