Only a few weeks after US-Iran diplomacy began in earnest, it seems to be heading towards a premature ending. Rather than tensions reduction, the world has witnessed the opposite. Iran is refusing to accept a fuel swap deal brokered by the IAEA, the IAEA has passed a resolution rebuking Iran, and Tehran has responded by approving a plan to build ten more nuclear facilities.
With the potential end of at least this phase of diplomacy, fears of a disastrous Israeli attack on Iran are on the rise once more. But contrary to Washington’s official line, America is capable of preventing Israel from initiating a war that would further destabilize the Middle East.
Conventional wisdom in Washington reads that the United States has little influence over Israel, particularly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, since Israel maintains that it is an existential threat.
Washington has utilized the perception of Israeli immunity to international pleas to pressure China to rebuke Tehran. According to the Washington Post, National Security Council officials recently traveled to Beijing and used the Israeli card to get the Chinese on board.
The Chinese were told that Israel regards Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential issue and that countries that have an existential issue don’t listen to other countries,” according to a senior administration official. The implication was clear: Israel could bomb Iran, leading to a crisis in the Persian Gulf region and almost inevitably problems over the very oil China needs to fuel its economic juggernaut.”
It is questionable that the Chinese were moved by the notion that Israel cannot be influenced by the international community on this issue. Mindful of the strength of US-Israeli relations, it is hardly convincing that Washington cannot influence Israel’s actions towards Iran.
Indeed, there is an important precedent in which Washington successfully prevented Israel from taking military action even when Israel itself had been attacked.
On August 2, 1990, almost a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Iron Curtain divide, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within months, the George H. W. Bush administration carefully assembled a coalition of states under the UN flag and defeated the Iraqi army and restored Kuwait’s ruling family, the House of Sabah. The Bush senior administration saw particular value in ensuring that the international coalition contained numerous Arab states. But to get the Arabs to join a war alongside the US and against another Arab power, Israel needed to be kept out of the coalition.
This turned out to be a tricky issue, particularly when Saddam Hussein hurled thirty-four Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, in an obvious attempt to lure Israel into the war. Then-National Security Advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, told me in an interview that the United States told Israel “in the strongest possible words” that it needed to keep itself out of the Iraq operation because Israeli retaliation would cause the collapse of Washington’s alliance against Iraq.
For the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, this was a very tough decision. Saddam’s missile attacks damaged Israel’s public morale; the country’s otherwise lively and noisy capital quickly turned into a ghost town. Bush sent Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Israel to assure Israeli leaders that the United States was doing all it could to destroy the Iraqi missile launchers.
But neither the Israel Defense Forces nor the Ministry of Defense was convinced. Instead, a feeling prevailed among Israel’s leaders that Washington was untrustworthy and that it could not be relied upon when it came to Israel’s existence. Bad blood was created between Israel and the United States, according to Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad. Washington’s protection of Israel was ineffective, and the image that Israel was relying on the United States for protection was hard to stomach for ordinary Israelis. Shamir’s decision to accommodate the Americans was extremely unpopular, because it was believed that it “would cause irreparable damage to Israel’s deterrent capabilities,” Halevi told me. To make matters worse, people around Shamir felt that the United States did not reward Israel for, in their view, effectively enabling the coalition to remain intact by refusing to retaliate against Iraq.
Just as Israeli retaliation against Iraq in 1991 would have been devastating for the US, an Israeli preventive attack against Iran today would spell disaster for US national security.
In July 2008, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against any Israeli military action against Iran, saying that the Middle East would become “more unstable” and that it would put US forces under much stress, indicating that an Israeli attack on Iran would inevitably suck the US into war with Iran. “From the United States’ perspective, the United States’ military perspective, in particular, opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” Mullen told reporters.
A year later, Mullen’s line was echoed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who warned that a military attack would only be a “temporary solution.” “There’s a lot of talk about a military effort to take out their nuclear capabilities, but, in my view, it would only be a temporary solution,” Gates told reporters in September 2009.
Beyond the impact an Israeli attack on Iran would have on US national security, the first casualty of war with Iran would be the Iranian pro-democracy movement. Having shown great courage in challenging the Ahmadinejad government, the last thing Iran’s pro-democracy activists need is for Iran to get embroiled in a military confrontation with Israel and the US. Their struggle for democracy will be infinitely more difficult in the midst of war.
Should diplomacy with Iran fail, and should Israel seek to attack Iran, America will have plenty of reasons to prevent such a disaster from taking place. And history shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, Washington has the ability to prevent Israel from taking actions that would endanger America.
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007) and President of the National Iranian American Council. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post and the niacINsight blog; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.