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  Gulf Crisis Weekly
5 February 2012

Sceptical about Israel's threats against Iran

Milan Rai, Justice Not Vengeance

In the last week, Israel has racheted up the tension in the Iran crisis, and the US has reacted with alarm. While a strike is unlikely in the next few months, the US and Iran are currently on a collision course that could prove catastrophic in the next few years, and Western policies towards Iran require urgent change.

On 3 February, the Washington Post reported: “The Obama administration is concerned that Israel could attack Iranian nuclear facilities this year, having given Washington little or no warning,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official who specialized in Iran policy during the Clinton administration and recently returned from meetings with Israeli officials. He said Israel “has refused to assure Washington that prior notice would be provided.”

The Post reported a statement by US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta himself, speaking on Thursday: “Israel has indicated they’re considering this, and we have indicated our concerns.”

Those concerns include possible Iranian retaliation against the US and its interests. The Post continued: “Administration officials have hinted that the United States might not intervene militarily in a hostile exchange between Israel and Iran unless the conflict began to threaten U.S. forces or Israeli population centers. In an interview last month on CBS’s '60 Minutes,' Panetta said that in the event of an Israeli strike, U.S. military officials’ primary concern would be 'to protect our forces'.”

The Post also noted that at an Israeli security conference on 2 February, in the resort city of Herzliya, Israeli officials “pointed to recent moves by Iran to begin enriching uranium at a second plant, located in a bunker built into a mountain near the city of Qom. Once that facility is complete, deterring Iran will be far more difficult, they say.”

“The dividing line may pass not where the Iranians decide to break out of the nonproliferation treaty and move toward a nuclear device or weapon, but at the place ... that would make the physical strike impractical,” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.

In other words, Israel would launch an attack on Iran not because Iran had used a nuclear bomb on Israel, not because Iran had attacked Israel with some other weapons, not because Iran had sponsored a terrorist attack on Israel, and not because Iran had developed a nuclear bomb capable of one day attacking Israel, but because Iran was about to move its nuclear programme into a buried facility where Israel would not be able to damage it with an illegal air strike.

“Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June - before Iran enters what Israelis described as a 'zone of immunity' to commence building a nuclear bomb,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote. (There is no evidence that Iran has decided to “commence building a nuclear bomb”, as Ignatius well knows.)

Ignatius continued with his report: “You stay to the side, and let us do it,” one Israeli official is said to have advised the United States. A 'short-war' scenario assumes five days or so of limited Israeli strikes, followed by a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. The Israelis are said to recognize that damage to the nuclear program might be modest, requiring another strike in a few years.”

The Telegraph noted that: “Ignatius did not cite a source. He was writing from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting.”

Why are we sceptical that the Israeli government is genuinely committed to military action?

Well, for one thing, the Israeli foreign policy establishment is taking a hard line against strikes: “Almost the entire senior hierarchy of Israel's military and security establishment is worried about a premature attack on Iran and apprehensive about the possible repercussions, a former chief of the country's defence forces told The Independent” on 1 February. The former CDS being Lieutenant-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who is reportedly close to Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Lipkin-Shahak “said there had been little analysis of what happens the 'day after' when the Tehran regime and its paramilitary allies retaliate”: “He warned that an assault may lead to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad benefiting from popular anger against foreign aggression.”

Another factor is the US presidential election race. It defies belief that US President Barack Obama will countenance in any way military action that would set the Middle East on fire in the run-up to the election in November.

The most perceptive commentary on these Israeli threats came from Israeli military commentator Amos Harel, who wrote way back in December 2009: “Military preparations are also essential to prod the United States and Europe to exert maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic. This will not happen unless Western states come to believe that Israeli Air Force planes are starting to rev up their engines.”

Harel, writing in the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, also noted that “Israel does not have independent strike capability against Iran”. It could deliver explosives to a target, but “it is doubtful whether Israel can allow itself to act against the wishes of the United States – to stand alone against an Iranian response and begin an open-ended operation against a nation of 70 million people”.

After the publication of the IAEA report in November last year, Harel commented that the “strength and timing” of the leaks about a possible Israeli strike on Iran were designed to “help return the Iranian threat to the top of the international agenda”. The hope inside Israeli governing circles, according to Harel, is that sanctions against Iran will be tightened until they become “paralyzing, delivering a deadly blow to the Iranian banking system as well as to the country’s oil industry.”

On this analysis, the purpose of the war scares is primarily to drive the international community into fiercer economic and unconventional warfare against Iran, in the hope of bringing down the current regime and replacing it with something more malleable.

The European Union is about to restrict oil imports from Iran, but the more damaging aspect of the new EU sanctions may be the financial ones. The EU is freezing the assets of Iran's central bank (under pressure from the US). So, for example, it was reported on 3 February: “Ukraine's maize exports to Iran dropped 40 percent in January due to problems collecting payment from Iranian buyers after the European Union tightened sanctions”.

The US is, as this is being written, putting enormous pressure on SWIFT, a keystone of international finance. On 4 February, it was reported: “Current and former U.S. officials said that if the Belgium-based organization, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, bans sanctioned Iranian entities from using its network, Tehran could find itself virtually incapable of conducting electronic financial transactions.”

“This would be the knockout blow,” said Avi Jorisch, a former US Treasury Department official who has worked on Swift.

So the function of the war threats, which may well be believed by the top Israeli military and intelligence command (this would make them even more effective from the point of view of Defence Minister Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), is, I would argue, to galvanise international attacks on Iran.

From 2004 onwards, the then head of Israeli intelligence Meir Dagan reportedly pressed the US to join in a “five-front strategy” against Iran that involved “political pressure, covert measures, counterproliferation, sanctions and regime change”.

We'll return to what some of these options mean in other notes, but, for now, it's clear that Israel wants the US to step up all these forms of pressure.

Earlier we quoted Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on the latest threats. He commented: “U.S. officials see two possible ways to dissuade the Israelis from such an attack: Tehran could finally open serious negotiations for a formula to verifiably guarantee that its nuclear program will remain a civilian one; or the United States could step up its covert actions to degrade the program so much that Israelis would decide that military action wasn’t necessary.”

In other words, the US will devote more resources to electronic and covert military action to disrupt Iran's civilian nuclear programme, and to try to bring down the regime.

It is worth remembering what the real threat is.

Defence Minister Barak, spelled out the danger in an important interview with an Israeli commentator (Ronen Bergman) published in the New York Times magazine on 25 January:

“From our point of view,” Barak said, “a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”

A man touted as a future head of the Israeli Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel, currently head of the Israel Defense Forces plans and policy directorate, said at the beginning of February: “When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice. You are more restrained because you don't want to get into that ball game.”

In other words, Iranian scientists will continue being blown up, computer viruses will continue to infect critical computers, fundamentalist terrorists will continue to carry out terror attacks, sanctions will continue to tighten on Iran's faltering economy, producing unemployment, poverty and misery, and an unprovoked military attack may be launched on Iran, triggering grievous consequences for the region and the world, all so that Israel should continue to be able to attack its neighbours at will, and with impunity.

For a more rational US policy, see this recent article by former US ambassador William H. Luers and former US ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who was an under secretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration.