By Osama Al Sharif
29 August, 2012
THE decision to launch a deadly strike against Iran’s nuclear sites has been taken. It now rests with two men, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to Western and Israeli press reports, quoting informed intelligence sources, the attack will take place in the coming 12 weeks, most likely before the US presidential elections in November. The threat of an outbreak of a regional war as a result of a possible Israeli strike became more prominent in the wake of the failure of the latest round of negotiations between the Tehran government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In an analytical piece published in Foreign Policy magazine this week, Israeli writer Oren Kessler quoted Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn as saying “that Netanyahu wants to attack in the coming weeks” while the paper’s former intelligence reporter, Yossi Melman, estimated the “window of opportunity” for a strike at 80 days. Kessler also quoted Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad and an outspoken opponent of a strike, as saying: “If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks.”
Kessler wrote that it is Barak and not Netanyahu who has emerged as the champion of a military action and that in his view he will be the decider of when to launch the strike against Iran. But Kessler, and other Israeli and Western observers agree that both Netanyahu and Barak realize that they must prepare the home front “for the inevitably messy aftermath of any such action.”
Iran, which played host to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Tehran this week, has issued repeated warnings that it will not tolerate an Israeli attack on its “peaceful” nuclear facilities. Over the past months it has demonstrated its medium and long-range missile capabilities and held naval exercises in the Arabian Gulf. It had threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if its national security is threatened.
At the NAM meeting its Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi called on summit attendees to reject international sanctions and confront the Security Council. Iran has repeatedly called for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons but insisted that it has the right to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The West has imposed economic sanctions on Iran, including an oil embargo, in a bid to put pressure on the Iranians to accept IAEA supervision and stop uranium enrichment activities.
Israel views the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said this week that that “the intelligence information makes it clear: Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran.” It is a view that is shared by the majority of Israelis even though there are vociferous opponents of a military strike within the political and intelligence establishment. Such concerns and warnings have been amplified in recent weeks.
The issue of Israel’s home front readiness to deal with Iranian retaliation and protect its public has emerged lately. A TV report has revealed that more than two million Israelis had no bomb-shelters available-almost a quarter of the national populace-and that two and a half million were without gas masks.
Another contrarian view casts doubt over the effectiveness of an Israeli airstrike, which at best will delay rather than destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
Even worse for Israel the strike would probably compel Iran’s leaders to go ahead and militarize their program-there are no indications that they have done that until now-using the Israeli aggression as a pretext. In that sense they would be adopting the Israeli position of describing their nuclear warheads as “a deterrent” against future attacks.
The US position so far has been calculated; focusing on diplomacy and economic sanctions as ways to coerce the Iranians into submitting to international demands. The Obama administration has not wavered from its commitment to protecting Israeli interests but it has not supported threats to launch air attacks against Iran. All that is has done in the past is to say that all options are on the table, including a military one.
In recent weeks Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have said that when it comes to Iranian nuclear threats they can only rely on themselves.
Kessler quoted Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Mossad, who told Israel’s Channel 2 that he doesn’t trust American assurances of keeping Tehran in check. “When we’re talking about my fate, my existence, my survival, I don’t let any outside actor to handle it.”
The question is how will the US react if Israel launches its airstrikes and is then attacked by Iran and/or Hezbollah in retaliation? In an election year, President Obama cannot afford to appear as if he is abandoning America’s closest ally. An American involvement will almost guarantee transforming this crisis into an open regional war.
An unnamed Israeli “decision maker,” believed by most Israelis to be Barak, cast doubt on President Obama’s repeated promises to prevent Iran from going nuclear. He told Haaretz last week that “even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do.” It is a dangerous approach that threatens the stability of the entire region.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.