Editor’s note: This op-ed by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
The ink was barely dry on the printer copy of my last column. I had concluded after reading the tea leaves from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest Washington visit, that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of this year now seemed a little less likely. An important factor in my analysis was that in new polls a solid majority of Israelis opposed a pre-emptive strike on Iran unless the United States was providing tangible support.
But from the moment he returned home, the Israeli prime minister began to challenge the sentiment reflected in those polls. In a speech to the Israeli Knesset Mr. Netanyahu urged his countrymen to reject the notion that their country is too weak to go it alone in a war against a regional power such as Iran and therefore needs to rely on the United States. He cited important historical cases when his predecessors ignored America’s advice and did what was best for Israel.
Yet as pointed out by Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the examples Mr. Netanyahu used were questionable. For instance, while it’s true that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare Israel’s independence in 1948 was opposed by then Secretary of State George Marshall — the decision was supported by President Harry Truman and within minutes America became the first country to recognize the new state of Israel. Mr. Benn noted, “Netanyahu is hinting that in his Washington visit, he received Obama’s tacit approval for an Israeli attack against Iran – under the guise of opposition.” Benn concluded that the prime minister’s speech was, “a preparation for war, and not just a ‘bluff’ or a diversion tactic.”
In reality, if Israel attacks Iran, with or without an Obama green light, most of the Congress and the majority of Americans will demand that the president support Israel — and this being an election year he will have no other choice. Meantime, if attacked by Israel, the Iranians will automatically assume it was with Obama’s blessing and will retaliate against both Israeli and American interests.
Faced with this no-win situation, there was immediate blowback from the Obama administration to this latest war hype from Jerusalem — and it was not subtle. The headline on the front page of the New York Times was: “Pentagon Finds Perils for U.S. if Israel Were To Strike Iran.” This was the lead sentence: “A classified war simulation exercise held this month to assess the American military’s capabilities to respond to an Israeli attack on Iran, forecast that the strike would lead to a regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.”
This was an obvious leak from the highest levels of the government meant to send a strong message to the American people that war with Iran would not be the “cakewalk” that President George W. Bush and his neo-cons had promised the invasion of Iraq would be. For Israelis it was a clear signal that the White House remained strongly opposed to a pre-emptive strike against Iran at this time.
According to the Times report, the two-week war game, called “Internal Look,” played out a scenario in which following an Israeli air strike on Iran the United States found itself pulled into the conflict when Iranian missiles struck a U.S. Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans. The United States responded by launching its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In the Times’ story, three important conclusions were highlighted.
• The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years.
• The war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel and a counterstrike by Iran. And its results may give stronger voice to those within the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.
• The results were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. Gen. Mattis reportedly told aides that an Israeli first-strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.
Israel has been pushing its analysis that Iran will not retaliate harshly to an Israeli attack, for fear of an expanded war with Israel and America. That argument runs completely counter to Mr. Netanyahu’s premise that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel because Iran’s leaders are Islamic fanatics capable of using nukes against the Jewish state — and undeterred by Israel’s much superior nuclear arsenal. How is it that the Iranian regime would be too frightened to make a forceful response to an Israeli attack on its nuclear capabilities — yet would irrationally use a nuclear weapon against Israel knowing that would be an act of Iranian national suicide?
This leads me to wonder if Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent determination to act sooner rather than later may have less to do with his immediate concerns about Iran and more about his worries about Barack Obama as a second-term president. Free of domestic political consequences Obama would likely be less tolerant of the continuing demands and periodic insults from his most unappreciative ally. With all of the Republican presidential candidates outdoing each other in the absoluteness of their support for Israel, it can be assumed that any new Republican president is not going to give the Israelis grief about expanding Jewish settlements, restarting peace negotiations, or actually creating a Palestinian state. So I can’t imagine Mr. Netanyahu is eager to see Mr. Obama get re-elected. Probably quite the contrary. And as this drama of possible war with Iran continues to unfold, that’s something to think about.