Aug 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm
The Israeli leadership is taking a dangerous gamble here, that has to do with more than the repeated winding of the spring, exhausting security officials and, lately, pulling at the already fraying nerves of the Israeli public. This last series of publications has managed to unhinge the Obama administration as well – to which the Americans repaid us with a sharp statement made by the U.S. army chief Martin Dempsey this week, saying that the IDF can’t destroy Iran’s nuclear program, only, at most, delay it.
On the face of it, there isn’t much news in Dempsey’s comments. But the timing, wording, context (in a press conference, alongside Panetta) are what count here. Washington has stuck a proverbial pin in the Israeli balloon. Its message was clear: You better sit tight, the Iranian issue is out of your league. Dempsey’s statement, thus caused serious damage to Israel’s deterrence toward Iran, since leaders in Tehran now understand that Israel lacks the real possibility to disrupt their plans.
Whether Israel has the capacity or not remains the question. IDF Gen.(res.) Yitzhak Ben Yisrael rebutted Gen. Dempsey Aug. 16, contending that “The Americans know we can clobber Iran’s nuclear sites like they can but I think Gen, Dempsey was referring to what happens after an Israeli strike on Iran.” On paper, Israel has enough bunker-buster bombs and enough platforms to deliver them to destroy a great deal of Iran’s dug-in enrichment capacity, even without the deployment of sabotage teams on the grounds. But it is not an easy exercise to fly 1,600 kilometers through hostile airspace, drop a series of bunker-busters directly into the crater left by the previous one, and get home.
A parallel question is: Why would Israel bluff? A year ago, Israeli threats helped push the U.S. and other Western nations to tighten sanctions on Iran. One could argue a year ago that there was some probability that sanctions might work. The probability now is vanishingly small. Dennis Ross, Obama’s former chief Iran planner, warned in an interview today that the Israelis are not simply bluffing:
“Part of the motivation for being as public as they have been is to motivate the rest of world,” Ross, who served as the top Obama White House Iran strategist from 2009 to the end of 2011, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.
“The second reason is to condition the rest of the world not to be surprised if or when they are going to act militarily,” Ross said. “And to get the Israeli public ready as well.”
That doesn’t mean that they have made a decision. It’s not about to happen tomorrow.” Ross continued. “If it happens tomorrow, it’s rather late in terms of getting the Israeli public ready. But I do think it means one cannot just dismiss it. Those who say it is just a bluff are misreading.”
A careful reading of the transcript of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk before a Bloomberg conference yesterday shows that Israel is concerned not simply about Iranian bomb acquisition but the entire array of forces around it. Dempsey warned that Israel could only delay, but not destroy, Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That, said Oren, was good enough for Israel. The situation was changing so quickly that a few years could mean a radically different environment:
One, two, three, four years are a long time in the Middle East — look what’s happened in the Middle East in the last year alone” in terms of political change, Oren said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “In our neighborhood, those are the rules of the game.”
From the Israeli standpoint, a great deal that is happening on its borders may reflect Iranian maneuvering for a response to an Israeli strike. The Muslim Brotherhood move against the Egyptian military this week opens a threat in Gaza and Sinai, and it is noteworthy that Ambassador Oren referred to the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad as “owned and operated by Tehran.” Lebanon has a new outbreak of sectarian violence, with the kidnapping of forty individuals (including Saudi and Turkish nationals) by Shi’ite militia. Iran, the US alleges, is organizing a militia in Syria, and the disposition of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles represents an opportunity for Iran to acquire a WMD second strike capability out of Syria. This is a troublesome issue, as Oren observed, given that the chemical weapons are dispersed throughout the country and often close to civilian areas.
I stick by our basic conclusions of last Sunday’s call: not just the timing of Iranian nuclear weapons development but the sudden instability around its borders make a compelling case for Israel to strike.