[Marxism] US must stop mixed signals on attacking Iran, by Roane Cary

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Apr 14 08:14:53 MDT 2009

US Must Stop Mixed Signals on Iran 
By Roane Carey

April 13, 2009

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Israel has been steadily ratcheting up pressure on the United States
concerning the grave threat allegedly posed by Iran, which seems poised to
master the nuclear fuel cycle, and thus the capacity to produce nuclear
weapons. The new Israeli prime minister, Likud Party hawk Benjamin
Netanyahu, has warned President Barack Obama that if Washington does not
quickly find a way to shut down Iran's nuclear program, Israel will. 

Some analysts argue that this is manufactured hysteria, not so much a
reflection of genuine Israeli fears as a purposeful diversion from other
looming difficulties. The Netanyahu government is filled with hardliners
adamantly opposed to withdrawal from, or even a temporary freeze on,
settlements in the occupied territories, not to mention to any acceptance of
Palestinian statehood. On his first day as foreign minister, extremist
demagogue Avigdor Lieberman, with characteristic bluster, announced that
Israel was no longer bound by the 2007 Annapolis agreements brokered by
Washington, which called for accelerated negotiations toward a two-state

Such talk threatens to lead the Israelis directly into a clash with the
Obama administration. In what can only be taken as a rebuttal of the
Netanyahu government's recent pronouncements, in his speech to the Turkish
Parliament Obama pointedly reasserted Washington's commitment to a two-state
settlement and to the Annapolis understandings. So what better way for
Netanyahu to avoid an ugly clash with a popular American president than to
conveniently shift the discussion to an existential threat from
Iran--especially if he can successfully present it as a threat not just to
Israel but to the West in general? 

All of this adds up to a plausible argument against undue alarm over the
latest Israeli warnings about an attack on Iran, but it's flawed on several
grounds. There is a broad, generally accepted paranoia in Israel about Iran,
a belief that its leaders must be stopped before they proceed much further
in their uranium enrichment program. (This view is not shared on the Israeli
left, but it's now a ghost of its former self.) 

In an interview for TomDispatch, Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the
Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a specialist on the
Iran issue, commented, "Of course there are different opinions, but there is
a general consensus, among both security experts and political leaders, from
Labor to the right wing. This is not a controversial issue: if Iran acquires
nuclear weapons, it will pose a deep threat. It will be the first time in
our history that another country can deal a major blow to Israel." 

Kam hastens to add that, in his own view, the scenario Netanyahu
proposes--that Iran is led by irrational fanatics who would nuke Israel at
the first chance, even knowing that an Israeli nuclear counterstrike would
be swift and catastrophic--is false. "Iran is a pragmatic, logical player,"
Kam says. He remains convinced that "even a radical fundamentalist regime"
wouldn't attack Israel, but he adds, "This is just my assessment, and
assessments can go wrong. I wrote a study on wrong assessments, so I know
something about this." In other words, if Kam's claims about the Israeli
consensus are correct, the country's leadership takes it for granted that
Iran is indeed hell-bent on producing a nuclear weapon and is not inclined
to take a chance that a nuclear Iran will play by the MAD (as in mutually
assured destruction) rules hammered out by the two Cold War superpowers
decades ago and never use it. 

This attitude reflects a longstanding Israeli strategic principle: that no
neighboring state or combination of states can ever be allowed to achieve
anything faintly approaching military parity, because if they do, they will
try to destroy the Jewish state. By this logic, Israel's only option is to
establish and then maintain absolute military superiority over its
neighbors; they will, so this view goes, accept Israel's presence only if
they know they're sure to be defeated, or at least vastly outmatched. 

This is the famous "iron wall," conceived by early Zionist leader Vladimir
Jabotinsky more than 80 years ago, well before the founding of Israel
itself. (Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist movement, which in opposition to
the Labor mainstream refused to accept any territorial compromise regarding
Zionist aims, such as partition. Although he and his followers were for
years shut out of the political leadership, their views regarding Israel's
neighbors became deeply lodged in the public psyche.) If Iran were to
acquire the capacity to build even one nuke--Israel itself is estimated to
have 150-200 of them--that iron wall would be considered seriously breached,
and the country might no longer be able to dictate terms to its neighbors.
Given Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Israel
would then have to recalibrate its strategy both on its northern front and
vis-à-vis the Palestinians. 

Recent developments in Israel could certainly give the impression of a
nation preparing for war: the Home Front command, one of four regional
divisions of the Israeli army, has just announced the largest defense
exercise in the country's history. It will last an entire week and is
intended to prepare the civilian population for missile strikes from both
conventional warheads and unconventional ones (whether chemical, biological
or nuclear). Meanwhile, the country is accelerating its testing of missile
defense systems, having just announced the successful launch of the Arrow II

Can Israel Go It Alone? 

Would Israel really attack Iran without at least tacit approval from
Washington? Could Israel do so without such approval? At the very least,
Israel would need approval simply to get permission to fly over Iraq, whose
airspace is controlled by the US military, not the Iraqi government in
Baghdad. As columnist Aluf Benn put it in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz,
"Defense experts say that without a green light from Washington, Netanyahu
and Barak will not be able to send in the air force." Kam adds, "In my
judgment, it is somewhere between difficult to impossible for Israel to do
it alone, for both technical and political reasons." 

