At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.
But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.
According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.'s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.
Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union's gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.
Any smaller strikes that Israel makes against Iran before the economic sanctions would bring down on Israel the ire of the international community, along with that of the Obama administration. Not to mention that Israel certainly wouldn’t want to risk a counterattack if it didn’t have to. So it won’t.
If all of this is true, why would the Israelis telegraph an attack on Iran that is unlikely to happen quite so fast? Well, it’s in their best interests to talk the talk. By using coordinated speaking points they’re bringing Iran front and center on the global stage, while the international community still has time to deal with it. Since the last thing the Israelis want to do is rely on the U.S. to fight their battles for them, they have to press on the Iran issue now, and threaten to act unilaterally, to get the U.S. and EU to act with alacrity. In fact, sources close to the Israeli decision-making process have told me that no final decision has been reached about when or whether to strike Iran. Simply put, it would be premature for Netanyahu and Barak to have made up their minds already. But why would they tell this to the rest of the world when they are convinced the Iranian nuclear threat will soon be very, very real?