August 14, 2012

Ex-Obama Official Warns: Take Israel Iran Threat 'Very Seriously'

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl traveled to Israel 13 times during his tenure as the Obama administration’s top Pentagon Middle East civilian policy advisor from 2009 to the end of 2011. Kahl, now a Georgetown University professor, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday that he takes the signs that Israeli leaders are contemplating a fall strike on Iran “very seriously.”

“I think it is more likely Israeli leaders are preparing the Israeli public for a strike, and creating a narrative for the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have failed and thus Israel has no choice,” Kahl said. “There is clearly a crescendo emerging, and there is a lot of detailed, point-by-point argumentation …laying the foundation for a potential strike.”

“At the end of the day, the Israeli leadership is building the case that they can trust no one but themselves on this issue,” he said.

Al-Monitor: How do you read the flurry of recent Israeli media reports telegraphing Israeli leaders, particularly Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, contemplating  a possible fall strike on Iran?

Kahl: I think the threat should be taken very seriously. The standard counter argument is that Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing with the goal of pushing the international community to act — meaning pressuring us and the Europeans to increase sanctions, the Russians and Chinese to push Tehran; and/or force a near-term US attack. The saber-rattling could also be aimed at coercing the Iranians. But I don't think they are merely bluffing in this case.

Al-Monitor: Why are the arguments that it is not just saber-rattling more compelling?

Kahl: First, US and European sanctions have nearly maxed out. So what additional benefit does the saber-rattling produce here? Second, the P5+1 process is on hold for the moment and a major breakthrough on the accelerated timeline envisioned by the Israelis is unlikely. Not to mention the fact that some Israeli decision- makers seem skeptical of the benefits of diplomacy, period. Third, despite the saber-rattling, the Iranians don't fear an Israeli strike (although they might fear a US strike). So Tehran isn’t likely to make a concession in the near-term just because of an Israeli threat.

Finally, the Israelis would seem to know that the prospect of a US strike before the [November 6 US presidential] election is very low, regardless of their posture. This is not primarily for political reasons, as some suggest, but because Iran is not likely to cross US red lines this year. So the prospect of an Israeli attack is unlikely to drive Obama to war before November.

So, I think it is more likely Israeli leaders are preparing the Israeli public for a strike, and creating a narrative for the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have failed and thus Israel has no choice.

Al-Monitor: Iranian officials seem pretty unfazed by a prospective Israeli strike...

Kahl: There are two reasons why the Iranians don’t take the threat of an Israeli strike seriously. One: the ‘Chicken Little’ problem. Viewed from Tehran, the Israelis have said the sky is falling so many times that even if it really is falling this time, nobody believes them. The threat has been made so many times, the Iranians are probably inoculated.  Second, I think that there is likely a view among the Iranian leadership that an Israeli strike may not be that bad. They think it will not hurt them that badly. And they probably think it would allow them to play the victim, shatter international consensus holding sanctions together, rally the Iranian public behind the regime, and provide them with an excuse to accelerate their weaponization program.

Al-Monitor: Israeli press reports and recent statements by the Israeli prime minister indicate the Israeli cabinet has not yet taken a formal decision.

Kahl: It appears from the media reporting that they haven’t made a final decision yet. All of the reporting suggests, however, that a decision — if not the actual action — is imminent in the next couple weeks. I don't know if that is really the case, but it seems to be a common thread in recent media stories.

It is also not a secret that there is widespread concern among former defense security and intelligence officials in Israel about the wisdom of a strike at this time. It has also been widely reported that senior leadership in the [Israeli Defense Force] IDF and Mossad privately oppose Israeli unilateral action at the moment.

The reporting is consistent in two respects. One, it suggests that Netanyahu and Barak are kind of on an island arguing for a strike in the near term. At the same time, the conventional wisdom is that their views are the only two that matter. If they decide to move forward, the rest of the government and military will likely line up behind them.

Al-Monitor: Is it possible that the Israeli leadership is miscalculating, and possibly believe they can get more from the US or international community by way of military threats or tougher sanctions from the saber-rattling?

Kahl: Israel is already getting support from Congress and the US administration to ratchet up sanctions. They don’t have to bluff to get more. It is not clear what the value added is. Especially for how intense and specific the reporting has been... This is not just general reporting conveying Israeli leaders’ arguments about how dangerous Iran’s nuclear program is, which is standard. There is clearly a crescendo emerging, and there is a lot of detailed, point-by-point argumentation by Netanyahu and, especially, Barak laying the foundation for a potential strike.

