By Dr Subhash Kapila
Israel and the United States stand united in the belief that Iran at no cost should be permitted to emerge as a nuclear weapons power- there are no divergent perceptions there. But differing perceptions exist between Israel and the United States in terms of the political and military decision as to the timing of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations. This emerged significantly in the public domain during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the United States this week.
Significant was the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister to Washington as besides a summit meeting with US President Obama, it coincided with the Annual Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the very powerful Jewish organization which enjoys tremendous leverages over United States foreign policy formulations, especially on matters pertaining to the Middle East and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu made an impassioned address to 13,000 delegates at the AIPAC Conference on March 06 2021 in which he forcefully asserted that Iran was not amenable to diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions to desist from its nuclear weaponization path and that the ‘military option’ was the only strategy available to stop Iran.
In other words, Israel did not subscribe to the US President’s current approach of first applying diplomatic pressures and stringent economic pressures and only if these failed the United States would consider exercising the ‘military option’ against Iranian nuclear installations.
The Israeli Prime Minister also interacted with the US Congress and made similar impassioned pleas that Israel’s security and survival were at stake and the United States should stand by Israel in preventing Iran from the acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities. Bipartisan assertions of support were expressed in the US Congress for Israel.
Israel’s Prime Minister sensed that this was the most propitious moment to extract significant pledges from the US President with presidential elections underway and the power of the Jewish vote in US elections. Israel it seems perceived the present US policies on Iran of diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions as ‘containment strategy’ as opposed to pre-emptive strikes. Israel also perceived that the US President in deference to strong US public opinion against any further US military interventions in the Middle East may be shying away from the ‘military option’.
The US President under electoral pressures seemed to have given-in and committed that the ‘military option’ against Iran continued to be on the US table and that containment was not an option. But President Obama seems to have qualified US commitments presently given as becoming operative only when diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions against Iran fail. But in terms of connotation values I believe that the US and its Western allies current strategy is nothing but a containment strategy of Iran by political pressures and economic sanctions. For Israel, the connotation of containment is a perception that the US may presumably feel confident that by its overwhelming military superiority it can contain Iran should it even slip away with possessing a nuclear weapon.
Needless to state that US President Obama finds support from Western Allies like Britain and France for the present strategy that he has adopted. Contextually, Russia’s multiple warnings against military strikes on Iran and China’s cautionary advisory cannot be overlooked as both these UN Security Council Members have significant stakes in Iran.
Consistent analysis on the effectiveness of joint US-Israeli military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities or unilateral military strikes by Israel has taken place, including in my Papers on this issue, even recently. The aim in this Paper is not to repeat the same but to focus on the divergent perceptions that separate the United States and Israel on Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel would be prompted to undertake unilateral military strikes against Iran as a result of the differing perceptions.
With the above in view, this Paper attempts to analyse the differing perceptions that separate the United States and Israel in terms of the timing of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear capabilities under the following heads:
- United States Assessment on Iran’s Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons
- United States and Israel’s Differing Perceptions on Military Strikes Against Iran Strategy: Pre-emptive Strikes or Diplomatic and Economic Containment Strategy
- Israel Prime Minister’s Iran-Centric Visit to Washington
- Israel’s Unilateral Military Strikes against Iran: The Likelihood?
United States Assessment on Iran’s Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons
Pertinent to note initially itself, is the US assessment on the acquisition of Nuclear Weapons capability by Iran. Well publicised also is the fact that Iran has been consistently denying that its nuclear program is geared towards acquisition of nuclear weapons. US assessments on the time-frame of acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran acquires significance in terms of options available to the US President in arriving at the fateful decision as to when the ‘military option’ still retained on the table should be made operative.
Israeli PM Netanyahu may have extracted from the US president a declaration that the military option against Iran’s nuclear program is still on the table but it can be observed that the US President as far as public commitments made in March 2012 does not seem to have given any commitment on when the United States can be expected to strike militarily against Iran or whether the United States endorses a unilateral Israeli military strikes against Iran.
In terms of US assessments on Iran’s nuclear weapons program the following reports may be pertinent:
- Director US National Intelligence in a testimony before US Congress in January 2012 stated that he believed that Iran had yet not decided whether or not to build a nuclear bomb.
