David Ignatius’s account of a war game involving the United States, Israel, the Europeans, and Iran (and Gary Sick’s addendum) is a good guide to how the struggle over the Iranian nuclear program might play out:
The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.
Let me try to flesh out what the “sharp break with Washington” might consist of.
It’s clear at this point that the Obama administration has reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran and even, I think, convinced itself that this won’t be such a bad thing. After all, China opened up to the West after it went nuclear. We dealt with the Russians after they went nuclear. The Indians and Pakistanis haven’t nuked each other, despite Kashmir and all the terrorism. Neither has Israel used nukes, for that matter.
In fact, Iran going nuclear might help remove the chip on the shoulder of the Islamic Revolutionaries by making them feel as important as they hope to be — because as we all know from our Iran experts, there’s an important psychological dimension to all of this; one must understand the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. The nuclear program will really be a socialization program, in other words. It is how Iran will be broken to the saddle of the international system.
So, if you’ve reconciled yourself to all of that, the next step is ensuring the smooth transition of the Middle East into a region with two, not one, nuclear powers. This is where the Israelis, and Israeli power, become a huge problem. Such a problem, I think, that the real challenge for Obama over the next year isn’t going to be dealing with the Iranians, it’s going to be deterring the Israelis.
The Iranians probably won’t test a nuke, so there will be no above-the-fold three-alarm headline when Americans suddenly will be forced to confront the fecklessness of their president. There will be no Soviet-tanks-rolling-into-Afghanistan moment. There will be ambiguity, enough of it for Obama to be able to maintain for a long time that we just don’t know whether Iran has gone nuclear because they’re still considering our latest offer to build reactors for them on the Galapagos Islands and they’ve requested another three weeks for deliberations.
The president is perfectly capable of muddling through the nuclearization of Iran. What would create huge problems is an Israeli strike. Obama would have to use the military to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The “Arab street,” which he has worked so hard to befriend, would burn him in effigy from Algiers to Islamabad. The Zionist-Crusader axis would be denounced around the world. “Optics” are very important to Obama, quite more so than substance, and he would look as though he had completely lost control of the Middle East (which would be true). And once again, the world would descend into the kind of brutal struggle for power that is not supposed to happen during the Obama Era.
Yes, this is the real problem — the Israelis and their dangerous, rigid feelings of insecurity. So in my estimation, expect to see a major effort by the administration to keep the Israelis, not the Iranians, in check. It’s the logical thing to do.