Two stalwarts of the Western confrontation against a nuclear-armed Iran suffered election defeats this week: Nicolas Sarkozy was swept out of the Elysee by the Socialist leader Francois Hollande Sunday, May 6. Three days earlier, the two parties forming UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s government coalition were trounced in local elections across Britain. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who faces an election in four months, never imagined he would be left so quickly on shifting sands against the Iranian nuclear threat.
In Washington, Dennis Ross, Barack Obama’s former adviser on Iran and frequent visitor to Jerusalem with messages from the White House said Sunday, May 6, that oddly enough Israel had attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and destroyed Syria’s nuclear facility 2007 without talk. So why were Israelis talking so much now?
Ross answered his own question by suggesting that Israeli leaders aimed at giving the world a strong motive for raising the heat on Iran and tightening sanctions so as to stop Israel going to war; then, if sanctions and diplomacy failed, no one could complain if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear program.
Ross appears to have forgotten the rows between the US and Israel in 1981 over attacking the Iraqi reactor and how hard Ronald Reagan leaned on Menahem Begin to stop him going through with it.
But most of all, Ross was reflecting the Obama administration’s impatience with the Iran debate going back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington for two years and is determined to wash its hands of the problem for now and get on with winning the president a second term in November.
The outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke more forcefully and frankly than any other Western leader about the real danger of a nuclear-armed Iran and accepted that it would have to be tackled by military action. He was also stood out as one of the few French leaders of recent times prepared to fight for French and Western Middle East interests.
The role of French special forces, navy and air forces, alongside US and British forces, was pivotal in the campaign to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In recent weeks, he placed French units on standby in case President Obama decided to intervene in Syria. In the event, the US president pulled back from an operation that was planned to have involved Saudi and GCC armies as well.
France’s successful military showing in the Libyan war brought no political or economic rewards. Indeed, Paris shelled out a million dollars it could ill afford to pay for it. Sarkozy’s opponent Francois Hollande did not make this an issue in his campaign, but it was certainly not lost on the French voter. The French Muslim voter no doubt settled scores with Sarkozy for his ban on the veil and pro-Israeli policies and may even have cost him the presidency, although this issue too did not come to the fore in electioneering.
David Cameron, who probably spent even more on the Libyan war than Sakrozy and could afford it even less, is paying a heavy political price for the unpopular austerity measures he is clamping down on the British people to haul the country out of a deepening recession.
Iran has therefore won a handy breather on several fronts: Barack Obama is carefully avoiding any war involvement in the course of his election campaign – he even asked world leaders to give him “space”; French President Hollande needs time to find his feet, attack the declining French economy and rescue the euro. He will have no time or attention to spare in the months to come for Iran’s nuclear threat or the Syrian bloodbath.
When ten days ago, Netanyahu sent his security adviser Yaacov Amidror on a round trip to European capitals to pitch Israel’s case against Iran, he never imagined how quickly the Iranian issue would recede into irrelevance as key Western government go swept up in more pressing business and upsets.
Netanyahu announced Sunday that he would call an early election in four months, a year before it is due.
Prime minister since 2009, he is assured by every opinion poll that he is miles ahead in popularity of any Israeli politician. He told a meeting of his party Sunday, May 6, that he didn't want "a year and a half of political instability accompanied by blackmail and populism".
Currently in his element, he may feel that it is up to him now to take the initiative for preempting a nuclear Iran. And the sooner the better.