Israel’s allies

Robert Kagan “argued that the United States has an enduring responsibility and capacity to shape the world order and must remain actively engaged abroad to prevent the international order from collapse.” Berry Posen “warned against American overreach in foreign policy and urged Washington to embrace restraint, focusing on its own national security interests and limiting engagement - particularly military - abroad.”26 This dilemma has also to do with Iran.

“Israel sees is itself as a strategically located, permanent ally for the United States. Resilient and friendly bilateral relations with the United States remain a major pillar of Israel’s national security.”27 The resolution by the US Senate from 22 May 2013 strongly supported “the close military, intelligence, and security cooperation that President Obama has pursued with Israel and urges this cooperation to continue and deepen.”28

On 11 September 2012, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed that if Iran decides to produce nuclear weapons, the United States would have about a year to stop it.29

On 31 March 2015 US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter claimed that the US military option against Iran remains on the table.30 The JCPOA, which was signed between Iran and world powers on 14 July 2015, allows Iran to proceed with its nuclear program yet with severe constraints. Within Israel there has been a strong reservation about such agreement due to an understanding that Israel cannot afford its ramifications. Many Israelis believe that the world, particularly the Obama administration, lacks the willingness to do whatever it takes - including a military attack - to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would be a major challenge for the United States but not a mortal threat as it might be for Israel.

The tension between Israel and its American patron, regarding Iran’s nuclear program, indicated Iran benefited from that dispute. Both Israel and the United States are regarded by Iran as enemies, obstructing its efforts to reach hegemony in the Middle East. Weakening the relations between the United States and Israel would enfeeble the United States and Israel’s position in that region, thus paving the way for Iran to spread its influence. Subsequently, Iran had an ulterior motive lurking behind the negotiations and then the deal about its nuclear project. This additional goal, to undermine the Israeli-American alliance, might have been indirect but still very important.

Israel and the United States want to ensure Iran does not possess the bomb by watching closely its nuclear program. Only a satisfactory result of this surveillance should secure Israel and other states as well, whereas a breach of the agreement should be met with action on the part of the United States and/or Israel. Neither rule out a military action. US Secretary of State John Kerry argued on 3 May 2015 that its country still has a military option to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.31 The Obama administration even claimed in August that year that the inspections of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as part of the 14 July agreement, “will reveal important details that can be used for better targeting should the U.S. decide to attack Iran.”32 Furthermore on 3 April 3 2015 the United States revealed that its biggest bunker-buster bomb was improved, so it could destroy Iran’s highly protected nuclear sites, such as Fordow. Israel was informed about that.33 Demonstrating to Israel that the United States is the only one capable of destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is part of the American strategy.

Nevertheless President Barack Obama said on 2 May 2015 in regard to Iran’s nuclear program that “a military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.”34 It appears that the US intelligence community also holds that a raid on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be useless because it would only postpone the project by a few years as Iran’s manpower would survive the attack and rebuild the nuclear program. One could question this approach based on recent history. The US military has fought for many years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now waging a war against ISIS. This proves that past victories in those places have also been temporary as the enemy regrouped and returned to fight in spite of former defeats. Why would the principle of constant struggle against an obviously dangerous enemy be applied to the Taliban, Al-Qaida, tyrants and now ISIS, and not to Iran? If the US military prevents Iran’s bomb now and the latter start over after several years, the United States could conduct another round of air bombardments on Iran’s rebuilt plants.

Ray Takeyh and Roger Zakheim, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued in June 2015 that the US military option against Iran “lacks credibility, fails to strengthen our diplomacy and possibly invites Tehran to develop a nuclear program while fearing little consequence.”35

The July 2015 agreement about Iran’s nuclear project proved that the Obama administration sought its legacy to avoid a confrontation with Iran, not initiate it. The main purpose of US announcements about a military option was to urge Iran to sign the agreement, along with an attempt to convince Israel to put its trust in its American patron and hold off its attack on Iran. There were periods when it seemed Israel was about to attack Iran, but that did not happen, and possibly Israel never actually intended to bomb Iran. However, because the US goal was to prevent such a move, it seems it was more successful than Israel, left to tolerate Iran’s nuclear program proceeding, albeit under some serious constraints. However, although Israel seems to be the loser, one should bear in mind that there was a limit to what Israel could have gained. The United States obviously looks after its own interests first, not those of its allies, including close ones like Israel. Although the latter is a regional power in the Middle East, its American patron could stick to its guns, particularly when the cost and risks of accepting Israel’s demands are too high. Israel must concede to this reality.

The United States should understand Israel’s security needs in regard to Iran. The United States gave Israel in the last two decades weapon systems such as the F-16I and F-15I. Since 2016 the IAF has been assimilating the F-35A. Those aircraft could reach and bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. However it did not mean Israel was encouraged by its American patron to attack Iran. Those planes were supposed to keep the status quo, that is, make Israel feel secure so it will not conduct an attack on Iran, one that does not serve US interests. The F-16I, F-15I and the F-35A are fighter-bombers, not strategic bombers, due to their limited range and cargo. It seems that from the American perspective, the purpose of those planes is to allow Israel to retaliate but not to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon capability. If the United States had wanted to give Israel the best chance to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites, it would have delivered its Israeli ally heavy bombers like the B-52. The latter, in contrast to F-16I and F-15I and the F-35A, could carry huge bombs, powerful enough to destroy any Iranian nuclear site, that is, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). This step might make Iran think twice before racing to produce the bomb.

In late May 2014 Prince Turki bin Faisal, former head of Saudi’s General Intelligence, “highlighted Israel’s own nuclear weapon arsenal and the desire of all Mideast countries to rid their region of weapons of mass destruction.”36 In early May 2014, at the UN, Saudi Arabia announced that “Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is ‘a major obstacle’ to Mideast security and stability.”37 Therefore Saudi Arabia and Iran band together against Israel in this matter. Yet whereas Saudi Arabia has tolerated Israel’s possession of the bomb for several decades now, the desert kingdom strongly opposes Iran having a nuclear arsenal too. It is clear that Saudi Arabia’s leaders fear Iran’s malevolent intentions more than possible danger from Israel, but if preventing Iran from having the bomb involves disarming Israel from its nuclear capabilities, that kills two birds with one stone, as far as the Saudis are concerned.

The decline of the US position in the Middle East might encourage self-reliance in states in that area as well as collaboration with other states in the region. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia seek to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, for Saudi Arabia this matter has much more urgency due to its proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia might not trust the United States to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapon capabilities. From the Saudi perspective its American partner has already failed by not toppling an enemy of Saudi Arabia, Assad, while encouraging the downfall of a Saudi ally, Mubarak. Saudi Arabia is waiting to see if the international effort to limit Iran’s nuclear project works. If the results do not satisfy Saudi Arabia, it might allow the IAF to cross its skies to strike in Iran. Other Arab Gulf states might adopt the Saudi approach. If they calculate that Iran would only retaliate against Israel after a raid on Iranian nuclear sites, it would encourage them to urge Israel to attack.

The main problem for Israel, the United States and Arab Gulf states is actually the regime in Iran, not the state itself. Replacing it would be a game changer, and destroying its nuclear sites would be a way to do that because such a blow might make Iranian leaders lose face and appear weak and vulnerable. Hitting the nuclear infrastructure hard would expose the Iranian leadership as unable to protect such a key asset. Israel bombing Iranian oil facilities, the revenues of which finance the nuclear project and other basic expenses, would further degrade the Iranian regime. Other strategies to undermine the Iranian government are to pave the way for the Iranian opposition to take action and even rise against the government. In case of an open revolt Western states could assist the rebels as in Libya in 2011.

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