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‘When’ to Attack Iran, Not ‘If’

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JERUSALEM, Feb 27 2012 (IPS) - “The quiet before the storm” is how Israeli pundits describe the countdown – not to Israel going solo on Iran’s nuclear and military installations, but to the meeting between due Monday next week between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following last week’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem by top U.S. envoys, it’s the turn of Israeli leaders to come to Washington. The Prime Minister is expected at the White house on Mar. 5, two days after Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Repeated U.S. warnings prior the presidential meetings couldn’t be more blunt. “It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey told CNN.

“The U.S. government is confident that the Israelis understand our concerns,” added Gen. Dempsey. For Israeli decision-makers, not U.S. “concerns”, but confidence is their main concern.

They appreciate the U.S.-led international effort to contain Iran’s nuclear effort – privately, they’re even prepared to say the sanctions go beyond their initial expectations. Then, why stubbornly keeping the timing of a would-be pre-emptive attack on Iran shrouded in ambiguity, if not for tactical purposes.

It seems the Israeli quandary ‘to attack Iran or not to attack Iran soon’ stems from the perception that U.S. decision-making with respect to the Islamic Republic is uncertain.

Dempsey has been heard loud and clear. “Iran is a rational actor… (It) has not decided to make a nuclear weapon”.

According to the New York Times on Saturday, Dempsey’s assessment was corroborated by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the day before that Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment programme since its Nov. 2011 report.

The message that comes across here is that the U.S. approach is to entice Tehran to consider potentially even harsher sanctions lest the Islamic Republic chooses not to adopt a reasonable course of action regarding its nuclear programme.

Netanyahu only says time and again that a nuclear Iran poses an “existential threat” not just to Israel but to the world, and therefore it cannot be tolerated. His statements conform to Washington’s conduct. “All options are on the table”.

But on Thursday, he issued a warning of his own: “Stop this chatter. It causes damage,” he instructed his cabinet ministers. “We shouldn’t be providing too much information on this issue.”

The question is who’s provided with “too much information”. Was his “stop talking” talk a veiled advice directed at the same U.S. officials who publicly urge his government to stop talking about attacking Iran?

In any case, it’s not what Netanyahu says but what he doesn’t say that’s a source of U.S. concern.

Keeping all key players double guessing whether an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent (for this spring – if to believe what U.S. Secretary of State Leon Panetta reportedly told David Ignatius in the Washington Post earlier this month) serves one purpose.

There’s no illusion that an Israeli threat of attack will deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear quest. It might at least prevent the international front against Tehran to lower its guard.

“As of now, the military option proves to be a diplomatic success,” ascertains columnist Ari Shavit. “It’s managed to shake the international community out of its apathy and made a definitive contribution to the tightening of the diplomatic and economic siege on Iran.”

So, what can be expected at the important White House meeting?

What’s sure is that Obama doesn’t want to create the impression that the U.S. risks being dragged by Israel into an attack on Iran.

But the level of coordination between the two allied countries is such that were Israel to attack Iran, it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to convince the international community – especially post-revolutionary Arab states with which it’s engaged in rebuilding trust – that it didn’t know Israel would, or didn’t want Israel to, act unilaterally.

Worse, no one’s really sure how such a unilateral attack would impact on an ever more volatile Middle East. The U.S. could easily lose control of events and be embroiled militarily anyway.

For U.S. opposition to an Israeli attack to be credible, it would have to be accompanied by more than words, something inconceivable during an election campaign. Obama’s only resort will be to have Netanyahu pledge, albeit in private, that Israel defers the option of a military strike on Iran.

In return, Netanyahu will undoubtedly obtain a reiteration of the customary U.S. “unconditional support” to Israel’s security. But that’s barely enough. Netanyahu doesn’t trust Obama entirely to say the least.

Shavit, who often likes to impersonate the prime minister, wrote ominously in the weekend edition of Haaretz, “If the President wants to prevent a disaster, he must give Netanyahu iron-clad guarantees that the U.S. will stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price, after the elections. If Obama doesn’t do this, he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.”

If so, the debate within U.S.-Israeli diplomatic and defence circles is narrowing. An attack on Iran – without but, if possible, with the U.S. – is rapidly developing in a discussion of timing, not of probability.

The closer the calendar draws near November, the lesser the odds are of an Israeli attack. Not because of weather conditions but because of the U.S. electoral climate. Pre-emptive war would be perceived as gross interference in U.S. domestic affairs. This isn’t a risk Netanyahu, prudent and well-versed in U.S. politics, will be inclined to take.

If it becomes clear that action on Iran will be postponed until November, why would Israel not assuage U.S. worries now?

Netanyahu will want to see Obama make the right choices (as far as Israel is concerned) on his own and to have him call the shots – if needs be militarily beside Israel. Preferably, before an Israel strike.

So far, the prospect of a unilateral attack on Iran, even after November, is Israel’s greatest diplomatic weapon. (END/IPS/MM/NA/IP/HD/PI/NU/IR/PK/SS/12)

 
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