Most analysts here believe that a solo Israeli attack would, at best, set
back Iran's nuclear program by several years--not that this would
necessarily be a deterrent to Netanyahu & Co. It's widely believed that, in
their view, even a temporary delay in Iran's nuclear capability would be an
improvement on the current course. It's worth recalling that Israel sought
an explicit go-ahead from the Bush administration for an attack last year,
which President Bush--presumably fearing massive conventional retaliation
from Iran in both Iraq and Afghanistan-- sensibly refused, a rare moment in
his tenure when he did not accede to Israeli wishes. 

It's also clear that President Obama seeks to resolve the standoff with Iran
through diplomatic means. He's abandoned the confrontational rhetoric of his
predecessor and continues to extend peace feelers to the Islamic Republic.
Tehran's response has been mixed, but at least a new mood of negotiation is
in the air. 

Israeli strategists, however, see this new mood as threatening, not hopeful.
Any US rapprochement with Iran--especially if carried out on terms that
acknowledge Iran's status as a regional power--could, they fear, undermine
Israel's "special relationship" with Washington. As Iran analyst Trita Parsi
put it in a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Iran would then "gain
strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel." 

It's within the realm of possibility, for example, that Washington could
work out a grand bargain with Tehran terminating its policy of regime change
and ending sanctions in return for Tehran's vow never to weaponize its
nuclear program. Intrusive international inspections would presumably
guarantee such a bargain, but Tehran's national pride would remain intact,
as it would be allowed to retain the right to enrich uranium and develop a
peaceful nuclear infrastructure. 

There has even been some recent slippage in Washington's language when it
comes to demands placed on Iran--with an insistence on an end to all nuclear
enrichment evidently being replaced by an insistence on no weapons
development. To Israel, this would be a completely unsatisfactory
compromise, as its leaders fear that Iran might at some point abandon such
an agreement and in fairly short order weaponize. 

Given Obama's new approach, it might seem that Israel is stymied for now.
After all, it's hard to imagine Obama giving the go-ahead for an attack.
Just this week, Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that he thought such an
Israeli attack "would be ill-advised." 

Other factors, however, play in the hardliners' favor: the Obama
administration's new special envoy for Iran, Dennis Ross, is himself a
hardliner. Last year, Ross was part of an ultra-hawkish task force that
predicted the failure of any negotiations and all but called for war with
Iran. Ross is a man who not only knows how to play the bureaucratic game in
Washington, but has powerful backers in the administration, and his views
will have plenty of support from pro-Israel hawks in Congress. 

The attitude of another key sector in decision-making, the high command of
the US military, may also be evolving. Washington's dilemma in Iraq is not
nearly as dire as it was two years ago. The nightmare envisioned by the
American generals running the Iraq campaign in recent years--that, in
response to an attack on its nuclear facilities, Iran could send tens of
thousands of well-trained commandos across the border and inflict grave
damage on US forces--has faded somewhat. The Iraqi government's military has
much better control of the country today, with insurgent violence at far
lower levels. The Shiite Mahdi Army and Iran-connected "special groups" seem
to be mostly quiescent. 

Of course, the situation in Iraq is still unstable, and any attack on Iran
could easily throw the country back into ungovernable chaos. Still, given
the role we know American commanders played in nixing such an attack in the
Bush years, the question remains: Has resistance to such an attack lessened
in the military? It's unclear, but an issue worth monitoring, because
American commanders were the most consistent, persuasive voices for
moderation during the Bush administration. 

It should go without saying that an Israeli attack on Iran would have
disastrous consequences. No matter what Washington might claim, or how
vociferously officials there denounce it, such an attack would be widely
understood throughout the Muslim world as a joint US-Israeli operation. 

It would, as a start, serve as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist
Islamist groups. In addition, an outraged Iran might indeed send commandos
into Iraq, aid armed Iraqi groups determined to attack US and government
forces, shoot missiles into the Saudi or Kuwaiti oilfields, and attempt to
block the Straits of Hormuz though which a significant percentage of global
oil passes. Washington would certainly have to write off desperately needed
cooperation in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Any attack would only strengthen the reign of the mullahs in Iran
and reinforce the country's determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent
force that would prevent future attacks. And keep in mind, Iran's nuclear
program has overwhelming public support, even from those opposed to the
current regime. 

Given the Netanyahu government's visible determination to attack, an
ambiguous signal from Washington, something far less than a green light,
could be misread in Tel Aviv. Anything short of a categorical, even
vociferous US refusal to countenance an Israeli attack might have horrific
consequences. So here's a message to Obama from an observer in Israel: Don't
flash the yellow light--not even once. 

About Roane Carey
Roane Carey, managing editor at The Nation, was the editor of The New
Intifada (Verso) and, with Jonathan Shainin, The Other Israel: Voices of
Refusal and Dissent (New Press). more... 

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