Some might argue that Israeli leaders are trying to exert pressure on Obama prior to the UN General Assembly meeting in September to push him to go even further in threatening military action by publicly presenting US red lines and committing to attacking next year if Iran doesn’t cry uncle. But I’m not sure it would make a difference.

For one thing, the Israelis don’t know who will be president. And regardless of whether it is Obama or Romney, Barak said that Israelis could not take even an explicit, public US promise to attack on faith, irrespective of who the president is... He made clear this wasn’t an Obama versus Romney distinction. Indeed, he said explicitly that a Romney administration would have a hard time building support for war in year one of his administration.

[Editor’s Note: An unnamed top Israeli official, dubbed the “Decision Maker,” and universally believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said in a widely noted interview with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit August 11: “Ostensibly the Americans could…say clearly that if by next spring the Iranians still have a nuclear program, they will destroy it. But the Americans are not making this simple statement because countries don’t make these kinds of statements to each other. In statesmanship there are no future contracts. The American president cannot commit now to a decision that he will or will not make six months from now. So the expectation of such a binding American assurance now is not serious. There is no such thing. Not to mention that President Obama doesn’t even know if he’ll still be sitting in the Oval Office come spring. And if Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to. So the problem here is a serious one. Israel has to responsibly ask itself what a lack of action now would mean. Only a blind man or someone playing dumb would fail to see that the highly likely default is a nuclear Iran….”]

Al-Monitor: What explains the timing? I had been aware that September would probably be a decision point when the Israeli cabinet would decide one way or the other on Iran action — although it wasn’t clear what they would decide to do. But the sudden expressed urgency to act in the next few weeks is hard to understand.

Kahl: If you go back to some of the time frames Barak was talking about last fall, it put the strike window opening in the summer [of this year] and closing around the US election. Barak and others have been saying things hinting at this time frame since last year. But this summer, as the P5+1 talks were going on, and before the [Central Bank of Iran] CBI and European oil sanctions went into place, it was difficult for the Israelis to legitimize an argument for action. But now, the P5+1 diplomatic track is stalled. And, although crippling energy sanctions have only been in place for about a month, Netanyahu and Barak have already declared sanctions a failure.

Barak really believes that, by the end of this year, important elements of Iran's nuclear program will be out of reach for conventional Israeli capabilities (what Barak calls the "zone of immunity"). So, that means they either have to strike this year, or sub-contract out the strike to Washington in 2013-2014. (The US can wait longer because we have bigger bunker-busting bombs and the ability to sustain a lengthy military campaign, as opposed to a one-off Israeli strike). The weather also starts to get problematic in November-December, so that means the Israeli strike window is more likely September-October if the Israelis are going to hit Iran in 2012.

Al-Monitor: But the new sanctions just went into effect July 1. And while they are having a real economic impact, it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought they would get Iran to cry uncle in a month and a half.

Kahl: That’s obviously right. And that is the argument being made by those in Israel who oppose a strike and by the Obama administration. These voices argue that CBI and oil sanctions — some of the toughest sanctions imposed on any country in history — just started to be imposed last month, and Iran is not on verge of a bomb. So we still have time to let the combination of pressure and diplomacy play out and try and get a deal. But it doesn't seem like Netanyahu and Barak agree…

What is so interesting are the Israeli press reports in the past week that telegraph Netanyahu and Barak — especially Barak — going point-by-point to rebut all the arguments against a potential strike, in a very explicit, detailed and robust way. That's new.

Al-Monitor: It’s worth noting these arguments are being made primarily in the Israeli media, as opposed to the international media — The New York Times, CNN, etc. as in the past. This is an argument being made to the Israeli public.

Kahl: It’s very interesting... One explanation may be that it is an intentional effort to condition the Israeli public. Israel appears to be going through the Iraq dynamic  we in the United States went through in 2002-2003 [ahead of the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq]. And as Time's Tony Karon noted the other day, there are only so many times you can tell the Israeli public that they face a "grave and gathering threat of annihilation" before Israeli politicians, for the sake of their credibility at home and abroad, have no choice but to act.

Al-Monitor: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said explicitly in Israel this month that the US will use all means to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. And certainly many in the Israeli security establishment seem to genuinely trust that the US will act if necessary and that US-led action is far preferable.

Kahl: Despite Obama's existing promises to use all means, including military action, to prevent an Iranian bomb, I think Netanyahu and Barak have convinced themselves that they cannot sub-contract out their security on this issue to any US president. 

Al-Monitor: That line stood out from the Decision Maker/Barak interview: “In statesmanship, there are no future contracts.”

Kahl: At the end of the day, the Israeli leadership is building the case that they can trust no one but themselves on this issue.