Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Israeli Attack Threat

April 8, 2009
Obama team debates stance on Israeli attack threat.

Washington, D.C.
IPS | analysis

A recent statement by the chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. David Petraeus, that Israel may decide to attack Iranian nuclear sites has been followed by indications of a debate within the Barack Obama administration on whether Israel’s repeated threats to carry out such a strike should be used to gain leverage in future negotiations with Tehran.

In the latest twist, Vice President Joseph Biden, who has been put in charge of the administration’s non-proliferation agenda, appeared to reject the idea. “I don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would [launch a strike],” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday. “I think he would be ill-advised to do that.”

His remarks suggested that any proposal to exploit the threat of an Israeli attack as part of a “good cop, bad cop” tactic with Iran would run into stiff opposition within the administration, since it would rest on the credibility that the threat was real and that the U.S. would not actively oppose its being carried out.

Petraeus invoked the possibility of an Israeli attack in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Wednesday. “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself as so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it,” he asserted. In contrast to past statements by U.S. officials on the issue, he added nothing to indicate that Washington would oppose such an attack or was concerned about its consequences.

Moreover, a CENTCOM spokesman later told IPS that Petraeus’ testimony had been reviewed in advance by the Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD), suggesting that brandishing of the Israeli threat had the approval of Pentagon chief Robert Gates.

But the Pentagon now appears to be backing away from the Petraeus statement. In an email message to IPS, Lt. Col. Mark Wright, an OSD press officer declined to confirm or deny that Petraeus’s statement had been reviewed by his office. Wright insisted that it “would be inappropriate to characterise the General’s view on this from the Pentagon” and referred the question back to CENTCOM.

Gates himself had appeared to go along with Petraeus’ approach in an interview published in the Financial Times Apr. 1, in which he implied strongly that Israel would indeed attack Iran if it crossed an Israeli “red line.” Asked whether Israel would attack Iran, Gates said, “I guess I would say I would be surprised…if [Israel] did act this year.”

“I think we have more time than that,” he said, referring to the moment when progress on Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programme might provoke an Israeli attack. “How much more time I don’t know. It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window.”

Within 24 hours, however, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Adm. Michael Mullen, like Biden several days later, reiterated his own publicly stated reservations about any such Israeli action in a meeting with the Wall Street Journal’s neo-conservative editorial board Apr. 2.

While conceding that the Israeli leadership “is not going to tolerate” a nuclear Iran and that its military could inflict serious damage on Iran’s nuclear programme, Mullen also warned that such an attack would pose “exceptionally high risks” to U.S. interests in the region, according to a record of the interview quoted to IPS by Mullen’s office. In an editorial about the meeting published Monday, the Journal stressed that Mullen understood that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were “a matter of ‘life or death’ for the Jewish state” and downplayed the threat to the U.S.

Mullen, in fact, has consistently spoken out against an Israeli strike since early July 2008, when, after returning from consultations with his Israeli counterpart, he publicly warned against an Israeli attack which, he said, in addition to further destabilising the region, would be “extremely stressful on us….”

The issue of how to handle the Israeli threat to attack Iran has been made more urgent by the installation of a far-right government led by Likud Party chief Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been particularly hawkish on Tehran and deeply sceptical that Obama’s diplomatic engagement with Iran will yield acceptable results before Israel’s “red lines” are crossed. Israeli officials have called on the U.S. to strictly limit the amount of time it will devote to its diplomatic effort before resorting to punitive measures, a demand echoed by key U.S. lawmakers – Democrats, as well as Republicans – who are considered close to the so-called ‘Israel Lobby’ here.

Some administration officials had embraced the brandishing of the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran as a means of exerting pressure on Iran even before they joined the Obama administration.

Dennis Ross, who is now “Special Adviser” on Iran to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had endorsed an early draft of a report published last month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) – a think tank that often reflects the Israeli government’s views – which included the statement, “If the international community appears unable to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, Israel may decide to act unilaterally.”

Both Gary Samore, the new White House co-ordinator on weapons of mass destruction, and Ashton Carter, now under secretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics, expressed support for a diplomatic strategy of exploiting the Israeli military threat to Iran at a forum at Harvard University’s Kennedy School last September.

