Netanyahu's mean feat
Iran is back at the top of the US agenda, but is Netanyahu ready to attack, asks Saleh Al-Naami
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Palestinians gather outside the Dome of the Rock at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Friday
As former chiefs of the two most important intelligence agencies in Israel, both Efraim Halevy (a former Mossad head) and Aaron Zeevi (former chief of military intelligence) had always advised extreme caution when dealing with strategic security issues, but they changed their tune last week.
In an interview with Radio Israel on 29 July, Halevy said: "If I were an Iranian I would take Israel's threats seriously. Israel's government now believes that it should carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear project, as soon as possible." He added: "All signs indicate that we are very close to the moment when Israeli jets are in the air on their way to deliver a painful strike against Iran's nuclear programme."
Zeevi was even more precise when he told Israel's Channel 2 TV that he expects Israel to attack Iran "within a few weeks".
Nonetheless, many observers inside Israel are wondering: Do Zeevi and Halevy really believe that Netanyahu intends to attack Iran, or is this nothing more than a diversion for the world -- especially the US -- by claiming that Israel is on the verge of using military force to thwart Iran's nuclear project, in order to force the US to take action against Iran? These observers opine that Netanyahu knows that US President Barack Obama is not interested in making any security changes that would sharply raise the price of oil, because this would deliver a strong blow to the US economy on the eve of US presidential elections, and negatively impact his chances of re-election.
They continue that Netanyahu believes once Obama realises that Israel is determined to attack Iran, he will prefer that the US carry out the mission since it would be more capable of resolving a confrontation with Iran in a better and swifter manner than Israel. Obama is also concerned that if left up to Israel, it would not be able to quickly contain Iran's response, which would further jeopardise conditions in the region and magnify economic risks.
Observers in the opposite camp in Israel argue that Netanyahu is intent on attacking Iran before the US elections under the assumption that Obama -- who wants the support of the largest number of Jewish voters -- will not allow Iran to strike deep inside Israel in response to an Israeli attack. Some Israeli monitors who make this argument assert that behind closed doors Netanyahu confides that he is not confident that Obama would attack Iran after he is re-elected. Hence, Netanyahu feels it necessary to strike Iran before the US presidential elections, in order to force Obama's hand.
US officials who agree with Israel that Iran should be prevented from owning nuclear weapons by all means also believe that taking military action at this moment is unnecessary, especially since economic sanctions against Iran have been successful. The Americans tell Netanyahu that sanctions against Iran have already cut the volume of Iran's oil sales by 40 per cent -- or an annual loss of $40 billion -- which has caused Iranians to decrease oil production to minimum levels. The Americans are also saying that sanctions against Iranian banks make it more difficult to conduct business and generate foreign currency for Tehran, and that Iranians are forced to go to Dubai carrying briefcases stuffed with cash to make deals.
US officials tell their Israeli counterparts that average Iranians are feeling the weight of sanctions since government subsidies for main commodities in Iran were cut, and inflation has risen to 40 per cent. According to Washington's data, unemployment has risen and Iran's currency has lost 65 per cent of its value, causing many factories to shut down because they can no longer afford to import raw materials and spare parts. Netanyahu's response to the Americans is that these sanctions are the most the US and the world can do against Iran, but there are no signs that Iran will change its determined position to continue uranium enrichment.
Another point of dispute between the Americans and Israelis is defining the red line that if crossed military force should be used against Iran. The US believes that the red line is if Iranians enrich uranium by more than 20 per cent, which they believe Tehran can do without becoming a threat. Netanyahu rejects this notion, arguing that if the Iranians can enrich uranium by 20 per cent then they will be 90 per cent on their way to a nuclear bomb.
The Americans are not just sugar coating the situation for Netanyahu, but are also offering many incentives to convince him of the credibility of the Obama administration's position. Obama issued clear orders to increase security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, as well as giving Israel a large number of smart bombs capable of penetrating strong armour. But in the end, Obama manoeuvrability is limited by the positions of his Republican rivals who appear more enthusiastic about a military strike against Iran than even some right-wing politicians in Israel.
US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced on his recent trip to Tel Aviv that Israel is entitled to do anything it sees fit to protect itself, including preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. Former US secretary of defense and hawk neo-con Donald Rumsfeld even went as far as suggesting that Netanyahu should not reveal to Obama the details of a possible Israeli strike against Iran ahead of time, arguing that this is Israel's sovereign right.
But the Americans are not the only camp that Netanyahu needs to win over before attacking Iran. He also needs to prepare Israeli public opinion for his plan, especially since many domestic forces oppose a strike against Iran. The opposition front is not only among military ranks that are clearly opposed to the attacked. There are also fundamental disputes within political circles on the matter.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is leading a broad front inside Israel that is strongly opposed to an attack on Iran, and although Israel's political system does not give the president any powers, Peres is very influential in the domestic debate on official policy towards Iran.
Peres's long career in politics and security circles give his opinion much weight among many Israelis, especially since the Israeli media paints Peres as "the Godfather of Israel's nuclear programme" because of his extensive efforts at the beginning of the 1960s to guarantee that Israel acquires nuclear technology from France.
Even among Netanyahu's cabinet, a number of senior members are opposed to a strike against Iran, most prominently Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs General Moshe Yalon and Minister of Interior Eli Yishai. But Netanyahu knows that the greatest obstacle on his path to attacking Iran is opposition from his security agencies. Army Chief of Staff Benny Ganz, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo and Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi all oppose a strike on Iran at this time. Netanyahu also knows that if he orders an attack on Iran, despite objections by his security agencies, he would be held solely responsible for its failure if it does not achieve its goals. It would be the end of his political career, were that so.
Military figures who oppose Netanyahu's position on Iran base their arguments on the assumption that if Iran is attacked by Israel it will publicly step up its nuclear programme and at a quicker pace, under the pretext that it was attacked by a country that possesses nuclear weapons, which gives Tehran the moral right to pursue its own nuclear programme. Thus, military leaders in Israel believe that before a military strike against Iran, an understanding must be reached with Washington that they will guarantee that Iran does not use the strike to advance its nuclear programme. They also believe that an understanding with the US ahead of time would guarantee American military intervention to curtail Iran's response, as well as US logistical and military assistance would improve the Israeli army's ability to cause the most damage to Iran's nuclear programme.
It is very difficult to decipher Netanyahu's true intentions about Iran's nuclear programme. But irrespective of his intentions towards Iran, one thing is certain: the Israeli prime minister has succeeded in placing Iran's nuclear programme in the world spotlight and atop the priorities of decision-makers in Washington -- which is no small feat.