Netanyahu Pushes the United States to Make War on Iran: Will Obama Say No?

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States last week was capped off on Sunday with the broadcast of a previously-taped interview on Fox New Sunday.  The interview covered a range of important topics, including the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  But it is the Prime Minister’s remarks on Iran that deserve special attention — for these remarks suggest that Netanyahu is embarked on an extremely dangerous course.  Netanyahu is pushing the United States to take eventual military action against Iran.

Three points regarding Iran from Netanyahu’s interview with Fox News Sunday warrant particular attention.

  • First, Netanyahu said that CIA Director Leon Panetta was “probably right” in his judgment that new United Nations and U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran will not “stop” Iran’s nuclear program — which Netanyahu characterized as “racing to develop atomic weapons” for the explicit purpose of “Israel’s destruction.”
  • Second, Netanyahu argued that the Islamic Republic’s “irrational regime” cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons capability, because “you can’t rely on the fact that they’ll obey the calculations of cost and benefit that have governed all nuclear powers since the rise of the nuclear age after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”  Netanyahu disdained the plausibility of “containing” a “nuclear Iran”: “I think that’s a mistake, and I think that people fall into a misconception.”  Indeed, Netanyahu went on to compare Iran to “other radicals like the Taliban” (sic) who sent terrorists to attack the United States without regard to the consequences and characterized the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as “the ultimate terrorist threat.”
  • Third, while noting that “the Jewish state was set up to defend Jewish lives and we always reserve the right to defend ourselves,” Netanyahu asserted that it was only the threat of U.S. military strikes that might prompt Iranian decision-makers to stop their alleged advance toward building nuclear weapons: “There has only been one time that Iran actually stopped the program.  That was when it feared U.S. military action.”  (We take this as a reference to the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program, which famously judged “with high confidence” that “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” in the fall of 2003, “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”)

Netanyahu’s remarks about Iran are noteworthy, for at least two reasons.

First, there is an inherent contradiction in the official Israeli analysis of Iranian decision-making on nuclear matters.  On one hand, Iran is deemed to be so “irrational” that it cannot be relied on to follow the same sorts of cost-benefit calculations that have presumably guided the decisions of states actually possessing nuclear weapons since the end of World War II.  On the other hand, Iranian decision-makers are judged to be sufficiently “rational,” in the instrumental sense, to make logical risk-benefit calculations about the management of their country’s nuclear program.  (As the 2007 NIE held, “Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”)

We continue to hold that there is no evidence Tehran has taken a decision to weaponize its developing nuclear capabilities, and continue to note that the highest levels of political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic seem to have ruled out such a decision — not least on religious grounds.  But the contradiction in Netanyahu’s position affirms our assessment that the Iranian nuclear program is hardly an “existential threat” to Israel.  The real problem, from an Israeli perspective, is that a nuclear-capable Iran might, at the margins, begin to impose some limits on Israel’s current freedom to use military force unilaterally, wherever it wants, and for whatever purpose it favors.

Second, while preserving the option of Israeli military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, Netanyahu is shifting the onus for forestalling the further development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities onto the prospect of U.S. military action.  In this context, we note President Obama’s response to a question about the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, in an interview with Israel’s Channel Two television, following his meeting with Netanyahu last week: “I think the relationship between the US and Israel is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other. . . .  We try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern and that approach is one Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to.”  It is unlikely that Obama would have made such a statement unless he believed he had a commitment from Netanyahu not to “surprise” him by taking unilateral military action against Iran.

Based on our own conversations with well-connected Israelis, we believe that there is an elaborated, long-term logic to Netanyahu’s approach.  In essence, Netanyahu is minimizing the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran in the near term to maximize pressure on the United States to take military action against the Islamic Republic in the medium term — perhaps in the next 12-18 months, after a critical mass of opinion concludes that international and U.S. sanctions are not “working.”  At that point — having already dismissed the plausibility of containment, the Prime Minister has positioned himself to press President Obama not to “waste time” with a futile strategy and move on to serious consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

At least in theory, Obama could say “no” to Netanyahu’s exhortations — but that “no” would become public knowledge within roughly 15 minutes of its ostensibly private delivery.  And, if our assessment of timing is correct, Obama’s “no” would become public knowledge as the President’s re-election bid is gearing up in a serious way.

If Obama says anything other than “no” to Netanyahu, the United States will be committed to military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  A U.S. attack on Iran would almost certainly result in a much broader confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic — with residual U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq at high risk, the strategic outcomes from our military adventures in both of those countries in even deeper jeopardy, profoundly negative effects on the global economy, and international perceptions that reckless and “rogue” U.S. behavior in the strategically vital Middle East was an idiosyncratic feature of George W. Bush’s presidency forever shattered.  These eminently foreseeable consequences would have a devastating impact on America’s standing in one of the world’s most important regions.

So, between now and the next U.S. presidential election in 2012, the most important question about America’s Iran policy is this: What will President Obama say, when Prime Minister Netanyahu comes calling again?

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  The text above is an excerpt from an article which was first published in The Race for Iran on 11 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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