Call Israel’s Bluff

by , August 24, 2012

The Israeli government, like other special interests prowling in Washington, is playing the American election to get what it wants. Ultimately, the Israelis want a promise that the United States will attack Iran over its nuclear program.

The Israelis recently have made threats to attack Iran. Their allies in the United States were spreading the word that Israel might do so before the U.S. election, because Barack Obama, desperate for the votes and money of American Jews in a tight election, would then be forced to support the Israeli action.

A former Israeli official then offered that Israel might give up plans to attack Iran if the United States led an effort to impose tighter economic sanctions and promised to attack Iran if that country refused to negotiate away its nuclear program. Although still using the American election to get what it wants, the latter statement shows that Israel is running a bluff to do so.

Although Barack Obama has made noises about not letting the Iranians get nuclear weapons, he has avoided promising to attack them if they don’t give up their nuclear program. He should continue to avoid such a promise, even in the face of Israeli threats.

Israel’s threat to attack Iran is a bluff, because Israeli officials have to know that their earth-penetrating bunker-busting weapons would be ineffective in reaching all of the hardened, deeply buried Iranian nuclear facilities. The Iranians have learned from past Israeli attacks from the air on above-ground Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities (in 1981 and 2007, respectively). Such an Israeli attack on Iran would not eliminate the Iranian nuclear program but would likely cause the Iranians to decide to actually produce a weapon (which U.S. intelligence says they have not yet done) and to attempt to rapidly realize that goal. (After Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Saddam Hussein accelerated efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.)

Even some doubt exists that more advanced U.S. earth-penetrating bunker-busting weapons would be able to take out all key Iranian facilities, thus also inducing an acceleration of Iranian nuclear efforts. But nevertheless, Israeli officials calculate that better U.S. weapons have a greater chance of taking out more of Iran’s nuclear capacity and that the U.S., fearing an Israeli attack would ignite the entire Middle East region, would prefer to attack Iran rather than have Israel do it.

While it may be true that any Israeli attack would inflame the Middle East more than an American one, at least the retaliation from Iran, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah of Lebanon, and other jihadists would fall more on Israel and far less on U.S. targets around the world (including U.S. troops in nearby Afghanistan).

Besides, the United States has far fewer vital interests at stake in the Middle East that would be threatened by Israeli attack-induced turmoil than is commonly believed by U.S. officials and the American public. In my book No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I argue that it is actually cheaper to buy oil, even in times of high prices, than it is to imperially “secure” it using military power in the Middle East. The world oil market will provide petroleum at the cheapest possible prices, because oil producers, including Iran, can make a profit by selling it into the world market. In other words, oil is “strategic” only because governments think it is; in reality, it behaves like any other product. The Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of Persian Gulf oil flows, but they didn’t do so during the cataclysmic Iran-Iraq War, when their national survival was at stake, and they would shut down their own oil exports by taking this action. Some analysts even doubt whether Iran is militarily capable of choking off all ship traffic through the strait.

That said, it is not a good thing that an Islamist regime, such as Iran, could get a nuclear weapon. But it is also not the end of the world for either Israel or the United States. Israel is much wealthier than most of its neighbors and could deter any attack by an Iran possessing only a few nuclear weapons by the mere existence of its vastly superior conventional military capabilities and its arsenal of 200 to 400 nuclear weapons. Despite the radical rhetoric of the Islamist leadership in Iran, the regime’s actions have always been fairly pragmatic and not suicidal.

The United States is a half a world away from Iran — requiring a long-range missile to deliver any Iranian weapon, which the Iranian regime does not now have — and has thousands of nuclear warheads as a deterrent to any limited Iranian nuclear attack. Although an Iran with a nuclear bomb might prompt other nations in the Middle East — for example, Turkey or Saudi Arabia — to develop nuclear weapons, a nuclear balance might actually inhibit war in the region, as the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance did during the Cold War. The wealthy Israel, already far ahead in any nuclear arms race in the Middle East, likely would continue to lead any such competition.

Thus, the United States should spurn Israel’s pre-election blackmail attempts and avoid promising to attack Iran, thus implicitly calling Israel’s bluff and telling the Israelis to “be my guest” for any threatened attack. If the Israelis are foolish enough to take up the challenge, they will have to live with the likely military ineffectiveness of any attack, subsequent accelerated Iranian nuclear efforts, Iranian retaliation, an unpopular Iranian regime rejuvenated, and a roiled Middle Eastern neighborhood. And the U.S. should not be around to bail them out.

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