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On Iran, Obama shows he loves Israel a little too much

A key facet of America’s extended, depressing election campaigns is that every serious presidential candidate has to prove their fanatical, unswerving devotion to the Israeli government. As part of this…

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the White House in early March, 2012. EPA/Martin H Simon

A key facet of America’s extended, depressing election campaigns is that every serious presidential candidate has to prove their fanatical, unswerving devotion to the Israeli government.

As part of this ritual, President Obama had a chat with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the White House, and Obama also gave a talk to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the wealthiest and most powerful allegedly pro-Israel lobby in the US. At the AIPAC talk, Obama declared there was a red line which Iran couldn’t cross.

Obama is threatening military action if Iran decides to build nuclear weapons. Israel wants the red line drawn when Iran is merely capable of building nuclear weapons.

The prospects of war

Whilst these threats carry their own momentum, and may even lead to war, I doubt Obama or Netanyahu actually want war with Iran.

As the astute Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn pointed out , “Israeli airstrikes are extremely unlikely to achieve their declared aim, which is permanently to end Iranian capacity to build a nuclear bomb. A bevy of former Israeli intelligence and army chiefs, along with senior serving American officials, say this cannot be done. An Israeli attack is, if anything, likely to push Iran into building a nuclear device, a decision that, it is generally admitted on all sides, it has not yet made.”

Thus, if there is to be a war, it has to be launched by the US. Netanyahu responded to Obama’s speech by saying “Israel and America stand together.” A conservative commentator in the Israeli press declared Obama “sounded almost like the Likud [Israel’s major centre-right political party] leader”.

This is sure to stand Obama in good stead for the upcoming elections. It also serves Netanyahu well. When there were mild displays of friction between the two leaders, the Israeli press mocked Netanyahu. He didn’t seem able to properly handle the crucial relationship between the two countries, despite bragging about how he speaks English with an American accent.

Results of an attack

Obama’s position is considered to be fairly pro-Israel, though he would of course be considered more pro-Israel if he were more enthusiastic about bombing Iran.

This should be considered rather curious. The first historical point to note is that in 1981, Israel tried bombing Iraq, purportedly to prevent Iraq getting nuclear weapons. However, it was only after the attack that Iraq seriously pursued a nuclear weapons program.

Israeli forces practising the kind of aerial operations that would be seen in an attack on Iran. EPA/Abir Sultan/IDF handout

As a recent study noted, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

If the US and Israel bomb Iran, the result will be Iran deciding it needs some way to deter such attacks in future. Like, say, a nuclear deterrent. This can be prevented by an occupation of the country. Well, after the extended occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, one can only hope this doesn’t sound like a good idea.

Nuclear weapons-free Middle East

There is also the fact that as Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iranians aren’t stupid, there is no prospect of Iran launching a nuclear attack on Israel. The prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons isn’t appealing to anyone, but if Israel wanted a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, the best way to do so would be to reach a deal in exchange for dismantling its own nuclear weapons. This is actually called for in UN Security Council Resolution 687.

Finally, a war with Iran would be disastrous for Israel. Put aside the difficulties of the actual war, the likelihood of a Hezbollah retaliation and so on. Israel depends crucially on the West, particularly US support for survival, due to its complete international isolation. This depends on continued public support in the West.

The importance of public opinion

Thus, the greatest blow to Israel in recent years was the Goldstone Report. There is no way the international community would calmly permit Israel to wage another war of aggression – and any attack on Iran would be seen as, to a great extent, Israel’s fault.

Such an attack is being defended by allegedly pro-Israel groups in the US, who, as liberal Israeli journalist Larry Derfner notes, “will defend Israel down to [the] last drop of our blood”.

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