What If an Israeli-Iranian Military Clash cannot be Averted?

Israel's option for stopping the Iranian drive for a nuclear bomb by military action remains on the table. This scenario is the central theme of the Middle East Review President Barack Obama ordered early August after most of his policy start-ups for the region had misfired, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose.

Despite the diplomatic understandings the US and Russia have achieved for preventing this option materializing (as described in the first article in this issue), the Review's authors strongly recommend taking it into account.

They decided not to embody those ongoing secret exchanges on the Iranian issue between the US, Russia and Israel in their Review, for two main reasons:

First: Notwithstanding the progress achieved, there is still no certainty that their discussions will yield their participants objective, i.e. convincing grounds for Israel to revoke its military option against Iran.

Second: Iran's response is an enigma. Tehran might reasonably be expected to be deterred by the vision of a tough US-Russian-European front ranged against its nuclear program. On the other hand, whatever Moscow may claim, Tehran finds little profit in its relations with Russia and therefore has nothing much to lose by losing its verbal support.

Therefore, the White House is still advised to work on the assumption that Israel may yet attack Iran and should therefore delay formulating new guidelines until it is clear when and how Israel proposes to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, whether the attack succeeds or fails and how Iran will react.

According to our sources, the authors of the Middle East Review (originally chosen were non-participants in Obama's first Middle East steps, Deputy National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Dennis McDonough) have advised the president to reach certain key decisions before embarking on any fresh moves:

Obama must first determine whether it is in US interests to hold Israel back from using force against Iran or, conversely, give Israel a tacit green light while keeping the US free of direct involvement in any of the preparations or arrangements for the action.

If the latter, Washington must decide on its diplomatic strategy, chiefly whether to try and insulate parties like Syria from the Jerusalem-Tehran conflict and so contain its spread across the region into a general Middle East war.

Israel's logistic and operational plans are in place

The timeline offered by the Review for an Israeli strike is from late September 2009 to April 2010, depending on when prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is warned by his intelligence experts that Iran is just 4-6 weeks away from the ability to build several nuclear weapons.

This ability is currently calculated at three-to-four months away, but Tehran's nuclear program is pressing forward all the time and may well overtake today's calculations, bringing them forward to some point between November and December 2009 to February 2010, at the latest.

The review's authors also affirm that Israel is fully prepared logistically and operationally for a military operation against Iran's illicit nuclear facilities. They say that Monday, Sept. 7, its security and intelligence chiefs advised the prime minister that the ball is now in the government's court; the decision as to if and when to go forward is in his hands. That message was delivered, they report, with Israel's military chiefs confident in their ability to bring off a successful operation and demolish large sections of Iran's nuclear program.

Informed Israeli (and US) estimates predict that it would take the Islamic republic three to four years to rebuild its wrecked program and another five years to come as close as today to the capacity for building nuclear weapons.

It is taken for granted in circles close to the US president that by attacking Iran, Israel would lay itself open to rocket fire against its civilian population from Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. They are less certain about Iranian reprisals against US military objectives in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they work on the assumption that US targets will escape Iranian ire if Israel confines its military strikes to nuclear facilities and does not branch out against strategic targets like regime and Revolutionary Guards centers or bridges, water and electricity infrastructure.

Concern for Iranian reprisals against US regional targets

On the other hand, unforeseen events, such as for instance Israel hitting a sensitive regime element or sustaining large-scale casualties as a result of Iranian or Iran-directed missile strikes, could cause the clash to get out of hand. Then, US targets might become vulnerable.

Taking all these broad eventualities into account, and assuming the US-Russian understanding breaks down, the Review's compilers have made the following recommendations:

1. Both Israel and Iran must be seen to be on unstoppable courses: Israel is deep in its preparations to strike Iran, just as Tehran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon. Washington should therefore let them get on with their plans and concentrate on developing options for dealing with the post-war reality, however it may turn out.

2. Since a highly inflammable situation is evolving in the Middle East, the US president must proceed on the Iranian issue cautiously – in conjunction with and backed up by the major world powers, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany.

At all costs, Washington must avoid being seen to act alone or lay itself open to an Iranian charge of unilaterally supporting Israel – especially when any such military conflict is bound to end one way or another in a UN Security Council resolution.

The Obama administration was therefore urged to demonstrate through a timely public relations campaign that it is opposed to Israel resorting to military action.

The White House has already taken this advice on board and fired its opening shots.

Pull Syria away from its ties to Tehran

On Sept. 11, defense secretary Robert Gates announced that the best way to address Iran's nuclear issue was to persuade Tehran through dialogue that the country's “long-term security interests are diminished by having nuclear weapons, rather than enhanced.”

Addressing 50 American scholars, community leaders and other civilians at the Pentagon, he remarked: “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. You could buy one to three years by doing that, but they would simply go deeper and more covert, and it would unify the country and their commitment,” Gates added.

Furthermore, the Obama administration took everyone by surprise by accepting Iran's answer of Sept. 9 to the Six Powers' proposals and pretending it was a good enough basis for opening talks with Tehran. Rather than acting as lead player in this move, the US president decided to leave it for the European Union's foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana to set the meeting up on October 1.

Solana is an inveterate busy bee in diplomatic contacts with Tehran, albeit with scant results.

3. Where Washington is advised to lead is in working for a political breakthrough to better relations with Damascus. However the Israeli-Iranian military showdown works out, a thaw in US relations with the Assad regime was desirable at this point since the war might well throw up unpredictable circumstances for detaching Damascus from its bonds with Tehran.

Moscow senses new wind blowing from Washington

4. Focusing on this track would also be prudent, the Review's compilers believe, because the abatement of hostilities would generate a good climate for resuming Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, with better odds for a deal than the Israel-Palestinian dialogue. Cutting Damascus out of its relationship with Tehran, they say, would not only hit the radical Iranians hard, but leave Syria free to intercede constructively with the Palestinians and persuade them to follow its footsteps in making peace with Israel.

5. The Obama administration is also strongly urged to improve relations with the Turkish prime minister Tayyip Recip Erdogan in order to start building a strong Washington-Moscow-Ankara alignment for dealing with a war-weakened Tehran.

Ankara would also be a useful candidate to broker peace moves between Israel and the Arab world, including the Palestinians. Turkey, moreover, is the only Muslim Middle East nation with troops available for securing the borders and demilitarized areas agreed upon in such negotiations.

A move on Monday, September 14, signposted the first steps in this direction:

The Pentagon informed U.S. lawmakers that it is ready to sell Turkey $7.8 billion worth of Patriot missile systems in order to bolster the only NATO member bordering on Iran.

The sale would include 13 “fire units,” 72 PAC-3 interceptor missiles and related hardware, according to the document forwarded to Congress by the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

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