Americans have become anxious observers as history is about to be made in the growing Iran crisis. There are diverse opinions as to how America should react to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets with President Barack Obama this week, principally to discuss Iran. It might be useful for Americans to take a more analytical approach and be less emotional in predicting how these conversations between the U.S. and Israel may unfold.
A decision tree is growing right before our very eyes. Let’s begin with the Israeli perspective. It is likely that the hawkish leadership of Israel wants to deal with the growing threat of Iran immediately. Presumably, Israel has amassed enough intelligence to convince itself that a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities should take place now. The desire to act without delay may be based upon a number of considerations, they being, how close Iran is to actually producing a deliverable weapon, Iran’s growing belligerence towards Israel, growing support of American opinion about military action against Iran, the impending presidential election in the U.S., Israel’s ability to take out the facilities with its own military assets, the effectiveness of sanctions by the West against Iran and support the Israeli government has from its people.
Obama has some of the same issues but several others as well. The president must employ a global perspective about initiating an attack on Iran or endorsing an attack by Israel. And so, he must consider the current intelligence available to him. The U.S. has intelligence assets in the region, which no doubt have expressed opinions about the status of Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel either has or will share its intelligence with the U.S. on this issue (to make its case). Obama must also consider the reaction of the global community towards a military strike, its effect on oil prices, its impact on a very fragile economic recovery, the fallout of an attack (will it lead to much greater confrontations with China and Russia?), the terrorist response to a strike, the domestic political ramifications of acting militarily and so on.
So what will be the negotiating postures of Obama and Netanyahu when they meet? If Obama is wise, he will allow Netanyahu to speak his mind before showing his cards. The prime minister will then provide the latest, and probably the best, intelligence about the Iranian nuclear capabilities. Presumably, the prime minister will indicate that Iran is “close” to being able to build a bomb, and that represents an existential threat to Israel. He will likely say that Israel is prepared to launch an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, but there are logistical issues and firepower concerns. This first volley will be designed to encourage active and immediate participation by the U.S. in an attack. The issues relate to the security of one of America’s most important allies, Israel’s ability to accomplish the mission of taking out or seriously impeding the development of a nuclear weapon and the importance of moving ahead now.
The president could respond in a number of ways. He will likely preface his comments by saying that the possession of a nuclear weapon by the Iranians is a totally unacceptable contingency, and that the U.S. is determined to prohibit the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Then, the president may go in a few different directions. He may say that he wants to give sanctions a chance to succeed. Increasing the pressure on the Iranian regime financially and diplomatically may bring Iran to its knees, and it will buckle under the pressure. To this, Netanyahu will respond that timing is important because the longer this crisis continues, the more difficult it will be to hit the targets, especially if Israel leads the effort.
The president could say that he endorses a military strike by the Israelis covertly, but they are on their own logistically and diplomatically. After the strike occurs, the U.S. will do everything in its power to rein in all of the interested parties to avert an escalation of hostilities.
The president could say that he guarantees that if sanctions are not effective, the U.S. will attack Israel. In this regard, he may or may not offer a timetable. This latter issue would be a problem for Netanyahu.
The president could say he wants Israel to stand down either because he considers it to be a “loose cannon” that threatens world peace; he considers them to be incapable of completing the mission; or he wants to deal with Iran on his own terms and without pressure from Israel. Netanyahu would obviously be dismayed by this reaction from the president, and it would represent a meaningful change in the relationship between the two countries.
I believe it is improbable that Israel would strike out at Iran without explicit or implicit approval of the U.S. But you never know. If Israel feels cornered and threatened about the near term development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, it may go ahead in any case.
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