Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.
No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.
But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.
The nature of the weapons the U.S. is selling the Israelis might lead one to think that what Hagel is bringing to the Jewish state is some kind of conditional green light to take out Iran’s nuclear plants. But the absence of the big bunker buster makes it unlikely that what is happening is the U.S. granting permission to the Israelis to act on their own.
On the contrary, the arms sales seem to be an attempt to placate the Israelis while making any attack on Iran highly unlikely. While Israel could certainly gravely damage Iran’s nuclear program without the ability to penetrate the 200 feet of mountain rock at Fordow, the Islamist regime’s all-important stockpile of enriched uranium will be safe. If the centrifuges spinning away at Fordow are spared, an Iran strike can’t be said to have achieved success.
What the Americans seem to be telling Israel is that the reported diversion of some of Iran’s uranium to a research reactor rather than to the store of fuel that would create a bomb gives the West more time to achieve a diplomatic solution. But with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin saying Iran will probably cross a “red line” in terms of its nuclear stockpile this summer, time is running short for a non-military solution. And with the Iranians continuing to use the P5+1 nuclear talks with the West to keep stalling, there seems little doubt that a decision will have to be made sometime in the next year about ending this threat.
While part of the U.S. message to Israel is just about giving the diplomats more time, the other aspect of the administration’s stance might be more troubling. If they are saying that action must wait until the Iranians weaponize, rather than when their nuclear stockpile reaches the level when a bomb becomes possible, they are asking the Israelis to live with a nuclear-capable Iran. That’s not quite the same as the containment policy Hagel endorsed before joining the administration and which Obama has disavowed, but it is close enough to scare both the Israelis and the rest of a region that rightly fears a radical Islamist bomb.
But by refusing to transfer the big bunker buster the U.S. is saying that it is reserving for itself the option to use force against Iran. That makes sense, since America’s capability to project the airpower against Iran needed for such a strike far exceeds that of Israel. After all, the bunker buster needed to take out Fordow is too big to be used by any of the planes in Israel’s possession.
Iran is a threat to more than Israel, and it is entirely right that the responsibility for stopping them belongs to the U.S. and not the Jewish state. But its still not clear if the U.S. is prepared to use force.
The Iranians again made a mockery of the diplomatic process last month in Kazakhstan. While the talks continue Tehran’s hoard of enriched uranium continues to grow and will almost certainly cross the red line Netanyahu drew at the United Nations last year before the end of 2013. But so long as the U.S. is still acting as if it is more concerned about stopping Israel from attacking Iran than in the nuclear threat itself, the ayatollahs are bound to take that as a sign they have nothing to worry about.