5 February 2012
Sceptical about Israel's threats against
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
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
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'
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.