Referring to negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue, Samore said, “My view is that, unless it’s backed up by a very strong bashing alternative, it probably won’t be successful.”

Samore called the threat of such an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites “a good diplomatic instrument” for the United States. Carter, who is also a non- proliferation specialist, referred to making the Iranians “wonder whether the Israelis are going to do something” as “not an unreasonable game to play.”

But Samore also acknowledged that such a strategy could be dangerous. “[W]e have to be careful when we use that instrument,” he said, “that the Israelis don’t see that as a green light to go ahead and strike… before we’re ready to have that actually happen.”

Still, he argued that any new administration would not want to “act in a way that precludes the threat, because we’re using the threat as a political instrument.”

That danger is particularly acute with Netanyahu’s accession to power, because he represents Israeli political and military circles that hold most firmly to the idea that Iran’s enrichment program poses an “existential threat” to Israel, a view reportedly also shared by his defence minister, Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.

According to the New York Times’ David Sanger, President George W. Bush last year rejected a request from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for over- flight rights and other support needed to attack Iran.

Mullen was then sent to Israel to personally convey Washington’s opposition to such an attack. It was on his return that he made that opposition public. In the end, Olmert apparently decided against taking any action without a green light from Washington. But, much as Samore anticipated, the new government is widely regarded as more likely to act unilaterally.

Bush reportedly feared that such a strike would further destabilise Iraq and expose U.S. troops there to retaliation, according to his top Middle East adviser, Elliott Abrams, who has recently argued that the those dangers have since been significantly mitigated. In the one cautionary quotation that the Journal chose to include in its editorial about Mullen’s views on a possible Israeli attack on Iran, the JCS chief noted that Tehran’s ability to retaliate in Iraq “has not maxed out at all.”

Hillary & Iran & Dennis & Israel

March 6, 2009

Tehran launches “Omid,” or “Hope” satellite amid 30th anniversary celebrations of Islamic revolution.

Washington, D.C.
Tehran Bureau | comment

In the first concrete overture by the Obama administration to Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited diplomats from Tehran to attend an international conference on Afghanistan on March 31. For the past several years, the United States has had no official contacts with Iran, other than severely circumscribed talks between the United States and Iran in Baghdad that focused solely on Iraq.

President Obama wants a dialogue with Iran that is expected to include a wide range of issues, including Iran’s nuclear research program and Tehran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Problem is, a key official involved is Dennis Ross, a staunch opponent of Iran who, until recently, served as a top official of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The think tank is an integral part of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and Ross, a former U.S. special envoy to Middle East, is widely seen as biased in favor of the Israelis.

On Wednesday, Ross was a signatory to an alarmist report on Iran’s nuclear program, issued by the Washington Institute, that warned that U.S. flexibility in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is limited by the possibility that Israel may decide to attack Iran unilaterally, and quite soon. “Time is short,” said the report.

“If the international community appears unable to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, Israel may decide to act unilaterally,” said the report. “Whatever Americans may think, Israeli leaders seem convinced that at least for now, they have a military option. However, Israelis see the option fading over the next one to two years, not only because of Iran’s nuclear progress and dispersion of its program but also because improved Iranian air defenses, especially the expected delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, are seen by Israel as seriously limiting its military options. Israel therefore may feel compelled to act before the option disappears.”

The appointment of Ross was controversial. Originally, it appeared as if Ross was slated to be a special envoy for President Obama vis-à-vis Iran, much as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke serve as special envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan. After a long delay, however, Ross was quietly announced as a mere “special adviser” to Clinton on “the Gulf and Southwest Asia.” Still, despite that lower-profile post, Ross is expected to have significant influence over U.S. policy toward Iran.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less well-suited to be involved in U.S. policy toward Iran. Virtually all of Ross’ diplomatic experience is tied to the Israel-Palestine dispute, and he has little or no experience in dealing with Iran. Worse, late last year Ross was co-founder of a hawkish group called United Against Nuclear Iran, which calls Iran “a danger to world peace” and says that its mission is to warn Americans about that danger.

Perhaps Clinton’s appointment of Ross was designed to appease Israel’s supporters in Washington, who are fearful about a U.S.-Iran dialogue. But it isn’t a move likely to be well received in Tehran, where the reaction to Ross will range from suspicious to hostile.

