by Wayne White
The New York Times reported on August 21 that, according to leaks by Ehud Barak’s biographers, the former Israeli defense minister and his boss, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, were ready to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2010, 2011, and 2012. In 2010 a skeptical Israel military allegedly shot down this plan; in 2011, an inconvenient joint US-Israeli military exercise plus a visit by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disrupted the timing; and in 2012, two Israeli cabinet ministers balked.
If most or all of these revelations are accurate, the 2010 case is similar to what I discovered about the Bush administration’s interest in taking military action against Iran in 2006 (as if Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld needed yet another huge military mess on their hands back then!). The administration decided against the attack after the US military brass confronted senior officials with the magnitude of the task, which would have involved 2,000-3,000 aerial combat sorties spanning a week or longer.
Unmentioned in the Times account of Barak and Netanyahu’s abortive planning: specific consultations with US officials regarding Israeli intentions. Although a more complete account might reveal at least something along those lines, I very much doubt it. Despite the assumption by too many that Israel commonly gets “green” or “amber” lights from senior US officials concerning its most provocatively aggressive actions, the reality was usually the opposite. During my 26 years of US government experience from 1979 to 2005, when I frequently was in a position to know whether this had happened or not, Israel rarely asked for or got such go-aheads.
In such cases, senior Israeli officials far more often than not feared (with good reason) that word of such impending action would alarm the US and cause it to engage in energetic high-level attempts to thwart Israeli plans. After all, it is primarily the US—not Israel—that must face the regional, allied, and global backlash from heavy-handed, often excessive Israeli behavior. Israeli officials like Prime Minister Netanyahu like to talk about how they have to deal with such blowback, but Israel does not even have full or robust diplomatic relations with many of the countries concerned—and in some cases, no relations at all. Nor does Israel have major strategic or economic interests at stake in many of them. So Washington, not Israel, becomes the de facto punching bag on the international front when Israel engages in widely disapproved actions.
Worse still, as I have warned several times in the past, if Israel ever went forward with military action against Iran, it would most likely give the US a belated, no-discussion “heads up” no sooner than 12 to 24 hours prior to such action. Such short notice could have grave military and security consequences for US personnel stationed in Gulf States and in majority Muslim countries around the world, where rioting could target diplomatic installations (or individual Americans).
It is uncertain how Tehran would respond to such a pounding from the Israelis. Yet, with Israel out of range of most of Iran’s overwhelmingly conventional military arsenal, Tehran would likely target U.S. military assets as well as the Gulf State allies that it assumed to be complicit with or possibly even party to an attack. And with so little warning, there would be no time for the US to beef up its military assets in the Gulf to either deter or repel such an attack.
Moreover, with thousands of US personnel also now in Iraq as part of an effort against the Islamic State, Iran could activate individuals or pro-Iranian Shi’a militias to exact revenge against US personnel. And remember: vulnerable US assets and personnel in the field would only receive the barest of warnings given Israel’s belated notification to US leaders. Passing this information to a broader spread of military and diplomatic officials in Washington, generating electronic alerts to the field, the receipt of these alerts on the other end, and their actual dissemination to all concerned would all take considerable time.
These latest revelations from Barak’s biographers, if accurate, tend to confirm my worst fears. Israeli leaders have been quite serious regarding their repeated military threats against Iran (albeit restrained to date by several intervening factors). The recent Iran nuclear agreement doubtless represents a new and even more serious challenge in the eyes of senior Israeli political leaders that could produce renewed interest in going it alone militarily. Whether something would intervene again to stay the hand of Israel’s hardline leadership is unknown.
The Obama administration must convey its dismay to the Israelis in no uncertain terms. But if the Israelis receive some alarming intelligence about Iranian intentions they considered credible, Israel might still take unilateral military action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear sector. Israel might do this even though, post-2012, such an attack faces greater military challenges as well as greater political complications because of an Iran nuclear agreement widely accepted by the international community. Perhaps the greatest danger in this regard would be the election of an Iran hawk to the U.S. presidency in 2016, someone that Israel would view as more sympathetic to Israeli military action.
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak