Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Awaiting an 'Iranian Spring'?

Israel and the US have backed away from military confrontation with Iran, hoping that further economic sanctions will bring down the regime, writes Saleh Al-Naami

In all seriousness, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is trying to convince foreign officials he meets in Tel Aviv or on overseas tours that it is possible to topple the Iranian regime. All the West and Israel need to achieve this goal, Lieberman suggests, is to employ stiffer sanctions against Tehran, and he is also quick to present his guests with intelligence gathered by Mossad to the effect that economic and social conditions in Iran have reached breaking point and are close to an "Iranian Spring".

Lieberman told Israeli Channel 2 television recently what he tells all western officials he meets, namely that hurrying along the Iranian Spring only requires stricter economic sanctions in order to incite the wrath of the Iranian masses against the ruling regime. According to this logic, overthrowing the incumbents in Tehran would "guarantee for Israel and the West not only that Iran's nuclear plans are erased, but also the existence of an Iranian leadership that does not export trouble abroad."

Israel's gamble on more Western sanctions against Tehran is based on intelligence that the EU is planning a set of new economic sanctions against Iran that target the overthrowing of the regime rather than halting its nuclear programme. However, Israel's new approach, as expressed by Lieberman, also comes on the heels of the "red lines" speech by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly last month, in which he implied that an Israeli attack on Iran before the Israeli and US elections would be futile, with next spring being set as the final deadline.

It is obvious that the Israelis are now counting on economic sanctions rather than military action against Iran. Although Netanyahu gave the impression that if Tehran does not halt its nuclear programme by next spring Israel would attack Iran, no one took the threat seriously, even inside Israel. The transformation in Israel's position is essentially based on its having changed its mind about military action, especially after US President Barack Obama rejected any Israeli plan to attack Iran.

Washington has strongly objected to any strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities before the US presidential elections in November. The administration made a clear statement through US Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who said that the US was not prepared to take part in any military action by Israel against Iran. Meanwhile, the Pentagon withdrew two thirds of the US troops participating in military exercises with the Israeli army.

Even more evidence of the rift between the two sides came in the shouting match between Netanyahu and US ambassador to Tel Aviv Daniel Shapiro, who was angered when Netanyahu accused Obama of not being "serious" about capsizing the Iranian nuclear programme.

Although Netanyahu's government and the Obama administration assert that they cannot surrender to a nuclear-armed Iran, there are clear differences between the two on deciding the "red line" that would require a military strike against Iran if it crossed it. Israel's red line is when Iran is able to develop the technology for uranium enrichment in amounts and rates great enough to manufacture a nuclear bomb and even before the country acquires this amount. The US believes the red line begins when Iran produces enough enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear warhead.

The Obama administration has been especially worried that Netanyahu might attack Iran before the US presidential elections because this would mean dragging the US into a regional war. If Netanyahu attacked Iran, then Tehran and its ally Hizbullah would respond by attacking Israel, which would then require Obama to step in and protect Israel by attacking Iran to improve his chances in the US elections.

Obama has realised that Netanyahu could take him to a place he does not want to go to, and therefore he has pressured Netanyahu to abandon any Israeli plan of attack. Obama has also tried to circumvent Netanyahu by addressing Israeli public opinion directly in order to oppose a military strike against Iran through routine visits by US officials to Tel Aviv. US officials have stated that Washington is dedicated to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and US military leaders have publicly doubted Israel's ability to eliminate Iran's nuclear programme by itself, just like General Dempsey has done.

Obama has tapped into the Israeli military and political opposition to attacking Iran, using this opposition to embarrass Netanyahu in Israeli public opinion and limit his margin for manoeuvre. US administration officials and military and intelligence leaders have opened communication channels with Israeli military and political leaders in order to try to convince them to move against Netanyahu's plans.

In this the US has been very successful, including by convincing Israeli President Shimon Peres to criticise Netanyahu for wanting to attack Iran without prior coordination with the US. Peres recently gave several interviews on Israeli television and to key Israeli newspapers arguing that Tel Aviv could not undertake major military action against Iran without prior coordination with its closest ally the US.

Peres's statements opened the door to a flood of criticism of Netanyahu's plans, with most columnists and senior commentators in the Israeli media rejecting the prime minister's views and warning of their "catastrophic" implications. Domestic criticism of Netanyahu peaked when judge Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the official inquiry into Israel's failure during the second war on Lebanon, urged Netanyahu not to attack Iran since it could result in "tragedy" for Israel.

Meanwhile, Obama has appealed to US public opinion, which is especially sensitive about Israel, to pre-empt any move by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to use the Iranian issue to attack Obama's foreign policy. This was done through systematic leaks confirming that the administration had indeed prepared a plan to attack Iran if sanctions failed. Meanwhile, the administration has also portrayed the Israeli leadership as reckless and ungrateful by leaking to the US press the fact that Israeli intelligence has been spying on the offices and apartments of CIA agents in Israel.

For his part, Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed his admiration for former British prime minister Winston Churchill who led his country during World War II. In private, Netanyahu has said he is "following in Churchill's footsteps" by seeking to eliminate the Iranian nuclear programme, which he believes represents an "existential threat" to Israel.

However, Netanyahu also knows Tel Aviv would need Washington to deal with the consequences of any Israeli strike against Iran. Netanyahu and Obama are both facing a major challenge, having to do with convincing the other of his position on Iran's nuclear programme. Obama is concerned that Netanyahu will drag the US into an unnecessary war with Iran, while Netanyahu does not want to waste much-needed international and domestic legitimacy in striking Iran. So far, he has been unsuccessful in conditioning the Israeli domestic front to absorb any possible Iranian counterattack.

Accordingly, the two sides have reached a compromise for now that expands and intensifies the sanctions against Iran in the hope that this will not only impede its nuclear programme, but will also lead to the overthrow of the regime. There is no good reason why Israel should believe that economic sanctions will convince the Iranian people to revolt against the regime, however, especially since whenever the Iranian masses have risen up in the past they have been portrayed at home as "collaborators" with the enemies of the Iranian people.

Lieberman should not hold his breath about enjoying the prospect of an "Iranian Spring".

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