The diverging U.S. and Israeli interests and a joint strategy on Iran

Special to

By Fariborz Saremi,

American and Israeli attitudes to the risk posed by an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons are based on diverging historical experiences.

Having seen previous strategies fail to achieve their objectives, President Barack Obama is apparently set on pursuing a policy that focuses on hard international sanctions.

A major emerging diplomatic problem for the United States is that Israel is no longer sure it can trust Washington when it comes to Iran.

President Barack Obama makes a point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a 2010 meeting at the White House. /AP/Carolyn Kaster

Israel believes that the U.S. is in denial regarding the Iranian threat; some Israelis are even concerned that the Obama administration does not have a deep commitment to their country. From Israel’s perspective, if Iran cannot be contained without nuclear weapons, then there is little chance it can be contained once it has nuclear weapons.

On the one hand, the USA is keen to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons while acknowledging that countries with nuclear weapons tend to become more circumspect. On the other hand, the USA feels strong enough to limit any nuclear attack. It has a widely dispersed population, so a large proportion of the country would survive nuclear attack. It also has a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy any nuclear enemy quickly and completely.

Moreover, the USA has the comfort of being outside the range of Iran’s current ballistic arsenal. Israel, however, is within range of those weapons and has been overtly threatened by Iran. A nuclear strike instigated by Iran or any other country might completely destroy Israel, especially since it is a small densely populated country. Understandably Israel has a much lower risk threshold with regards to Iran than the USA. While a nuclear strike against Israel perpetrated by Iran is unlikely, it would be devastating. Such an attack against the USA is more or less unthinkable.

Furthermore the relationship between Israel and the USA has undergone major changes since the end of Cold War. Israel’s welfare is no longer of such great importance to the USA. The two countries cooperate on combating Jihadists but their interest in doing so arises from diverging motives.

Equally, Israel’s dependence on the USA has lessened. It receives much less aid than before. Its immediate neighbors no longer pose such a major threat. Egypt has been at peace with Israel and is militarily too weak to threaten it. Jordan is a de facto ally, and Syria, while hostile, is incapable of mounting any meaningful offensive. It hs been almost a generation since Israel needed the assurance that the U.S. would rush to its assistance if a war should break out.

Thus the U.S. is being freed from its obligation to focus its foreign policy considerations around Israel’s welfare and Israel is being liberated from having to pursue a strategy developed for it by the U.S. administration.

What this effectively means is that a segment of the U.S. foreign policy community can afford to accept that Iran might develop nuclear weapon capabilities while for Israel this still remains a complete taboo.

President Obama is assuming, on the one hand, that once Iran has a nuclear weapon, it will realize that it would be pointless to use it. Firstly Iran’s nuclear arsenal would be very limited. If it launched a nuclear missile, most probably against Israel, it might be shot down before reaching its target and then Iran would be faced with a counter-strike which it could not defend against. The effect on Iran would be devastating. And the gain would be zero.

On the other hand, if the Iranian missile were to reach Israel, the USA could launch a highly destructive counter-strike without having suffered any damage itself.

Clearly this leaves the USA in a strong position from which to counter Iran with diplomacy, sanctions and pressure in an attempt to make it resist the temptation to use nuclear weapons. Equally clearly Israel, as the potential target of Iranian nuclear attack, does not want to take the risk of this happening.

Most Israelis also seem to believe that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Arab countries will seek their own nuclear arsenals. This recognition has significantly influenced Israeli views on security — specifically, they believe that any regional security architecture requires a foundation, and that prevention is the only solid foundation for the Middle East.

Israel’s defensive options are fraught with problems. If Israel were to take unilateral military action, it would be focused and short-lived, conducted via long-range bombing runs or missile strikes.

A conventional attack on Iran to take out Iran’s nuclear installations is likely to fail or prove insufficient. A pre-emptive nuclear attack on Iran’s arsenal, probably using missiles fired from submarines, would in turn isolate Israel from its allies and destroy its geopolitical position. Probably even the USA would distance itself from Israel if it were to use nuclear weapons.

Only the USA has the conventional forces to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, an air campaign against Iran might be insufficiently effective to achieve its aims and would require the support of a potentially very bloody ground offensive in difficult terrain. Iran could encourage the destabilization of the whole region by inciting its proxies in Iraq, GCC countries, Afghanistan and Lebanon to take action. Iran could even activate its sleeper cells around the globe for subversive operations particularly in the U.S. and Europe.

Moreover Iran has repeatedly made it clear that in the advent of an attack by the USA or Israel on its nuclear program it would attempt to close the strait of Hormuz and cut off oil supplies to Asia, Europe and the U.S. As 40 percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the Strait of Hormuz this would have serious consequences for the world’s economy.

17 million barrels of oil and products passes through the Strait of Hormuz each day. The U.S. Energy information Administration reckons that about 3m barrels of oil could be directed through Saudi Arabia via a trans Arabian pipeline to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. This would not prevent the oil prices from soaring to a peak of $200 a barrel. Moreover Qatar and the UAE, which together provide 18 percent of the world’s LNG consumption (31 million tonnes), would not be able to transport that LNG around the world.

The best available strategy for the international community would involve: imposing serious and damaging sanctions on Iran; forming an international coalition united against Iran; protecting the Arabian Peninsula by building up its defenses, and finally by achieving “regime change” brought about through support of the secular-democratic opposition both within and without Iran.

The Iranian regime operates behind a pseudo-democratic facade, which should no longer be tolerated. Washington must strongly call for free and democratic elections in Iran and support democratic change without throwing its support behind any specific expatriate opposition group.

Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a commentator on TV and radio (German ARD/NDR TV,SAT 1,N24, Voice of America and Radio Israel) on Middle East issues and a contributer to, and Defense&Foreign Affairs.