By Robert O. Freedman
11:21 AM EST, March 6, 2012
For many years, Iran has threatened to "wipe Israel off the map," even as it gets closer and closer to developing nuclear weapons that could enable it to follow through on its threat. However, the question now is whether this is the optimum time for Israel to launch an attack.
In recent weeks, the United States has weighed in heavily against an Israeli attack, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling CNN recently (he had earlier given Israel the warning privately) that there should be no attack for three reasons. First, in the U.S. view, Iran had not yet decided to construct a nuclear weapon, despite its continuing nuclear enrichment program; second, any Israeli attack would only set back the Iranian nuclear program for a few years; and finally, an Israeli attack would "destabilize" the Middle East. But is General Dempsey correct in his assumptions, or could there be other reasons that the U.S. does not want an Israeli attack at this time?
To answer these questions, one must examine not only the military balance between Israel and Iran but also the domestic political scene in the United States.
As far as the military balance is concerned, the current time is optimal for an Israeli strike. Since the U.S. left Iraq two months ago, the Iraqi government has no air defense system capable of intercepting Israeli planes flying over Iraq, and the current Iranian air defense system does not appear capable of stopping an Israeli attack. The Iraqi route would be the preferred one for the Israeli air force because it could thereby avoid the lengthy path down the Red Sea and around the Arabian Sea to get to Iran.
As for General Dempsey's three assumptions, one could make the following rebuttal. First, probably because U.S. analysts were badly burned by their experience in Iraq in 2003 when they incorrectly asserted that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, there is a great deal of caution in the U.S. intelligence and defense communities about claiming that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. This despite the experience of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors during their recent visits to Iran, when they were denied access both to the site where they suspect Iran has been working to develop conventional explosives that could trigger nuclear warheads and to the information they sought on Iran's suspected nuclear weaponization program.
Mr. Dempsey's second assumption, that an Israeli attack would only set back Iran's nuclear program for a few years, is also problematic. A successful Israeli strike would undermine both the credibility of the Iranian regime and its influence in the Middle East, which has already been shaken because of Iranian support for the bloody crackdown in Syria by the Assad regime, and it could take a long time for the Islamic leadership of Iran to recover, both economically and politically, from an Israeli attack.
Finally, General Dempsey's third assumption, that an Israeli attack would "destabilize" the Middle East also needs evaluation. The Middle East has already been badly destabilized by the Arab Spring and the increasingly volatile situation in Syria. In addition, most of the Sunni Arab regimes would welcome — if quietly — an Israeli strike on their primary enemy, Shiite Iran.
However, an Israeli attack would likely trigger an increase in oil prices (how high prices would go, and how long the prices would spike are open questions), and this brings us to domestic politics in the United States.
Since the Republican presidential primary campaign became very ugly due to the rising tone of mutual invective, President Barack Obama's reelection chances — bleak only six months ago — have looked better and better. Helping the Obama upswing has been the improvement in the economy, the drop in unemployment and the rise in consumer satisfaction. All this could be jeopardized by a war between Iran and Israel, which not only could drag in the United States but, as noted above, would most likely lead to a rise in oil prices, damaging both the U.S. economy and Mr. Obama's reelection chances. This is ironic, because a number of conservative commentators were recently asserting that only a war with Iran could save the Obama presidency. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Obama administration has been arguing that the increasingly severe sanctions imposed by both the United States and the European Union would eventually force Iran to curtail its nuclear program (despite Iran's belligerent rhetoric to the contrary) and therefore an Israeli attack was not needed.
From the perspective of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, given the strong backing for Israel from all the Republican candidates except Ron Paul, the time to strike Iran would be before the U.S. election in November, when it would be more difficult for President Obama to punish Israel for disobeying U.S. advice. However, whether Mr. Netanyahu would be willing to risk the ire of a suddenly reelectable President Obama — and whether the president succeeded in persuading Mr. Netanyahu at their White House meeting this week — are questions only the future can answer.
Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is currently visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is "The United States And Israel: Six Decades Of A Relationship." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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