Just as the United States is preparing to further unwind itself from its military entanglements in the wider Middle East--departing Iraq and transferring lead security responsibilities to Afghans by 2014--a new round of tension appears to be surfacing between Iran and Israel that could force the U.S. military back in.
Reports in the Israeli press indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are working to convince other members of Netanyahu's cabinet and Israeli security chiefs that Israel needs to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu and Barak "are trying to muster a majority in the cabinet in favor of military action against Iran, a senior Israeli official has said," Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Wednesday in a piece co-bylined by four reporters. The two officials "recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who previously objected to attacking Iran, to support such a move," according to the Ha'aretz acount, which has garnered an unusual degree of attention from western policymakers.
The Ha'aretz report followed a piece late last week by Israel's leading columnist, Nahum Barnea, on the front page of Israel's largest circulation daily Yediot Ahronoth, titled "Atomic Pressure." It begins: "Have the prime minister and defense minister settled on a decision, just between the two of them, to launch a military attack on the nuclear facilities in Iran?" The piece then continues:
This question preoccupies many people in the defense establishment and high circles of government. It distresses foreign governments, which find it difficult to understand what is happening here: One the one hand, there are mounting rumors of an Israeli move that will change the face of the Middle East and possibly seal Israel's fate for generations to come; on the other hand, there is a total absence of any public debate. The issue of whether to attack Iran is at the bottom of the Israeli discourse.
In the bigger picture, the prospect that Israel might decide to carry out unilateral military action against Iran is not new. Israel has long harbored grave concerns about Iran's developing nuclear capacity--and Netanyahu has joined several preceding Israeli leaders in seeking to rally global opinion behind efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. What's striking, however, is that American diplomacy hands are paying exceptionally close attention to these latest reports.
Washington Middle East analysts note, among other things, that the timing of the reports is significant: Israel has lately found itself isolated in regional diplomatic debates in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. What's more, these U.S. experts say, the fact that anxiety over Iran's nuclear ambitions has spread well beyond Israel proper to rival Arab states such as Saudi Arabia has become far more apparent in recent months. And diplomacy watchers in the States also note that the recent Israeli media reports appear to be sourced to members of the Israeli security establishment who apparently oppose such unilateral Israeli action against Iran--in large part on the grounds that such action would blindside Washington.
From Israel's perspective, it may feel "it has little to lose" from carrying out strikes on Iran, in terms of its regional standing, Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, told Yahoo News Wednesday. "It sees its strategic position [amid the Arab awakening] as deteriorating. There is no peace process."
But Lynch also noted the sense within the Israel press that "Israel might do it" may have another purpose: to push U.S. President Barack Obama to implement tougher sanctions and pressure on Iran--or else.
"I still don't see [an Israeli attack on Iran] as a high probability," Lynch said. "My sense of this is [Israeli leaders may] see this as an opportunity to once again ramp up pressure and containment and sanctions on Iran. I have no sense the United States is ramping up for war. But communications between the U.S. and Israel is not all that it could be. How much of this is gamesmanship to force the U.S. to do tougher sanctions, [and how much of this is] there's a window of opportunity to have a serious discussion they might take a shot."
The media reports also come as the UN atomic watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is due to issue a report on Iran's nuclear program Nov. 8.
"The [IAEA] report will almost certainly raise tensions in a region made volatile by this year's Arab revolutions and the turmoil in Syria," the Guardian's diplomatic editor Julian Borger wrote Wednesday. "In the absence of a tough new UN security council resolution, the US will face the dilemma of acting militarily without an international mandate, or risk missing Iran's window of vulnerability to attack."
"Britain's armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran amid mounting concern about Tehran's nuclear enrichment programme, the Guardian has learned," a separate Guardian report Wednesday said. The UK Defense Ministry "believes the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities. British officials say that if Washington presses ahead it will seek, and receive, UK military help for any mission, despite some deep reservations within the coalition government."
All of these trends are sobering, given an increasingly war-weary climate in the United States. American citizens have lately been looking for the enormous commitment of resources that the United States has undertaken in the past decade of warmaking in the Middle East to be channeled into domestic improvements to the stalled-out U.S. economy--nation-building at home, as Obama recently put it.
Meantime, it's not as though relations between the United States and Iran are exactly placid. The State Department said Tuesday it had received a seven-page "rant" of a letter from Iranian authorities rejecting recent American allegations that members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force had conspired in an assassination plot against the Saudi envoy to Washington. Iran state media suggested the Iranian letter was in response to a letter from Obama to Tehran authorities laying out the accusations but also offering the prospect of future U.S.-Iranian dialogue.
American officials also indicated this week that it is with an eye to containing Iran that Washington plans to boost the U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf as it withdraws from Iraq by the end of the year.
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