- A recent New York Times article is reported to have stated that “Recent assessments by American spy agencies have reaffirmed intelligence findings in 2007 and 2010 that concluded Iran has abandoned the nuclear weapons program.”
- More significantly is a reported statement by US President Obama which states: “Our assessment, which is shared by te Israelis, is that Iran does not have yet a nuclear weapon and not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making the attempt.”
Obviously, such assessments as officially stated above would have an impact on US military decisions in terms of US military strikes against Iran and especially the timing of the US military option.
United States and Israel’s Differing Perceptions on Military Strikes against Iran Strategy: Pre-emptive Strikes or Diplomatic and Economic Containment Strategy?
The US President’s statement above highlights the fact that Israel shares the US assessment that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and that a pretty long lead time would be available to discern if Iran is attempting the same. Implicit in the above is the US strategy that in the interim time should be given for diplomacy and economic sanctions to work and dissuade Iran from the nuclear weapons path. Implicit in this also is the fact that the ‘military option’ should be the option of last resort when diplomatic and economic sanctions fail.
However it is from here that the Israeli perceptions differ from the United States significantly. Israel is growing impatient by the day as it strongly feels that each day spent by the United States on diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions to be effective makes Iran that much closer to achieving nuclear weapons capability.
The most significant divergence in Israeli and United States perceptions is that Israel is pushing for pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability while the United States wishes to follow the diplomatic and economic containment strategy against Iran confident presumably that even in the worst case scenario the United States has massive military power to contain a nuclearized Iran.
The significant divergence in Israel and United States strategic approaches are well illustrated in the words of David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and he states:
“The United States has put its focus on Iran actually gaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel—more vulnerable to Iranian missiles due to its geographical proximity—views the threshold as the Iranian regime’s acquisition of enough low-enriched uranium to build a bomb, pending a political decision to convert it to weapon-grade fuel”
Another analyst, Caroline Glick makes Israel’s’ strong preference for pre-emptive strikes against Iran more lucidly explainable. She states:
“From Israel’s perspective, Iran’s nuclear program becomes unstoppable as soon as the Iranians move sufficient enriched uranium and/or centrifuges to Fordow nuclear installation by Qom. Since Israel reportedly lacks the ability to destroy this facility, Israel’s time-lines for attacking Iran will likely end within weeks. The United States reportedly has the capacity to successfully bomb Fordow and so its time-lines for attacking Iran is longer than Iran.”
More briefly put, Israel’s strategy focuses not only on stopping Iran from producing nuclear weapons but more importantly to prevent Iran from reaching anywhere close to acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and hence Israel’s stress on pre-emptive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Israeli Prime Minister’s Iran-Centric Visit to Washington
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Washington visit can be squarely termed as an Iran-Centric visit and he gave the impression of being combative on the issue of Israeli urgency for military strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations. All his speeches in Washington underscored Israel’s determination to halt Iran’s nuclear program and dissatisfaction with United States emphasis on diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions against Iran.
Obviously, the focus of the Israeli PM visit to Washington was solely to make the US President to commit that the ‘military option’ against Iran continued to be securely fastened on the United States table and make out a case forcefully that Israel may be pushed into adopting unilateral military strikes against Israel as Israel could not afford Iran getting temptingly close to acquiring nuclear weapons production capability.
The speech of PM Netanyahu at the AIPAC Annual Conference to 13,000 Jewish audience was impassioned and laid stress on the following salient points; (1) Israel was determined to prevent Iran from production of nuclear weapons (2) Israel will not live in the shadow of annihilation (3) Israel will not tolerate Ayatollahs having atomic bombs (4) Israel will always retain capability to defend itself, by itself against any threat (5) Israel will always remain the master of its own future.
The fifth point seemingly alludes to Israel’s right to devise strategies against Iran independent of US strategic readings on the Iranian nuclear program including launching Israel launching unilateral strikes against Iran.
The Israeli Prime Minister drew bipartisan support in his visit and discussions with the US Congress where he sought to convey that the United States could have different strategic responses to the Iranian threat as America has global interests to think off. But Israel in close proximity to Iran felt more vulnerable and has to think of tactical military solutions against Iran. House Speaker Boehner stressed that in response that the US Congress will never allow Israel to stand alone and that now is the time for USA and Israel to stand together and the US Congress would like to assure the Israeli PM of US support. House Minority Leader Pelosi went a step further by statement that containment of Iran was not an option and it was in the interests of United States, Israel and the region that Iran’s nuclear program be stopped.