It’s true that with the arrival of an ultra-hawkish government in Israel led by Bibi Netanyahu of Likud and including Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right movement, the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran is once again a real possibility. Such an attack would have catastrophic repercussions, leading to greater violence in places where Iran has influence — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine — perhaps even igniting a war between the United States and Iran.

The proper United States approach to the issue ought to be to warn Israel that an attack on Iran is utterly unacceptable and, furthermore, that if Israel were to carry out such an action it would be opposed by the United States and face consequences that would include the suspension of U.S. military and economic support. It does no good at all, as Ross does in the Washington Institute report, to hold the threat of Israeli action over the head of the United States as some sort of deadline for U.S. success in negotiating a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

Contrary to the Washington Institute report, time is not short in talking to Iran. Iran has no bomb-grade uranium. It may lack the know-how to make a bomb. And so far at least, Iran does not have the means to deliver a bomb.

Hillary Clinton does herself no favors when she declares, as she recently told an Arab diplomat, that “it’s doubtful that Iran would respond” to a U.S. offer to negotiate. Despite bluster and tough talk from top Iranian leaders, Iran has also been sending positive signals of late that it wants a dialogue. Those who eventually take part in the coming talks, on both sides, will have to realize going in that the talks may take months, if not years. But succeed they must. Alarmist talk from Dennis Ross and others that the talks will operate under an artificial, urgent deadline will only serve to undermine the possibility of that success.

Robert Dreyfuss, a regular Tehran Bureau contributor, is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan).

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau — distributed by Agence Global.

On the Brink

January 27, 2009

Washington D.C.
| comment

Anger is boiling over in the Middle East over Gaza, and the result of the war has been to boost radicalism throughout the region, to strengthen the terrorist-inclined fanatics of Hamas, and to enhance the muscle of terrorist-inclined Israelis, including far-right parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and, of course, Likud’s bombastic Benjamin Netanyahu.

You probably didn’t know that the reason the Bush administration, in its last days, reversed course on Gaza is because they feared that U.S. embassies in the Middle East might be stormed by angry crowds if they did nothing. You’ll remember that, after weeks of supporting Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the United States suddenly reversed course and allowed the UN Security Council to pass a unanimous resolution demanding a ceasefire. (The United States didn’t vote yes, but it abstained — rather than threatening its oft-used veto.)

Speaking on January 14 at the New America Foundation, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilizad, said explicitly that the United States feared a violent explosion in the region, including the seizure of U.S. embassies by angry mobs, if the United States continued to block action by the UN. A central concern, said Khalilzad, is that mosque leaders all over the Middle East would mobilize the anger and direct it against the United States.

“What happened with this particular resolution is that there was a judgment made by our government that, after so many days of fighting, that given the pressure that the moderate Arabs were facing, and given that the Arabs were willing to accept a reasonable resolution, … [we needed] a reasonable resolution that emphasized a durable ceasefire …

“Given the Friday prayers that were coming — this was Thursday we are talking about — the fear was that if there was no resolution by the Security Council…by the prayer time, in the broader Middle East,that there would be embassies overrun, there would be a huge amount of violence. There was a lot of Egyptian and French diplomacy going on, and perhaps waiting…might have been a good idea, if the mosque issue was not a factor.”

In case you think the anger against Israel and the United States among theArabs is limited to Hamas and Hezbollah, consider the stunning comments of Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, who also served as the country’s ambassador to both Great Britain and the United States:

“In the past weeks, not only have the Israeli Defense Forces murdered more than 1,000 Palestinians, but they have come close to killing the prospect of peace itself. Unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk….

“America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region — from the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to the humiliation and torture at Abu Ghraib — but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the U.S. wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.”

These sentiments, that sort of anger, are virtually unprecedented coming from a top Saudi leader. He went on to suggest a possible Saudi alliance with Iran — yes, Iran! — in support of a jihad against Israel:

“Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognizing Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over ‘this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children’ in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region.

“So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain.”

So: a top U.S. official says that American embassies were on the verge of being “overrun” by mobs, and a top Saudi official warns that his government is finding it hard to resist a “jihad” along with Iran.

“Heckuva job, Olmerty.”

Copyright 2009, The Nation, used with permission of Agence Global.