x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Plans to attack Iran unravel in the clear light of reason

The message from the US to Israel is clear: start a war and you are on your own.

With bellicose theatrics between Israel and Iran nearing fever pitch, US President Barack Obama recently received some sage advice from the Bush administration's point man on dealings with the Islamic Republic. Former ambassador Nicholas Burns warned that the European-led negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme were going nowhere, and that the United States urgently needs protracted, direct negotiations with Tehran's leadership, putting all issues of conflict on the table.

The nuclear issue, after all, is a symptom of a strategic conflict that has festered since the Iranian revolution. "To attack a country before we have had our first meaningful discussions since 1979 would be shortsighted, to say the least," Mr Burns warned.

Even more importantly, Mr Burns urged Mr Obama to "take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give us more independence and protect Israel's core interests at the same time ... It is not in America's interests to remain hostage to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu's increasingly swift timetable for action."

The advice seems increasingly relevant amid new signs that Washington is pressing Israel for restraint. On Thursday, the IAEA began circulating a report noting that Iran had doubled the centrifuge capacity at its underground Fordow facility, which the Israelis complain is beyond the reach of their bombers. Those centrifuges are not yet spinning, of course, and remain under the scrutiny of inspectors.

The IAEA also noted that Iran had converted a substantial portion of its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium into fuel plates, useless for any effort to rapidly produce bomb fuel - indeed, since the agency's last report there had been no net gain in Iran's stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium.

But that didn't stop alarmist headlines about Iran "accelerating its nuclear programme". But the US administration and allied governments pre-emptively stated that the report showed no substantial changes. Iran continues to incrementally expand its capacity to produce nuclear material, but there has been no qualitative change in its nuclear work, nor any sudden acceleration. If anything, it's business as usual: Iran expands infrastructure that would allow it to produce nuclear weapons, but makes no decision to do so, even though it continues to stonewall IAEA efforts to probe suspected previous weapons-related experiments.

Unconfirmed reports in the Wall Street Journal last week also claimed that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist accused of conducting previous weapons research, had resumed work, but those reports didn't change the US administration's conclusions.

Mr Obama has set a "red line" for military action at Iran moving to build a nuclear weapon, which Tehran seems careful to avoid, meaning the United States will continue to rely on sanctions and limited diplomacy. Israel's leaders, of course, don't accept either Mr Obama's red lines or his strategy. They insist that Iran can't be allowed to keep the nuclear capacity it already has, and that sanctions and diplomacy have failed. Thus this summer's spectacle in which Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak rattle their sabres, while Israel's entire defence and security establishment warns that attacking Iran would be a catastrophic error.

Many recently retired generals and spymasters publicly question the strategic competence, nerve - and even mental stability - of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak.

Even if both men were serious about bombing Iran - as opposed to playing the bad cop to press the United States into hardening its stance - an Israeli attack remains unlikely, because of how isolated its protagonists have become. Former Israeli supreme court judge Eliyahu Winograd, tasked with investigating Israel's botched 2006 war in Lebanon, on Sunday summarised the situation with an incredulous question: "All of the heads of the defence establishment, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, both former and current, and military intelligence, everyone is saying 'Don't attack!', and only Barak and Netanyahu have decided yes?" He accused them of recklessly putting Israel's future at risk.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli media that he had found the prime minister "confused, stressed out and unfocused" during a meeting last week, adding that "the prime minister has lost the trust of the security chiefs, US President Obama and President Shimon Peres". Not only the security chiefs and the president, but the majority of Israel's public remain opposed to going to war without US backing.

Even more resistance has emerged from the US military. Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly warned that Israel lacks the means to do more than briefly delay Iran's nuclear programme, and that an air strike would both unravel international sanctions and spur weaponisation. Last week, he added a blunt warning: "I don't want to be accused of trying to influence, but I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it."

The US military has also scaled back its participation in a joint defence drill that some had predicted would be used as a cover to launch an Israeli strike. The message to Israel was stark: start a war, and you're on your own. That may be at odds with statements in US politics, but powerful as the Israeli lobby may be, it is no match for the US military in terms of influence over the White House.

It seems Mr Netanyahu's 2002 claim that "I know what America is, America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction" may have come back to bite him. Mr Peres and others have attacked him for meddling in US politics, and he has clearly aroused the ire of the US military, whose leaders seem to be following Mr Burns' recommendation to take the reins from Israel. Don't expect direct White House negotiations with Iran, though - at least, not until after the US election.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron