The Israeli press notes that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and maverick Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been talking up a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
No one knows if the two are just trying to create a threatening environment for Iran, in hopes of intimidating Tehran on a range of issues, or if they are preparing Israeli public opinion for an actual strike. The problem with talking big to scare an enemy, if that is the tactic, is that the talk can spiral into action whether one likes it or not. (This mistake was probably what got Gamal Abdel Nasser into the 1967 war: Israeli hawks such as Moshe Dayan took advantage of his saber rattling to launch an attack, which could be portrayed as preemptive.)
Former Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan revealed last spring that he and other security officials had forestalled a Netanyahu-Barak crazy scheme to hit Iran, about a year ago. Dagan said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” He was worried that all the adults in the room had retired at once on the security side, leaving the inmates in charge of the asylum so to speak.
If what Dagan said is accurate, then it is entirely plausible that Netanyahu and Barak are up to their old tricks again. On the other hand, it is not clear that they could get their present security establishment to go along. Maariv reported in Hebrew on Nov. 3, according to the USG Open Source Center, that Barak has abysmal relations with his generals, including the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. The crisis of confidence extends, Maariv says, to Mossad or Israeli intelligence.
If this report is true, it may well be that Dagan’s successors will be impossible to convince on the wisdom of an Iran strike, just as he and his then peers were.
But I myself think that Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing, and have been using opposition from their security establishment as a convenient explanation for why they do not go beyond threats and innuendo.
A key consideration is that it is difficult to believe that Israel would dare launch such an attack without a green light from the Obama administration. Israel will need the US to resupply arms and spare parts if hostilities spiral out of control, and would like help with signals and other intelligence. An angered Obama could drag his feet on such help.
No such green light will be forthcoming while US troops are withdrawing from Iraq, because they will be especially vulnerable to attack at the hands of radical Shiites. Muqtada al-Sadr would likely relaunch his Mahdi Army for this purpose, and everyone in Washington knows this. Obama would not want convoys hit as they headed toward the Kuwaiti border. So the whole thing is out of the question until at least January.
Even after US troops are out of Iraq, the US will want to try to keep as much influence in Baghdad as it can. The Obama administration almost certainly realizes that an Israeli attack on Iran would willy-nilly push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into the arms of Tehran. Even the US embassy in Baghdad would be vulnerable to massive attack, especially once the troops are out. Al-Maliki supported Lebanon’s Hizbullah against Israel during the 2006 war, and would certainly adopt the same position in the event of another conflict, kicked off by a bombing of the Natanz facility. Al-Maliki’s Da’wa Islamiya or Islamic Call Party was partially responsible for the formation of Hizbullah in Lebanon in 1984.
Moreover, Iran can still make a lot of trouble for the US in Afghanistan, which Obama also wants to begin wrapping up, with a planned 30,000 troop reduction in the first half of 2012.
An Israeli attack on Iran would kill what is left of the Arab Spring. Syrians would be forced to rally behind Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies. Likely in Yemen as well, Ali Abdullah Saleh would use the attack to silence his opposition.
A budding Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis would be brought to fruition and strengthened, creating a problem for the US from the Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Such an Israeli attack would certainly give the Muslim Brotherhood a fillip in the parliamentary elections, which the US would see as undesirable.
An Israeli attack on Iran would artificially put up the price of petroleum significantly for as long as hostilities continued, which in turn could push the US economy into a second dip recession and kill Obama’s chances of reelection.
Obama disapproves of adventurism. He was difficult to convince on the Libya War, and wants to be able to campaign on a calming Middle East, not one in flames. President Dwight Eisenhower was furious about the Israeli, British and French attack on Egypt in late October 1956 because it happened days before election day and made him look weak and not in control on foreign policy. For the same reason, Obama would be angered by an attack on Iran now that election season has begun.
So my own analysis suggests that there will be no American green light for Israeli adventurism regarding Iran.