Israel vs Iran: the Washington factor

The mid-term election results in the United States carry implications for Israel’s military plans towards Iran.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 November 2010

The extensive publicity around the release of George W Bush's memoir Decision Points has underplayed an important detail with ever more relevance to contemporary international politics: that in 2005-06 his administration considered an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The former United States president acknowledges divisions among his advisers over any such move, but the fact that it was on the White House’s agenda confirms that the warnings of independent analysts were close to home (see Iran: Consequences of a War [Oxford Research Group, February 2006] and “The next Iran war”  [16 February 2006]).

A further admission in the volume, also related to military calculations in the middle east, attracted even less media attention. This is a request in 2007 by Israeli’s then prime minister Ehud Olmert that the United States destroy a suspected nuclear plant in Syria, being built with North Korean aid. The US weighed the options of an air-strike and a special-forces operation but in the end - partly because of low confidence in the accuracy of intelligence on the nature of the facility - decided against action.

The Israelis then took the initiative, and on 6 September 2007 launched a raid with their new F-15Is from the air force's sixty-ninth squadron which destroyed the site . George W Bush’s artful account is also revealing about the nature of the US/Israel relationship at the time:

“The bombing demonstrated Israel's willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn't asked for a green light and I hadn't given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”

These particular moments in the second term of a presidency dominated by the “war on terror” might appear merely a codicil to a much larger history. In fact they are highly significant in a current context where the possibility of armed confrontation with Iran must again be taken seriously (see “America and Iran: the spark of war”, 20 September 2007).

This may not be immediately apparent, at least from the perspective of the European Union’s relations with Iran: there are contacts between the sides over Iran’s nuclear plans, and indications that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government may be seeking a route beyond the current impasse - not least because United Nations sanctions are having an impact on an economy already weakened by persistent mismanagement (see Rasool Nafisi, "Iran, sanctions and war: fuel of crisis", 13 September 2010). This cautious dialogue contributes to the sense among western publics that the risk of war with Iran has diminished.

The trigger

Two factors in the current situation suggest that this assessment may be wrong, and dangerously so.

The first is Israel’s military perceptions and calculations. The enduring view among Israeli officials is that Iran is in the process of developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and that any ostensible Iranian concession over the issue can only be a delaying and diversionary tactic.

Moreover, the Israelis are concerned about another military development that receives little coverage in western media: the production and test-firing of Iran's first medium-range solid-fuelled ballistic missile, the Sajjil. All of Iran's medium-range missiles to date have been liquid-fuelled, and mostly based on developments of the 1950s-era Soviet Scuds. These missiles take time to be fuelled and are therefore more vulnerable to pre-emptive attack; the solid-fuelled Sajjil, by contrast, is closer to western technology of the 1970s and can be maintained ready to launch.

This combination of perceived threats - a presumed nuclear programme and more modern missile technologies - reinforces the Israeli government’s belief that it must take action against Iran. The only question is when (see "Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war", 15 July 2010).

The second factor is the condition and atmosphere of domestic politics in the United States, especially in light of the US’s mid-term elections on 2 November 2010 when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. Since this outcome, there has been heightened rhetoric on Iran from leading Republicans such as Senator Lindsey Graham, who argued on 6 November that any development of a nuclear weapon by Tehran must be countered by a wholesale effort to “neutralise” the regime there and “destroy [its] ability to fight back.”

In practice, hawkish voices both in Congress are aware that as long as Barack Obama remains in the White House there is no realistic prospect of the United States embarking on a war with Iran. The dominant view in the White House is that a military strike on Iran, whether by Israel or the United States, would turn out to be deeply counterproductive. But this very reluctance - as with the George W Bush / Ehud Olmert discussions of 2007 - means in effect that agency in the matter returns to Israel (see “Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects” [Oxford Research Group, July 2010].

The decision

It is here that the two factors that currently highlight the possibility of an attack on Iran - Israeli perceptions and American politics - become potently intertwined. For if Israel is prepared to go it alone over Iran (as over Syria), it is also concerned about how an assault on Iran’s facilities would be seen in the United States (see "Israel's security: beyond the zero-sum", 26 August 2010).

In this respect the elections are a move in the Israeli leadership’s direction, for they have also revitalised the Christian right many of whose supporters believe implicitly that Israel and its survival are at the heart of God's plan for humanity (see “Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005).

The voting power of this constituency far exceeds that of traditional pro-Israel support in the United States, and it will certainly be influential when Barack Obama seeks re-election in 2012. The mid-term elections have also emboldened Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to adopt a notably more combative tone towards Iran, and to announce the building of new West Bank settlements (see Amos Harel, "Here's why Israel must not attack Iran now", Ha'aretz, 18 November 2010).

The new political dynamics in the United States tend to suggest that Barack Obama will be more cautious about condemning Israel forcefully in the wake of any attack on Iran than in other circumstances. In turn they increase anxiety in European Union circles and add to a sense of urgency about engaging with Tehran. On all sides the decision points are becoming sharper - and the prospect of an Israeli military operation against Iran is again high on the agenda.

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