international analysis and commentary

The US, Israel, and the Iran connection: collision course?

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President Barack Obama has not yet fully clarified the scope and extent of his policy review of the Iran file. Clearly, there are already signs of a new course. These include President Obama’s Nowrooz greetings message on March 20; an unscheduled meeting ten days later between US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Mehdi Akhoundzadeh on the sidelines of the Afghanistan conference in The Hague; the announcement that a high ranking US State Department official (William Burns) would represent the United States at talks with Iran in the framework of the P5+1; and more generally, a lifting of the ban on US diplomats meeting with their Iranian counterparts around the world.

What this means for relations with US allies, especially Israel, is still unclear.

Obviously, the length of the policy review process indicates a considerably greater measure of indecision or possibly disagreement inside the Administration than previously expected. Meanwhile, news reports and leaks have caused much concern among allies about the new direction Washington might take and the modalities of the new policy of engagement with Iran. For example, Europeans are concerned about the possibility that the US might seek to address the nuclear issue through bilateral talks and that it might drop the demand for enrichment suspension at the beginning of such talks. But it is in the Middle East, more than anywhere else, that concern is quickly morphing into apprehension. Dennis Ross, the newly appointed State Department envoy for Southwest Asia (Iran) and the Gulf, has just been dispatched to the Arab Middle East to assuage allies in the Gulf and elsewhere that American goals vis-à-vis Iran coincide with those of America’s most trusted friends. This measure may have a calming effect, but tensions over Iran are real – Egypt’s uncovering of a Hezbollah plot and Morocco’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran are just the latest and most visible sign of this.

Regardless, nowhere is the potential for tension bigger than in the strategic bilateral relation between Israel and the US.

There is every indication, judging from public reports, that the US and Israel could be on a collision course over Iran – to say nothing of the other Middle East issues such as the Palestinian State and US negotiations with Syria.

First, there is disagreement over the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.

Second, there is disagreement over the timeline of Obama’s engagement efforts.

Third, there is disagreement over whether, in case of failure, US policy should be still focused on prevention or whether it should shift to deterrence.

And, finally, there is disagreement over whether the US might help, acquiesce or hinder an Israeli decision to launch a military attack against Iran’s nuclear installations if it feels that any further delay would allow Iran to cross the finish line.

There have been frequent references to a possible Israeli attack in media reports. The IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, made similar noises in his recent visit to the US. Leaks in Western newspapers regularly point to the fact that Israel is preparing for such an eventuality. Recent exercises strengthen the impression that Israel may be getting ready for an attack.

Clearly, Israel’s muscular posture has great value as a scare tactic – as a way to urge friendly nations to act more robustly to confront Iran’s nuclear program. But its value has an expiry date – how long can threats be made before they lose credibility? Israel’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear program is that there is not much time available for polite diplomacy. Initially, Israel will no doubt acquiesce with US efforts to engage Iran. Over time, however, acquiescence will give way to impatience, especially if Jerusalem believes Tehran may be edging too close to the finish line. Israel might wish to act swiftly, and this may clash with the US assessment of Iran’s nuclear timeline. Israel may be seen as a hindrance to American efforts and its decision to act – quite aside from its chances of success by going it alone – will not only be judged as erratic, but also as detrimental to American interests. If Israel acts before America concludes diplomacy has become futile, it might find itself on a collision course with Washington.

Tied to this disagreement is Israel’s insistence that Obama should impose a stringent timetable for engagement and set a tight deadline, after which America’s engagement will be replaced by pressure – economic if possible, military if necessary. But America’s considerable delay in completing the policy review has resulted in a comparable delay in coordination with allies, thus giving Tehran additional time. Elections in key countries – in Iran in June, in Germany in September – could further delay decisive action. It seems that even a short timeline could be longer than what Israel finds tolerable, putting the Obama administration out of sync with the Netanyahu government.

Additionally, even as America might conclude at a certain point that negotiations with Iran have run aground, it might choose to accede to pressures from allies who still believe otherwise and may call for further efforts – after all, if experience is any guide, a multilateral process of diplomacy and sanctions involving the EU and the UN Security Council can considerably delay progress on the Iran nuclear dossier and significantly water down sanctions. This time, if America plays along, this might actually encourage Israel to strike.

