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Israel, the West, and a Nuclear Iran

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: July 9, 2008

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After months of speculation about a U.S. military showdown with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, attention has turned to another state at odds with Tehran: Israel. Western media is abuzz with predictions of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations. Former Bush administration official John Bolton went so far as to predict the timing (Telegraph)—during the U.S. presidential transition after November's elections. Israeli military exercises over the Mediterranean have only added to the tension (NYT). As the Financial Times notes, while fear of a military answer to the Iranian nuclear question had once given way to hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough, that optimism has now been supplanted by ominous realities.

Washington has long hinted military force may be needed to curtail Tehran's nuclear capabilities. But reactions to a potential Israeli strike from members of the Bush administration have ranged from cautious to critical. During a press briefing on July 2 President Bush avoided a question about whether he would discourage Israel from going after Iran militarily. At a Pentagon briefing the same day, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to a similar question by stressing that "opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us. That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging."

Some defense experts believe Iran would respond to an Israeli strike by attacking U.S. and Israeli interests (Ynet) in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. An aide to Iran's Supreme Leader reinforced that view on July 8. According to the Iranian Students News Agency, military envoy Ali Shirazi vowed that if Iran is attacked, "Tel Aviv and US fleet in the Persian Gulf would be the first targets to burst into flames." Further heightening tensions, Iran test-fired a series of long- and mid-range missiles on July 9. An Iranian military official said the exercise—dubbed The Great Prophet III—was a warning to the United States and Israel (Press TV).

The new round of tough talk and action comes amid signs of a diplomatic thaw, further clouding the West's course of action. Manuchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, praised an incentives package presented on behalf of six major powers and declared on July 2 the possibility of "a multi-faceted solution" (AFP) to the nuclear question. Iranian media reports also suggested Tehran might consider suspending uranium enrichment to kick-start negotiations (National). But Iran's own position vis-à-vis suspension remains inconsistent (IRNA). German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that the offer to negotiate is not open-ended (Press TV). Washington, meanwhile, continues to pursue non-military tracks while refusing to rule out the use of force. Seymour M. Hersh of the New Yorker writes that the Bush administration has ramped up funding to Iranian opposition groups inside Iran and expanded intelligence-gathering operations across the border.

Analysts see a host of reasons to keep away from full-scale violence. Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, and Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, write in the Christian Science Monitor that bombing runs alone won't destroy "any potential clandestine facilities in Iran nor Iran's knowledge of the enrichment process." Mohamad ElBaradei, the chief UN nuclear inspector, told Al Arabiya television in late June that an attack on Iran would "turn the region into a fireball" (Reuters). Some commentators, like Yossi Melman of the Israeli daily Haaretz, say Western reporting has "sent a false message" (PostGlobal) that an Israeli strike is imminent.

Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, meanwhile, say policymakers must think through the political, economic, and diplomatic consequences of a strike. But as the Economist argues, Israel's clock is clearly ticking. "Given their history," the magazine says, "a lot of Israelis will run almost any risk to prevent a state that calls repeatedly for their own state’s destruction from acquiring the wherewithal to bring that end about."

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