By Boris Volkhonsky
Last week, The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is confident that there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb.
The speculations that Israel is preparing a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities had been causing concern in the U.S. which had consistently warned Israel against any unilateral actions. Also, the other U.S. allies in the Middle East and West Asia, namely Turkey and Qatar expressed worries that such an action could be disastrous.
Amid the speculations concerning a possible Israeli strike, Iran reacted very sharply saying it would retaliate against any country that might launch an attack against the Islamic Republic.
While it still remains unclear what exactly is on the minds of Israeli leaders, commentators look at various scenarios, one of them being that of a short-term (up to five days) war with further U.N.-brokered cease-fire. But even Israeli strategists do not believe that such a war might inflict serious damage to Iranian nuclear facilities, and therefore, a new strike in a few years would be needed.
As if to calm down the growing concern expressed even by the U.S.’ staunchest allies, the U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday in an NBC interview said that he did not believe Israel was preparing to attack Iran and that diplomacy remained the “preferred solution”.
The president also said that administration officials “don’t see any evidence” that Iran had the “intentions or capabilities” to mount an attack on United States soil. This remark sounded like a contradiction to a statement last Tuesday by the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who said in a testimony to the Senate that the apparent plot to kill the Saudi envoy in Washington showed that Iranian leaders “are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”
“I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” said Barack Obama. “I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.”
In fact, the contradicting reports on whether Israel has made up its mind, and what the possible U.S. reaction could be, reflect the complex nature of the whole problem. The complexity has been further highlighted after the U.S. failure to mobilize the U.N. Security Council in support of its attempts to establish its dominance in neighboring Syria, which was obviously an attempt to gain a foothold for further pressure on Iran.
Also, while the U.S. is deep entrenched in a war in neighboring Afghanistan with no clear way out, it would be, adventurous at least, or disastrous at most, to engage in a military standoff with a much more powerful adversary, the U.S. has confronted in the 21st century.
More so, the course of recent events has shown that even a hint at a possible standoff (like the EU embargo and Iranian threats to block the Hormuz Strait) results only in the sky-rocketing of oil prices, which definitely does not benefit the U.S. economy in its present shaky state, and dims Barack Obama’s prospects for re-election.
Hence, all the warnings from Washington addressed to Israel.
On the other hand, this may be part of a bigger game with neither side overtly stating what it actually means. For the U.S., a possible Israeli strike might come in quite handy. It will relieve the U.S. of the image of the one who started the war, and later, give an excuse for whatever military actions Washington sees appropriate.
The other question is what could be the fate of Israel once it decides to act as a U.S. proxy. Definitely, Iranian retaliation measures cannot target the U.S. But a reciprocal strike on Israel (even without the alleged nuclear weapons) might be too high a price for the attempt to the stop Iranian nuclear program.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.