Israel and Iran: straining at the leash | Editorial

Barack Obama will have to invest significant resources and time to defuse the Iranian bomb programme crisis peacefully

Nearly a year has passed since Israel’s former intelligence chief Meir Dagan said that a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations would be a stupid idea, unlikely to achieve its objectives, but certain to set off a regional war. In that time, virtually all of Israel’s opinion formers have coalesced around the view that a war with Iran is inevitable. This was stoked not only by Iranian-sponsored actions such as the bombings against Israeli diplomatic targets in Bangkok, New Delhi and Tbilisi, but regular statements by the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, and prime minster, Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very suspicion of an Iranian bomb programme is framed by the latter as a threat to the state’s existence, as if Israel does not possess up to 400 nuclear bombs of its own. There is nothing to say that, as nuclear powers, Iran and Israel would not be bound by the same rules of mutually assured destruction as India and Pakistan are. The purpose of Israel’s narrative was to move the timeframe for such an attack forward. Mr Dagan said he did not think Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon before 2015. Washington further distinguishes between an Iranian ability to assemble a bomb and the decision by the ayatollah to actually do so. In response to both, Israeli leaders warned that Iran’s uranium enrichment programme was about to enter its “zone of immunity” – the idea that there is only a limited amount of time to attack Iran’s nuclear installations that are all buried in mountain tunnels. It was important for Barack Obama to stand firm both publicly and in private with Mr Netanyahu.

This he did when he admonished Israel and its US supporters for too much loose talk of war and reminded them that the world had a responsibility to give sanctions a chance to work. With Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all scheduled to address the same audience this week, it was important for Mr Obama to turn down the volume knob on Iran. A political timetable is at work here as well. If and when he is re-elected, Mr Obama will feel less bound by the need to listen to a hawkish congress.

Mr Obama said much to soothe Israeli ears – that its fear of a nuclear-armed Iran was legitimate and that America had a commitment to maintain Israel’s military edge. What he did not retreat from were the repeated statements by senior administration officials doubting Israel’s military capability against Iran. For the US military to be as aggressive as that about the military capability of its closest ally testifies to a dialogue that is tougher in private than it is in public. The National Iranian American Council ran an ad signed by an array of military brass urging the president to say no to a war of choice with Iran. The US military feels it has not been through two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be bounced into a third. Nor did Mr Obama move the goalposts. The aim of US policy, he made clear, was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not the capacity to build one. His strategy is clear – to get through this year without any further deterioration of the situation with Iran.

He will have to go much further. As the history of every other successful piece of multi-lateral negotiation has shown – seven years elapsed between Libya ratifying the NPT and the security council vote lifting sanctions – Mr Obama will have to invest significant resources and time to defuse this crisis peacefully. For sanctions to work as an incentive, they have to be liftable. EU sanctions are enforced by an executive, the EU commission, but US sanctions are locked into place by a legislature, the US Congress.

Left to the laws of gravity, naval flotillas around the strait of Hormuz, and the opportunity for unscripted events, US relations with Iran will deteriorate further unless energy is put into creating incentives for Iran to change course on enriching uranium. It is more important than ever to remember that while the IAEA have serious concerns about a possible bomb programme, there is no proof. To launch a full-scale war in the Middle East on the basis of a hunch, would be folly itself. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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