Israel's Perspective on U.S. Delay Tactics

5 MINS READNov 11, 2009 | 02:55 GMT
ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES CHIEF GABI ASHKENAZI on Tuesday addressed Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the West's brewing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. He said Israel was preparing for all options to halt Iran's nuclear program, and that the world powers should decide by the end of the year what plan of action they would take on the issue. In essence, he reiterated that Iran faces not only economic sanctions but war if it refuses to comply with international demands. More interestingly, he said, "The Iranian regime is radical, but it's not irrational. If the regime sees international insistence, it's not illogical to assume that it will change its direction." A consensus between Washington and Tehran has formed based on their mutual need — at present — to postpone crisis. Ashkenazi's statements can be read in a number of ways, but primarily they speak to the United States' latest moves. U.S. President Barack Obama said at the White House on Monday that he expected Iran to move slowly in deciding whether to accept the West's demands to open up its nuclear program; that an Iranian decision "is going to take time" and that the regime is not stable enough politically to make "quick decisions" on such matters. These statements fit with the U.S. administration's practice in recent months of allowing Iran to drag out the negotiation process. The United States does not want to push into a crisis that Washington is not yet convinced is inevitable, since a crisis with Iran likely would be an oppressive burden on Obama's presidency and lead to the unraveling of U.S. positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even if Washington has decided that conflict is, in fact, inevitable, it has strategic reasons to wait: The Americans need time to convince Russia to assist in sanctions against Iran, or to prepare for military strikes and the backlash that would follow. A strange consensus between Washington and Tehran has formed based on their mutual need — at present — to postpone crisis. It is the Israelis who have the most to lose from such a delay tactic, given the risks Iran poses to Israeli security. Hence the need for the meeting in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama on Monday evening: They discussed Iran but revealed little to the press afterward, other than saying that the United States remains a staunch defender of Israeli security. The meeting most likely involved Obama pushing Netanyahu to allow more time to elapse on the Iran issue, while the secretiveness about the meeting sent a signal to Iran that war preparations might be under way. In this context, Ashkenazi's statements have more salience. On the surface, he appears to give credence to the negotiation process: Iran is a rational actor, and it can be dissuaded if the international community is united in warning of serious punishment. Yet he knows that unless the Russians and Chinese suddenly change their positions on sanctions, a unified response to Iran will remain elusive. On a deeper level, Ashkenazi has called out the dangers of delaying action. Beyond nuclear weapons, Ashkenazi pointed to the "radical" agenda Iran has been cultivating in the region. Quite aside from the question of nuclear weapons, Ashkenazi painted a picture of a broader regional struggle arising because of expanding Persian influence. He pointed to threats to Israeli safety that stem from Hezbollah's arms buildup in Lebanon, the stability of Iraq, Iran's influence in Afghanistan and the conflict in Yemen — which pits the government and its ally, Saudi Arabia, against al-Houthi rebels, who are manifestly backed by Iranian patrons. All of these areas serve as levers meant to deter foreign powers from striking Iran, given the regional and global risks of retaliation. In this context, Iran's rationality does not imply that it will cooperate with international pressure, but rather that it will buy time to further that agenda, making an intervention all the more painful. Delay then becomes a liability to the powers that ultimately will have to intervene anyway. Given the Israeli logic and the sense that action must be taken before the end of the year (Washington and Tehran both having ignored previous deadlines), Ashkenazi's statements both to acknowledge that the United States will bide its time for now (since Iran potentially can still be swayed), and to remind Tehran that it cannot delay forever. The question is how long the United States will wait. This depends on Washington's strategic considerations: Obama is attempting to convince the Russians to join in pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program — a move that would have a powerful effect on Iran's reasoning. He also is making a decision about U.S. strategy in the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that threatens his room to maneuver on everything else. Then again, the use of rhetoric to obfuscate U.S .intentions while preparing for a surprise attack cannot be ruled out. Otherwise, Obama's hesitation is a strategic bet: Either the crisis melts away over time (unlikely, given Ashkenazi's logic), or the president is simply exercising his prerogative to choose when to embrace the inevitable.

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