Defense & National Security

American and Israeli leaders need mutual trust

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2012 — Today’s meeting between the American president and the Israeli prime minister at the White House could prove decisive in the atomic stand-off with Iran.  The litmus is whether the men can reach a mutual level of trust; otherwise both nations could face serious consequences.

This is the 10th meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Past tête-à-têtes were marred by suspicion and mistrust but today’s meeting may be different because the men need one another.

Obama needs Netanyahu to back-off on threats to unilaterally attack Iranian nuclear sites until “tough” sanctions run their course.  Besides, the Israeli’s threats to attack are playing havoc with global oil prices which are hurting Obama domestically.  He also needs Netanyahu’s help among Jewish-American voters.  Obama won 80 percent of Jewish votes in 2008 but the perception that he is anti-Israel jeopardizes that bloc for him this November, which a good word from Netanyahu could help.

Netanyahu needs Obama as well.  The Israeli consistently labels an atomic-armed Iran an existential threat and he fears time is running out to stop Iran’s nuclear advance.  Therefore, Netanyahu wants to know Obama’s “redline” that would trigger military action against Iran.  Netanyahu also wants Obama to sharpen his rhetoric toward Iran with more statements like “I don’t bluff” regarding military action, a response Obama gave The Atlantic magazine last week.

The pair should build trust by working through these issues but also by agreeing on Iran-related facts and timelines.  They seem to agree Iran has most of the tools to eventually build a deliverable atomic weapon.  But they operate with different clocks. 

The Israeli wants Iran stopped before his “freedom of action” is lost which could happen this year.  But because the U.S. doesn’t face an “existential” threat like Israel and has a large and capable military, Obama can wait longer than Israel to strike Iran’s deeply buried atomic weapons facilities.  The problem for Netanyahu is whether he can trust Obama to attack Iran once Tehran’s atomic facilities are beyond Jerusalem’s weapons reach or defend Israel should Iran make good on its threat to launch a preemptive attack.

They also disagree about the consequences of a military strike.  Obama and his Pentagon staff routinely caution that an attack on Tehran’s atomic sites will create a firestorm of unacceptable consequences across the Middle East such as a massive barrage of rockets targeting Israeli and American regional facilities.  But the Israelis are more sanguine about that threat and as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, the casualties of a war with Iran could be limited to fewer than 500.   Apparently that’s a price Israel is prepared to accept.

They appear to disagree about the rationality of Iran’s leaders as well.  Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on Feb. 19 that Iran is “a rational actor.”  But ones definition of rational depends on his worldview. 

A Persian theocrat like Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may rationally believe he has a spiritual responsibility to create massive destruction to usher in the return of his messiah (savior) in order to establish a caliphate (Islamic kindgom on earth).  That is a radically different perspective than a Western politician like Obama who addresses geopolitical challenges from a secular cost-benefit basis.  Both could be rational decision makers who come to opposite conclusions given the same information because they rely on radically different worldviews. 

Remember, few Westerners understand a worldview perspective that rationalizes suicide bombing, rioting when holy books are accidentally burned or when spiritual leaders are slurred.  We must be careful about our assumptions.

The challenge for Obama and Netanyahu is to set-aside their differences and find agreement on the aforementioned to build trust.  This is critical in order to dispel the “public perceptions of a split between the U.S. and Israel” which encourages Iran, said U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

While tough economic sanctions continue to eat away at Iran’s economy and that population’s confidence in its leaders, Obama and Netanyahu should consider five concrete actions to build trust and heal the growing split between the U.S. and Israel.

First, Obama needs to be very frank about his intent to use military force if Iran fails to cooperate.  Specifically, Obama ought to demand Iran cooperate by providing unfettered access to all nuclear sites and employees.  Tehran continues to deny the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, access to military atomic weapons sites like the one at Parchin and nuclear scientists.   Obama’s stepped up public pressure will grow bilateral trust even if Iran continues to refuse.

Second, there must be more intelligence sharing and the nations must stop making public statements about the other’s possible covert activities.  An Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in January and almost immediately U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “categorically” denied U.S. involvement which inferred Israel was the culprit.   Her denial was unnecessary and undermined trust.

Third, the U.S. and Israel should conduct trust building bilateral military exercises to hone interoperability and warn Iran.  Unfortunately, this January, the U.S. postponed a scheduled May anti-missile exercise in Israel which would have sent a strong deterrence message to Iran.  That exercise should be immediately rescheduled and the nations ought to stage joint air operations that include refueling and attack missions using fighters and B2 Stealth Bombers delivering bunker-buster bombs on hardened targets.

Fourth, the U.S. should preposition and increase the presence of strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf region such as at nearby Diego Garcia and increase the number of carriers and submarines operating in the Gulf.  These are clear signs the U.S. is serious and will build trust with Israel and our Arab allies who are fearful of the hegemonic Persians.

Finally, the leaders should agree to step-up covert operations against Iranian atomic facilities and nuclear weapons personnel to increase mutual will and trust.  Evidently past covert operations successfully took a toll which captured Tehran’s attention but far more can be done to shatter Iranian security and confidence. 

Cooperating on these actions and coming to a common understanding of the facts is trust building, something former American and Israeli leaders demonstrated 40 years ago.

Israel held its fire in October 1973 as Egyptian and Syrian forces massed their armies to attack.  At the time President Richard Nixon asked Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to stand her ground and not launch a pre-emptive attack as was her plan.  Meir trusted Nixon’s assurance of help if she abandoned attack plans which in the end proved to be the right decision.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War might have ended differently had Israel preemptively attacked at least in terms of global support for Israel and the eventual peace treaties that provided 40 years of mostly peaceful coexistence. 

Although the situation with Iran’s atomic threat is different in many ways than the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the need for building mutual trust isn’t.   It serves neither nation’s best interest today to go their separate ways regarding Iran.  Leaving Israel to fend for itself could lead to the unthinkable – reverting to nuclear weapons to snuff-out Iran’s existential threat if at first conventional weapons prove insufficient.  Then the U.S. would be drawn in to pick up the pieces after the fact.  That outcome serves neither party’s long-term interests.

Addressing the Iran nuclear crisis demands close cooperation between Obama and Netanyahu built on trust that begins with the steps outlined above. Failure to build that trust could have serious military and political consequences for both nations.

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