Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nobody believes Israel as its nuclear monopoly weakens

A procession of American officials has been visiting Israel lately, to persuade the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Iran before international sanctions have had time to take hold. The arguments against an operation are familiar, but they also speak to an underlying malaise in how the world views Israel.

By striking Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel could provoke dire consequences. Iran would be likely to retaliate, perhaps with missiles, while instructing Hizbollah to fire rockets into Israel from Lebanon. Conceivably, Syria would get involved, if only to neutralise protests against the Assad regime. Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz for a time, pushing oil prices up and harming fragile western economies.

This catalogue of horrors is not improbable, despite reported Israeli assessments that Iran and Hizbollah might not react in spectacular ways. True, none of the parties relishes the prospect of war. Iran's regime is wary that if the Americans were to enter the fray, they might destroy Iranian military infrastructure. Hizbollah gains little by turning its Shiite supporters once again into Tehran's cannon-fodder. As for Syria, a devastating Israeli riposte against its army could actually be the straw that breaks the Assads' back.

Several negative outcomes could ensue for Israel as well. Not only might the country find itself in a war on several fronts; if it were to drag a reluctant Obama administration into a regional conflagration that it does not want, this could severely strain an already uneasy relationship with the United States. That's because the backlash of higher oil prices could plausibly lose Mr Obama his re-election, while undermining shaky financial recoveries globally.

But once initiated, a war could lead to this worst-case scenario. That is why few countries are willing to risk paying an onerous price for Israel's security. Even less so when the chances are that the Israelis can, at best, delay Iran's nuclear programme and unify a self-destructively divided leadership in Tehran.

This tells us something more profound. Whether the Netanyahu government likes it or not, its uncompromising behaviour in negotiations with the Palestinians in recent years has lost Israel much goodwill internationally. Notwithstanding the ineffectiveness of the Palestinians, themselves split between Fatah and Hamas, Mr Netanyahu has never been able to live down his refusal to indefinitely suspend settlement construction in the West Bank.

Israel's prime minister outmanoeuvred Mr Obama on peace negotiations last year, but to what end? Never has Israeli policy seemed so futile. The country evidently cannot make even minimal concessions to facilitate peace. It hasn't a clue about what to do with the millions of Palestinians whose destiny it controls directly or indirectly. Israel's own Arab citizens are increasingly alienated. The country is moving rightward. And Mr Netanyahu's government has had deep misgivings about the Arab uprisings, implicitly affirming that Israel feels secure only in the presence of Arab dictatorships.

Israeli leaders are agitated because so few governments accept that Iran poses an existential menace to Israel. If Iran were to build nuclear weapons, this would generate considerable regional instability. An arms race would ensue. A reinvigorated, nuclear Iran, especially one that is isolated internationally and insecure at home, might seek out foreign quarrels to bolster its domestic cohesion. But would such a country threaten Israel existentially? Not when Israel can obliterate Iran several times over.

A decision has not yet been taken in Washington on what happens if the latest sanctions on Iran fail to halt its nuclear programme. But the unprecedented force of the sanctions shows how little the Americans want a clash. And that reluctance makes me legitimately wonder whether the US would not, in the end, prefer to contain a nuclear Iran rather than endorse precarious military action that could expand into a regional war and aggravate the world economy in the process.

When the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, described Iran as a "rational actor" last weekend while in Israel, he was saying something else: that he did not buy the contention that Iran would beyond doubt employ nuclear weapons against Israel on the basis of the Islamic Republic's religious ideology. That may be obvious to many, but purported Iranian irrationality, a product of the regime's Islamic messianism, has been at the heart of the rationale for why the "the mullahs must not get the bomb".

If the Iranians are rational, then presumably they are as receptive to the principles of deterrence as anybody else. The United States and the Soviet Union embraced deterrence for four decades during the Cold War. Israel can do the same, many in Washington believe, not least when it holds a decisive military edge over Iran and will benefit from an American nuclear umbrella as further consolation.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton irritated the Israelis in July 2009 when she declared that the US would extend a "defensive umbrella" over the Gulf if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. The phrase implied that the US could live with that eventuality, as it has in India, Pakistan and North Korea. Ms Clinton backtracked, but that seemed more a tactical than a strategic retreat. Mr Obama hasn't issued a final word on Iran, but he apparently does not regard preservation of Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East as a vital American aim.

Israel may yet strike Iran, but at its own peril if Washington disapproves. This makes an assault far less likely, Israeli bluster aside. Mr Netanyahu has simply failed to convince anybody that Israel makes a believable victim. Not with him in charge anyway.

No comments: