July 7, 2008 — As the most pro-Israel administration in Washington since Harry Truman enters its last six months in office, Israel faces a strategic choice. Will it use the possible indulgence of the Bush Administration to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, or will it wait and face an uncertain future with a new American president?
Halting Iran’s path toward the development of a nuclear bomb appears to be one of those seemingly insoluble chess problems. The Iranians may agree to this negotiating proposal or that proposal, all the while playing for time, while they develop sufficient enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. A nuclear arsenal will allow Iran to become a Middle East hegemon like the Great Persia of antiquity, yet it will also encourage countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to develop their own bombs. Iran will represent the heretofore unseen and unconventional combination of being a nuclear-armed state which supports sub-state armies in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
Enter Israel, which is the only state that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has specifically and repeatedly threatened with annihilation.
Israel recently held massive air exercises hundreds of miles off its coast in the eastern Mediterranean, both honing and displaying to the outside world the complex aerial sortie and air-to-air refueling skills that would be specifically required in an attack on Iran. The exercise was not just a message directed at Iran itself, but at the Europeans - to get serious in helping the United States to force Iran to stop enrichment, or face a military cataclysm that could immediately send the price of oil past $200 a barrel, with collateral effects on world stock markets.
But what if the Europeans don’t get the message? Or what if Iran continues its cat-and-mouse negotiating mixed with intransigence? Israel’s future in this regard is indeed bleak. For even if a moderate Republican realist like John McCain, or even worse, a liberal-left internationalist like Barrack Obama, is elected president, each is likely to subsume Israel to larger geopolitical considerations, rather than hold it up as an icon to be both supported and worshipped in the post-9/11 era, as George W. Bush has done.
Because an air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will roil world financial markets and thus provide Obama with even more of an edge over the Republican party, Israel may be less inclined to attack Iran before the election. On the other hand, after the inauguration, Israel will be in the hands of a new American president who will show it much less sympathy than Bush. That’s why someone might bet on the period between the election and the inauguration -- say December -- as the perfect time for an Israeli attack.
There is a problem, though. Violating, say, Jordanian or Turkish airspace is not really the issue. The issue is that largely because of the on-going Iraq war, the U. S. controls the airspace over the entry points to Iran: in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Thus, an Israeli attack on Iran could probably only happen with U. S. connivance. And even if Israel could evade American sensors, few would believe that it honestly did so. As a sort of a last hurrah, one might speculate that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would let Israel bomb Iran with a wink and a nod. But I do not believe that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would do so. And because Gates has emerged as such a critical cabinet member, beloved by both the Pentagon staff and by the media, his word would be crucial.
Gates has shepherded Iraq from nearly a lost cause to a cause that might yet be salvaged. And an Israeli attack on Iran, precisely because it could not occur without both the fact and the appearance of U. S. support, could unleash a fury of Iran-supported bombings inside Iraq. No, Gates would not be on board for an Israeli strike.
Bottom line: precisely because the U. S. dominates the airspace around Iran, it has checkmated itself. Israel will find it very hard to pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iran. An Israeli attack is, in the last analysis, still unlikely. The problem of a nuclear Iran is far from being solved.