The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.
If so, where does that leave Israel?
The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ordered the army to continue preparing for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a cost of at least 10 billion shekels ($2.89 billion) this year, despite the talks between Iran and the West, according to recent statements by senior military officers.
Three Knesset members who were present at Knesset joint committee hearings on Israel Defense Forces plans that were held in January and February say they learned during the hearings that 10 billion shekels to 12 billion shekels of the defense budget would be allocated this year for preparations for a strike on Iran, approximately the same amount that was allocated in 2013.
The leaking of this information this week makes it clear that Netanyahu would like both the Iranians and his American ally to think that he is still actively considering a unilateral strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. The same interpretation might be put on statements from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who boasted yesterday that the IDF has the ability to carry out military operations anywhere on the globe, including Iran.
Opposition to a solo Israeli attack on Iran has been stiff within the country’s military and security establishment. This reluctance has been rooted not so much in a belief that Israel was incapable of dealing Iran a devastating blow but that the blowback from such an operation might be almost as bad as the scenario that it would be intended to avert. Even assuming Israeli forces could make enough sorties into Iranian airspace to knock out Tehran’s nuclear facilities without unacceptable losses, it might set off a regional conflict. Iran’s Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south in Gaza might launch their own strikes at Israeli cities and embroil the country in a costly three-front war.
Just as important, many Israeli security officials have always felt that dealing with Iran was primarily America’s responsibility. If push came to shove, the far more numerous American air and naval forces in the region would also be in a much better position to do the job. Moreover, they also know that if it did act on its own, Israel risks deepening its diplomatic isolation and creating more problems with the Obama administration.
But if, thanks to Russia, America’s diplomatic option to stop Iran is no longer viable and few take seriously the notion that President Obama would use force against Tehran under any circumstances, that would put Netanyahu in a position where he might think the IDF was the last and perhaps only hope of preventing an Iranian bomb.
While Netanyahu has said he won’t be deterred from acting by American diplomacy, anyone who thinks he will order an attack on Iran while the P5+1 talks are ongoing is not thinking clearly. An Israeli attack under those circumstances would create a quarrel with Washington that the prime minister rightly wishes to avoid at all costs. Force only becomes a possibility once those talks are seen to have failed and even then both Obama and the Iranians may think the Israelis wouldn’t dare act on their own. Only time will tell if they are right.
Nevertheless, Obama should be encouraging Netanyahu to rattle his saber as loudly and as much as possible. With Russia determined to thwart any U.S. foreign-policy initiative, the only possible hope for a P5+1 deal is for Iran to believe that the alternative is an Israeli attack that, however costly, would inflict a decisive blow to their nuclear ambitions.