reflections

Geopolitical Diary: A Familiar U.S.-Israeli Course On Iran

4 MINS READMay 15, 2009 | 09:11 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A report published Thursday by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper claimed that U.S. President Barack Obama had sent an American envoy to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to lose patience and surprise Washington with an attack against Iran. The report claimed that, rather than waiting for Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington on May 18, Obama decided to send a senior American official to Israel (who was not named) to meet with Netanyahu and senior Israeli leaders. The message reportedly revealed the Obama administration's concern that Washington would be "caught off-guard and find themselves facing facts on the ground at the last minute" in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. This report, like several preceding it in the Israeli press, appears to be a deliberate leak. On May 10, another report from Haaretz — this one citing "confidential reports sent to Jerusalem" — claimed that the United States had set October as the deadline for completing its first round of talks with Tehran over its nuclear program. If the Iranians remained intransigent, the United States was expected to harden its stance against Tehran, according to the article. Whether these leaks are coming from the Israelis or the Americans doesn't matter much. What matters is the motive driving them — and in this realm, we see a familiar “good cop-bad cop” routine between the United States and Israel emerging. The Israelis have made no secret about their lack of enthusiasm over Obama's attempts to engage Iran diplomatically. They believe little will come out of these negotiations, and that Tehran feels little compulsion to make meaningful concessions over its nuclear program. All the same, Israel's options toward Iran are limited. Talking about a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is one thing, but carrying out an operation on the scale necessary to destroy Iran's nuclear capability would be extraordinarily difficult, even with U.S. participation, and nearly impossible without it. The Israelis understand the need to preserve their strategic relationship with the United States, but also harbor real fears about the Iranian nuclear program. The United States, meanwhile, is juggling a dozen foreign policy issues at once. Given the growing military focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last thing Washington needs is an Israeli attack against Iran and the Middle East flare-up that would follow. Right now, the goal for Washington is to seal things up in Iraq, hand off a good deal of responsibility for the region to Turkey, an ascending power, and turn its attention to other issues. The Haaretz reports send a very clear message: The United States wants talks with Iran, does not want an Israeli attack against Iran, but is assuring Israel that firm deadlines are being established for negotiations. The Israelis are not pleased about the prospect of talks, and the U.S.-Israeli relationship is under strain. Therefore, Israel just might be rash enough to attack Iran on its own and surprise the United States. This is a useful message for both Israel and the United States to be disseminating. Netanyahu can reaffirm perceptions at home that he is being tough on the Iranian nuclear issue and drawing a line with the Americans. Obama, meanwhile, can apply more pressure on the Iranians by giving the impression that Washington can only do so much to hold the Israelis back from attacking Iran. The likely next step in the cycle is for Iran to start reaching out to Russia and exaggerating perceptions of Moscow's support for Iran. This can be accomplished through rhetoric over things like potential sales of Russian strategic air defense systems to Iran and Moscow finally giving Iran what it needs to complete the Bushehr nuclear facility. So far, this is all very much expected. Israel's options are limited; the United States' options are limited; even Iran's options are limited. The most practical move just now would seem to be a return to the rhetoric with which all three are so familiar.

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