President Obama had a three hour discussion with the visiting Israeli PM. Reports suggest that the issue of military strikes against Iran was the main topic of discussion. Both sides reiterated their respective positions. US analyses suggest that the US president refused to draw ‘redlines’ as to when could the US order military strikes against Iran The maximum that the Israeli PM could extract from the US was that US retained the ‘military option ‘on the table to be used as a weapon of last resort should the current US strategy fails to produce the desired results. Also that containment of Iran as perceived by Israel was not part of US strategy.
However the endorsement by the US President of Israel’s right to decide its own future needs to be noted once again as significant. Does it imply that the United States would not stop Israel from unilateral strikes against Iran knowing fully well that once Israeli unilateral strikes are unleashed and Iranian and Islamic street react in consequence against Israel and US, the United States would invariably be drawn-in in any case.
Israel’s Unilateral Military Strikes against Iran: The Likelihood?
Since divergences exist in United States and Israel in their perceptions and assessments of the Iranian nuclear program heading towards weaponization, an uncertainty hangs on the crucial question whether Israel consequently is prompted into unilateral military strikes against Iranian nuclear complexes. Two points need to be analysed in this connection. The first being whether Israel has substantial military capabilities to destroy Iranian nuclear installations or Israel’s military capabilities can at best inflict a temporary crippling effect on Iran’s nuclear installations? The second point is whether Israel can ignore the US President’s advice to let diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions to work before the ‘military option against Iran is applied?
The objective answer to the first point is that Israel does not possess substantial military capabilities to deliver a knock-out blow against Iranian nuclear installations. Only the United States possesses such military capabilities.
The answer to the second point lies in the statements made by the Israeli Prime Minister to US Congress leaders as reported in The Jerusalem Post: “Citing historical precedents in which US and Israel did not see eye to eye and Israel acted according to its own perceptions of interests he cited Ben Guiron declaring independence against advice of US; Levi Eshkol launched pre-emptive attacks in 1967 against US advice and Menachim Begin bombing Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 against US advice”
If such pointed statements were made by the Israeli Prime Minister on Capitol Hill, then again these can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation being that it was an Israeli pressure tactic to hasten the US decision to apply the ‘military option’ against Iran.
The second and more ominous interpretation is that Israel is determined not to wait-out US current strategy to yield results but launch Israeli unilateral military strikes against Iran irrespective of cost and consequences and then let the United States to pick-up and manage the debris that would follow Israeli unilateral strikes
Since Israeli pre-emptive military strikes against Iran are directly linked to its current military capabilities, however short of full destruction, it can be said that Israeli unilateral strikes against Iran are quite likely.
In this connection, one would like to quote a The Telegraph, UK, report citing a senior retired Israeli Defence Ministry official as: “Israelis are psychologically such that they prefer to rely on themselves and not on others, given their history. We feel that we have relied on others in the past, and they have failed us.”
While on the question of Israeli unilateral military strikes on Iran apprehensions have been expressed in some quarters that Israel may be egged on this course by Saudi Arabia which could possibly extend to provide Israeli Air Force staging facilities for their military strikes. On the face of it, such apprehensions can be dismissed as speculative or conspiracy theories, but it must be remembered that in the field of international relations everything is possible, especially when Saudi Arabia has a strategic convergence with Israel in foiling of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s combative visit to Washington this week was Iran-Centric, in that exploiting the contextual political environment, he did manage the US President to commit that the US had still the ‘military option’ against Iran on the table and that containment was not an option. However, the United States does not seem to have been swayed away from its strategy of letting diplomatic pressures and stringent economic sanctions to work and reserve the ‘military option’ as a weapon of last resort.
On the crucial question of Israeli unilateral military strikes against Iran, the determining point seems to be only weeks away as per Israeli threat perceptions. If that be so then a real possibility exists of Israel ignoring its own public opinion, international opinion and the US President’s unstated hopes that Israel would pend its decision until after the November Presidential Elections in USA.
That the United States and its Western Allies have indicated their readiness to resume talks with Iran, after Iran made such an offer, to discuss the controversial Iranian nuclear program indicates that for the moment the United States does not subscribe to the Israeli demand for pre-emptive strikes against Iran.