x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israel strike threat on Iran back on table

Analysts are divided over whether the recent media noise indicates anything more than political posturing.

JERUSALEM // A flurry of media reports in Israel and elsewhere, as well as comments by US officials, past and present, have suddenly put the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran firmly back on the agenda. But analysts are divided over whether the recent media noise indicates anything more than political posturing or if the idea of an Israeli strike, set aside ever since Barack Obama, the US president, took office with a pledge to engage Tehran, is now a serious possibility if not an imminent one.

Certainly, the turmoil in Iran after elections that saw the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned under controversial circumstances, has contributed to a firming of the tone by US officials on Iran. This was most notable in an interview Joe Biden, the US vice president, gave ABC News in which he said Israel, as a sovereign nation, would decide for itself how to deal with Iran. His comments followed an article last week in The Washington Post by John Bolton, a senior Republican, in which the former US ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush opined that an Israeli strike on Iran was now the only way to stop Tehran's nuclear programme.

In Israel, there is a sense of vindication on behalf of officials in Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Mr Netanyahu ran for elections this year on a ticket that posited Iran as an existential threat to Israel and the greatest source of instability in the region, relegating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict down the list of priorities. Mr Obama's insistence, however, on expending a significant amount of energy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict put Mr Netanyahu on the defensive and saw the Israeli government defer its position on Iran to Washington, while eventually forcing Mr Netanyahu to bow to pressure to make a commitment, however conditional and lukewarm, to a two-state solution.

"One explanation [for Mr Biden's remarks] is that a deal was done between the US and Israel," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and a former Iran specialist with Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service. "On the same day that Biden made his remarks, Netanyahu opened his cabinet meeting by saying that in the first 100 days of his government, an Israeli consensus had been reached on the two-state solution."

Mr Alpher said Mr Netanyahu felt that Israel needed to make concessions on the Palestinian issue to secure US support for his government's position on Iran "if and when" Israel needs to strike Iran. "It certainly looked like a deal had been done," he said. Mr Alpher also suggested that the international community was coming to the conclusion that the unrest in Iran was over and that a "tougher posture" on Iran might be in order to soften up Tehran before any serious diplomatic engagement could be possible.

Aluf Been, the diplomatic editor of the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, suggested that the issue of Iran had now, after a hiatus of several weeks, been put "clearly back on the table". "There are two ways to look at recent events in Iran. One is that the clear presence of a strong reformist movement in Iran basically puts an end to any talk of bombing Iran because that would undermine the reformists. The other way of looking at it is, given the crackdown of the Iranian regime on protests, there is no point in engaging this regime and therefore the only way to stop the country's nuclear programme is through force."

The reason the issue of an Israeli strike is back on the table, Mr Benn said, was that the second strand of thinking was gaining traction. Mr Benn said he did not believe Mr Biden's remarks constituted a "green light" to Israel. More likely, Mr Benn said, Mr Biden's remarks were a "veiled threat" that if Iran does not respond to Mr Obama's invitation to engage, the United States has options. Neither Mr Benn nor Mr Alpher set much store in a report by the Sunday Times that said Saudi Arabia had allowed Israel the use of its airspace in the event of a strike. Mr Alpher noted that Israel, unusually, had gone out of its way to deny then newspaper's report. Saudi Arabia has also strenuously denied the report.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Israeli government is now again seriously looking into the idea of a strike on Iran, though no one suggests this is an imminent possibility. Much will still depend on how US efforts at engaging Tehran go and what the general regional climate will look like in the months to come. In addition, there is the not small matter of what the consequences of such a strike would be.

From Gaza, the message was very clear. Israel would be "foolish" to strike Iran. "I don't think Israel would dare strike Iran," said Ahmed Yousef a senior Hamas official, who dismissed the recent reports as "media hype". "The latest events notwithstanding, Iran is a strong state and I don't think Israel would be able to escape the consequences of a strike on Iran. Iran has the military capability to make Israel hurt."