By Dalia Dassa Kaye, Special to CNN
Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a 2011-2012 visiting fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. The views expressed are the author’s own.
As war talk spikes again in Israel, U.S. officials are searching for ways to convince the Israelis to hold off on military action. It could be that the heightened debate in Israel over military options and war preparations in the country aim mainly to elicit even tougher international and American actions against Iran.
But there are leaders in Israel – including, it would seem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – who view the Iranian threat as severe enough to follow through on their threats, particularly now that they have staked their domestic and international reputations on doing so.
In order to stave off such an attack, a number of prominent former Israeli officials are calling for more explicit U.S. threats to use force against Iran. White House officials are reportedly debating whether to publicly announce red lines that might provoke American military action against Iran. The Obama administration can only expect more political pressure during an election year to make more explicit declarations supporting military force as diplomatic efforts and sanctions do not yet appear to be stopping Iran’s nuclear progress.
However, promising force or support for it are the wrong ways to prevent a unilateral Israeli strike and resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge. There are good reasons why the majority of Israel’s own security establishment opposes a unilateral military attack against Iran; these reasons do not suddenly become moot because it would be the United States conducting such action and not Israel. To be sure, a U.S. attack would likely be more effective, given greater American capabilities; and even those Israelis opposed to a unilateral attack may nonetheless favor military action if the United States is in the lead.
Yet there are other considerations and risks raised in the Israeli debate that are just as pertinent to American military action. The most critical of these are only in part about the operational issues surrounding the strike itself or the immediate retaliation it might provoke against Israel, Iran’s Gulf neighbors, U.S. forces in the region or its impact on global oil markets. They are about the dangerous longer-term strategic consequences of such an action.
Would a military attack, even if launched with superior U.S. military capabilities, actually do more than just delay Iran’s program? Might it accelerate rather than slow Iran’s seeming drive to weaponize its nuclear program? Would international pressure on Iran dissipate after a military attack? And if so, would it thus become easier for Iran to reconstitute its program after an attack?
Why would the president of the United States write a blank check for military action now without the resolution of such critical strategic questions? What if threatening “credible” military action publicly does not lead Iran to back down, as advocates of this option believe? The United States would then face the unfortunate predicament of pressure to act on its threats and engage in a war with Iran that it was trying to avoid.
Rather than public posturing aimed at encouraging the United States to make such firm declaratory policies – creating a sense of mistrust and tension in U.S.-Israeli relations that can only benefit Iran – Israeli officials should work with their American counterparts to quietly seek common strategic understandings on what type of Iranian endgame is acceptable and what conditions would need to be in place for force to be contemplated.
At the same time, the United States can continue the wide array of “assurance” policies already underway to ease Israeli concerns over Iran and bolster its military capabilities. With all the apparent doubts among Israel’s political elite that they can’t count on the United States, it is easy to overlook the unprecedented levels of military assistance and cooperation between the two countries.
U.S. military aid to Israel has reached record levels, providing Israel with the most advanced American weapon systems. President Obama and other senior administration officials have also made a number of public statements suggesting that U.S. policy is not to contain Iran but to prevent a nuclear weapons program. In the backdrop of such statements is a steady U.S. military buildup in the Gulf region, including the bolstering of naval vessels and fighter aircraft that could reach targets throughout Iran.
All these measures have yet to convince the Israeli leadership that the U.S. is serious. Perhaps an in-person appearance by President Obama in the Israeli Knesset reiterating these American positions and reminding the Israeli public of tangible American military commitments to Israeli security could change opinions, although a presidential visit to Israel before the election is unlikely.
Instead of committing the United States to take military action against Iran, a better option would be convincing more Israeli leaders and people that a military attack is still a bad idea if the goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. If and when President Obama goes to Jerusalem, that should be his message, not promises of U.S. military force.