Notwithstanding the neverending stream of all those based-on-reliable-intelligence-sources analyses, it is doubtful whether these same analysts would be willing to bet whatever is left of their 401K retirement accounts on their predictions that Israel will — or will not — attack Iranian nuclear sites this year.
And while research institutions have conducted interesting exercises to try to figure out the military, diplomatic and economic repercussions of a confrontation between Israel and Iran, the dictum that no military plan survives the contact with the enemy applies also here — in addition to the unintended consequences, blowbacks and the proverbial ‘black swans’ that are bound to show up even in the unlikely scenario under which Israel achieves all or most of its military goals.
If I can put my ten cents worth of strategic thinking, it seems to me that the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the American fiasco in Iraq helped tip the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the Levant in the direction of Iran and its allies. And that made it more likely that Israel and other Sunni Arab players that regard the Islamic Republic as a threat to their core national interests would use all their available resources to deprive Iran from having access to a military instrument that would allow it to formalize the new regional balance of power.
In his magisterial study of the 1812-1814 military campaigns in Europe, Russia Against Napoleon, historian Dominic Lieven suggests that while Tsar Alexander recognized that France would never be able to control Europe, he also concluded that the price of adhering to Napoleon’s Continental System would have undermined Russia’s position as a great power and that the Russians had no choice but to use the full power of their military to prevent that from happening.
My guess is that Israel, as well the Saudis and their Arab-Sunni allies, know that it would be possible to contain a nuclear Iran — in the same way that Russia could have embraced a cost-effective strategy to contain Napoleon’s France. But as long as Israeli leaders believe that they have a realistic option of blocking Iran’s nuclear program — and by extension, of setting major constraints on its ability to assert its position as a regional power — they will probably use their military capacity. The Saudis and their Gulf partners would probably cheer them behind close doors while publicly condemning them.
But as quite a few Israeli and American military experts have warned, a military strike on Iranian facilities would not achieve the declared Israeli goal of ending Iran’s alleged nuclear military program and the expected costs in terms of Israeli casualties could be very high.
Moreover, if Iran gives the green light to its Shiite Hezbollah allies in Lebanon to attack Israel and mobilize the Shiites in Iraq and the Persian Gulf to retaliate against American and Saudi targets, Tehran would be in a position to strengthen its regional power. The ayatollahs would also be able to exploit an Israeli attack to ignite Iranian nationalism and win support even from those Iranians who actually oppose the ruling clerics and would like to see them removed from power.
And while the Obama administration insists that it wants to apply peaceful means to get Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, it is not clear that Washington and its Europeans allies would succeed in coming up with a diplomatic formula that would be acceptable to Iran and to Israel (and its supporters in Washington) or that the Americans would be able to prevent Israel from taking military action against Iran. Those of us who believe that an Israeli military attack would not serve American and Israeli interests and may actually help consolidate the power of Iran in the Middle East and that of the clerics in Teheran should also recognize that President Barack Obama — who probably agrees with these assumptions — is not in a position for a diplomatic confrontation with Israel during a presidential election year.
In fact, even in a non-election year, there will be very little incentive for Mr Obama to launch a creative diplomatic opening to Iran at a time when the Iranian leadership does not have the power to make a deal with Washington and is facing strong opposition at home from liberal and conservative forces alike (who, despite their differences, want Iran to acquire nuclear military capacity).
And at a time when the Middle East is going through the political turmoil of the Arab Spring and the US is engaged in a steady drawdown from its military occupation of Iraq, the shaky balance of power in the region would make it difficult for Washington to try to reach a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran. Such a move, coming in the aftermath of the collapse of the pro-American regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, would be perceived by the Saudis and other Arab-Sunni governments as another sign of US weakness.
If Israel decides to attack Iran, expect the Obama administration to provide it with logistical and other support, including by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel (unlike the Reagan administration which did join the Security Council’s censure of the Israeli attack on the Iraq nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981).
Leaf From History
Yet, in the same way that the outcome of the 1973 Middle East War provided the then Nixon administration with an opportunity to protect and even strengthen its position in the Middle East, by renewing diplomatic relations with Egypt and working to bring peace between the Egyptians and the Israelis, the Obama administration could find itself in a position to advance its interests in the aftermath of an Israel-Iran military confrontation and an ensuing Middle Eastern war. A potential leading player in such a post-war scenario would be Turkey which until now has played a clever diplomatic game vis-a-vis Iran. In the most significant act of military cooperation between Washington and Ankara since 2003, Turkey agreed last year to station sophisticated American radars, part of a US-led system to defend Europe against a potential Iranian missile attack, and has expressed strong opposition against any move by Iran to acquire nuclear military weapons.
At the same time, the Turks have also been in the forefront of the diplomatic opposition against a military strike against Iran and, working with Brazil, it proposed a diplomatic deal to freeze Iranian uranium enrichment in exchange for ending the US-led sanctions against Iran.
And while Turkey is a member of NATO and remains a close military ally of Washington, its recent diplomatic assertiveness and its tensions with Israel coupled with its strong support for democratic activists in the Arab World, has strengthened its status in the Middle East and could allow it to play the role of grand mediator between the US and Iran in a post-war scenario.
Indeed, working with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, as well with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union, the Obama administration could propose the convening of a Middle East Conference chaired by Turkey that would bring together all the Arab states, Iran and Israel and that would set the stage for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the region (which would apply also to Iran as well as to Israel’s nuclear arsenal) and to a series of diplomatic initiatives to help stabilize Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process along the lines of the old Arab League proposal.
In that context, the US and Iran could also start repairing their diplomatic ties and Teheran would be encouraged to support any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is agreed on both sides. Not for the first time in history, the end of a war could help create the conditions for stability, cooperation and peace. It could be worth the try.
The commentary was published originally in the Business Times of Singapore on 2.9.12