Even if America were to embrace the Israeli timeline and agree that a deadline must be set to declare engagement a failure and revert to pressure, more disagreement could await Washington and Jerusalem. Anxious to shield its troops from retaliation, defend achievements on the ground, and not complicate things further in Iraq and Afghanistan, America could conclude that Iran can be dissuaded by sanctions or, failing that, that it can be deterred. The US could thus set out to implement a policy that relies on increased military presence in the region and blunt language to discourage bold Iranian action. Meanwhile, it will seek to restrain Israel, just as Israel – as well as many other regional powers – might feel that an American umbrella offers meager protection. Israel may choose to act alone, again finding itself at odds with Washington and possibly incurring the wrath of the Administration.

Having said this, it is important to underline that, news reports and leaks aside, there are just as many indications that Israel and the US remain on the same page when it comes to Iran. Especially as time goes by, possible differences could be mitigated by changing circumstances.

First, there is the Palestinian issue, which more than anything else bears the potential for an upset in the strategic relationship. The Administration seems to be signaling a return to the days before the Bush era, when the Palestinian-Israeli issue was central to the region. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is presented as a necessary prelude to an effective strategy to countenance Iranian mischief in the region. Secretary of State Clinton even went on record to warn Israel that lack of progress on the Palestinian track would lose Israel precious support among regional powers over the Iran issue. In truth, this might be posturing for image’s sake. After all, there is little progress to be hoped for on the Palestinian front. And pro-American regional powers – especially Egypt and Gulf States – see Iran’s ambitions of regional hegemony as a direct existential threat.

It is unlikely they will prioritize Palestine over their survival.

The challenge for Israeli officials will be to persuade their American counterparts that neutralizing the Iranian threat is more urgent than – and in fact might help solve – the Palestinian issue. The point of equilibrium might require some concession on both sides – and it will more likely than not manifest itself in the form of some perfunctory diplomatic process. After all, both in 1991 and 2003, Arab support for or acquiescence to America’s war on Saddam Hussein came out of the regimes’ perceived national interest, and did not require more than a generic commitment to renewed US diplomacy once the wars were over. 1991 begat Madrid and 2003 begat the Roadmap; neither resulted in peace. Regardless the Israel-US relationship is still intact.

Second, there are numerous statements by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign and by President-elect Obama during the transition, which indicate that America still considers a nuclear Iran to be an unacceptable development which America will not tolerate. There is a slate of key administration officials – from Dennis Ross to Stuart Levey – who are strong believers in vigorous sanctions at the very least. There are recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and initiatives by Congress that give every indication America will seek added economic pressure on Iran even as it engages Tehran.

Third, the chief objection to a military operation comes from two quarters in the US – the Pentagon and CENTCOM (the regional Command with responsibility for the Middle East). These officials are understandably concerned about opening a third theatre of operations in the Middle East while they have two difficult wars on their hands. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been repeatedly on record dispelling the notion that Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity is impending, and there are numerous statements warning against an Israeli attack – including, most recently, by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, US forces are bound to be drawn down considerably by early next year and the Obama surge in Afghanistan could dramatically change the strategic landscape there. An increasingly stable Iraq with less US troops would deny Iran an easy target for retaliation. An improved situation on the ground in Afghanistan would make it harder, if not altogether futile for Iran to continue supplying Taliban insurgents with lethal aid.

If that were the case, two main obstacles to a military operation would be removed since America’s forces and interests in the region, by then, would be less exposed to Iranian revenge. Gates might also be on his way out and a diplomatic process could have run aground. If Israel’s timeline can be stretched – if, in other words, the war in the shadows to delay Iran’s nuclear program manages to further push ahead Iran’s finish line – then Israel can wait for better circumstances before resorting to force. By that time, at least in Washington, the ability of diplomacy to persuade the regime to change its course and its behavior will have become obvious and the potential for a showdown between Israel and America may turn out to be minimal.

Only time will tell. The fact remains that President Obama’s first 100 days have been marked by considerable ambiguity. Both possibilities are open: a crisis in Israel-US relations or not – either way, with the possibility that a new Middle East could quickly arise, which will be infinitely more unstable and dangerous than it ever was, there is every reason to believe that the Israel-US relationship will over time grow stronger, since America will need a reliable ally in the increasingly volatile environment created by Iranian actions.