Here are two signs that the Obama administration is attempting to dial down tensions with Iran, sending powerful symbolic signals that Washington does not want to see the crisis with Iran militarized.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will hold talks this week with his Israeli counterparts. He appears to be warning them not to strike out at Iran unilaterally.
I’ve been having this debate with friends on email and am arguing that the Obama administration will not launch strikes against Iran in an election year, and nor would President Obama greenlight an Israeli strike. Hence Gen. Dempsey’s visit.
The reason for this 2012 time out is that a military strike is inherently unpredictable in its outcome. Politicians don’t like uncertainty, especially in the middle of a hard-fought campaign. If the strikes turned into any kind of war, conventional or uncoventional, that outcome could make Obama look foolhardy and cost him the election.
There is lots of historical precedent for my conclusion. Eisenhower was furious at Israel, Britain and France for launching the 1956 war just before the presidential election. Since they hadn’t informed him they would do this, it made him look like he wasn’t strong in the Middle East. Then, the hostage crisis in Iran, along with the failed helicopter rescue mission, Helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president.
In addition, the planned joint US-Israeli war games, Austere Challenge 2012, have been cancelled or postponed. The reason for this move has not been made clear by the US. Some are saying that Israel’s budget situation made it impossible to hold the maneuvers now, while others say that Washington became alarmed at what such an exercise might look like at a time of high tensions with Iran in the Straits of Hormuz.
Austere Challenge 2012 was meant to reassure the Israelis about US missile shield technology. That capacity, in turn, was intended to reassure the Israelis that their future was not in doubt, and that they did not need to take desperate measures against Iran immediately
My guess is that the Obama administration decided that reassuring the Israelis about the US missile shield via these joint military drills might have been misinterpreted in the region an implied threat of a joint US-Israeli military attack on, say, the Natanz nuclear facilities.
The US Open Source Center paraphrases two Israeli Hebrew-language sources on the cancellation or postponement of the exercises:
Joint US-Israel Drill Put Off Due to ‘Wrong Timing’; Sources Disagree on Reasons
Israel — OSC Summary
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Israeli Defense Sources Disagree on Reasons for Military Drill’s Cancellation
Amir Buhbut reports in leading news website Walla! in Hebrew at 1500 GMT: “Reports saying the joint US-Israeli military exercise may not take place generated numerous theories as to the reason behind the change. ‘We learned last weekend that the air defense exercise was canceled, and we were stunned,’ a senior defense source said in a closed conversation today (Sunday). The source added that ‘budget problems were not the reason for the drill’s cancellation.’
“Various defense sources disagreed on whether the exercise had been postponed or cancelled, as well as for the reasons. For example, contrary to previously reported explanations, a senior defense source said that a joint Israeli-US statement was supposed to be issued this week, announcing the drill’s postponement. The senior source explained that the reasons for the decisions have not been announced as yet, but they apparently revolve around the IDF’s budget problems.”
Another source rejected the theory that it was a US decision made against the backdrop of the rising Israeli-Iranian tension. The Israeli side is yet to react to the reports.”
Drill Not Canceled, Merely Postponed Due to ‘Wrong Timing’
Amir Bar-Shalom reports on state-funded, independent Jerusalem Israel Television Channel 1 in Hebrew at 1900 GMT: “The postponement of the largest-ever joint US-Israeli military exercise seems to be the result of wrong timing. For the Americans, the exercise would have greatly exacerbated the tension in the region at the very time other moves — the sanctions — are starting to bear fruit. Israel too prefers to postpone the drill so as to be able to focus on other things. Thus the postponement suits both sides.
“Moreover, the whole world is watching the Israeli and the US moves in the matter of Iran. An exercise of this nature would undoubtedly give rise to speculation as to its objectives and would possibly cause Iran to misinterpret some facts. Both Israel and the United States are fully aware of this possibility. Therefore, a statement issued by the defense establishment tonight says that the exercise has not been canceled, merely postponed to the second part of 2012.”