Obama’s Chess Match with Israel/Iran

Israel, Iran and the Obama administration are engaged in a three-dimensional chess match that could end in a destructive war or a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Much of the maneuvering has occurred through public hints and private feints, Gareth Porter reports for AlJazeera.

By Gareth Porter

President Barack Obama has begun in recent months to signal to Israel that the United States would not get involved in a war started by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without U.S. approval. If pursued firmly and consistently through 2012, the approach stands a very good chance of averting war altogether. If Obama falters, however, the temptation for Netanyahu to launch an attack on Iran, indulging in what one close Israeli observer calls his “messianism” toward the issue of Iran.

Netanyahu, like every previous Israeli prime minister, understands that an Israeli strike against Iran depends not only on U.S. tolerance, but direct involvement against Iran, at least after the initial attack. In May 2008, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, requested the approval of George W Bush for an air attack on Iran, only to be refused by Bush.

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel at White House on May 18, 2009. (Credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)

Netanyahu apparently feels, however, that he can manipulate right-wing Israeli influence on American politics to make it impossible for Obama to stay out of an Israeli war on Iran. He has defied the Obama administration by refusing to assure Washington that he would consult them before making any decision on war with Iran.

The Obama administration’s warning signal on the danger of an Israeli attack began flashing red after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came back empty-handed from a trip to Israel in September. U.S. officials then came up with a new strategy for pulling Israel back from the precipice of war by letting Netanyahu know that, if the U.S. were denied a full role in coordinating military policy toward Iran, it would not come to Israel’s aid in such a war.

The first step in the strategy came when Panetta was answering questions after a talk at the Saban Center of Brookings Institution on Dec. 2. He not only expressed clear disapproval of an Israeli attack as counter-productive – something the administration had avoided in 2009 and 2010 – but went on to indicate that the U.S. was concerned that it “could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases”.

Without saying so directly, that remark hinted that the U.S. would take steps to avoid that situation, if necessary. It was evidently aimed at planting the seed of doubt in Netanyahu’s mind that Obama would be willing to respond to Iranian retaliation against Israel in the event of an Israeli strike.

The next move came five weeks later, when Panetta, on CBS news “Face the Nation,” made the initial hint even clearer. Panetta was asked what the U.S. would do if Israel were to strike Iran, despite the refusal to consult the U.S. in advance. Panetta said, “If the Israelis made that decision, we would have to be prepared to protect our forces in that situation. And that’s what we’d be concerned about.”

The Israelis could easily discern that Panetta really was saying the U.S. would not retaliate against Iran unless U.S. bases or ships in the region were hit by Iran. Given Panetta’s statement a month earlier suggesting concern that Iran might retaliate against U.S. forces, that answer could also be regarded as a signal to Iran that the U.S. was prepared to decouple from an Israeli war with Iran.

Although publicly there was studied silence from Jerusalem, that Panetta hint elicited a formal diplomatic protest from Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. And Israel still showed no sign of softening its defiant policy of unilateralism on Iran.

Then Obama approved an explicit expression of the same message to the Israelis. According to the account circulating among senior officers close the Joint Chiefs, on Jan. 20 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the U.S. would not defend Israel if it launched an attack on Iran that had not been coordinated with the U.S.

But Netanyahu had already put into effect his own counter-strategy, which is to use the influence of the Israeli lobby in Congress to help the Republicans against Obama in the presidential election and to maximize the pressure on Obama to support an Israeli attack on Iran.

Last December, Netanyahu’s supporters in the U.S. lobbied Congress to pass economic sanctions against Iran focused squarely on Iran’s crude oil exports and Central Bank. The Obama administration strongly opposed the legislation.

Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote a letter to the Senate warning that the proposed sanctions would cause a spike in world oil prices, thus risking further deterioration of the global economy. In the end, the Obama administration was forced by Congressional action to adopt the sanctions.

But the sanctions on Iran’s crude oil sector would only go into effect six months later, as would the EU cutoff of its imports of Iranian oil adopted in January. So the Obama administration had a six-month window for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.

How could it maximize the pressure on the Iranians to reach an agreement within six months? The obvious answer was to bring back an old theme in Obama’s policy – using the threat of an Israeli attack to gain diplomatic leverage on Tehran. In order to maximize that leverage, the Obama administration sought to portray Israel as poised to attack sometime between April and end of June.

‘Zone of immunity’

That time frame for an Israeli attack was created entirely by the Obama administration. Ehud Barak had not suggested that the attack would come before the end of June. On the contrary, discussing in a CNN interview last November when Iran would reach a “zone of immunity” – the point at which it would have so much of its uranium enrichment program housed in well-protected facilities that it couldn’t be destroyed by an attack – he had said, “It’s true that it wouldn’t take three years … probably three-quarters, before no one can do anything practically about it…”

A story leaked by Panetta to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius last week said Panetta believing there was a “strong likelihood” that Israel would attack sometime between April and the end of June. What appeared on the surface to be an expression of U.S. alarm about a strike coming so soon was actually an effort to put pressure on Tehran to make new concessions on its nuclear program before the sanctions take effect.

Instead of characterizing Netanyahu’s posture as irrational and reckless, Ignatius chose to depict the official view of a short and relatively painless war with Iran without the slightest hint that such a scenario is rejected out of hand by Israeli intelligence and military leaders. Ignatius was presumably prompted by Panetta to characterize it in a way that would make the Israeli threat more credible to Iran.

What really gave away Panetta’s intention to pressure Iran, however, was the fact that he used Ignatius to warn Iran that, if it retaliated against Israeli population centers, the U.S. “could feel obligated to come to Israel’s defense”.

That warning clearly undercut the painstaking efforts the Obama administration had made over the previous two months to signal to Netanyahu that Israel would be on its own if it attacked Iran without prior U.S. agreement. The sudden reversal in Obama’s policy dramatically illuminated the deep contradictions built into its policy.

On one hand, Obama has been pursuing a course aimed at avoiding being drawn into an Israeli war with Iran, which both Obama and the military leadership consider as against vital U.S. interests. On the other hand, Obama believes he needs a deal with Iran to demonstrate both to Israel and to the U.S. public that he is succeeding in inducing Iran to retreat from its present stance on its nuclear program.

The belief was supported by the conventional wisdom in the U.S. national security state that Iran can only be brought to the table with an acceptable position through pressure. It is also in line with a bit of conventional wisdom: that no Democratic President can afford to openly decouple the U.S. from Israeli security – especially in relation to Iran.

The contradiction between the two elements of Obama’s policy toward Iran went unnoticed in the U.S. media. But the real meaning of the leak was certainly understood in Iran as well as in Israel.

There is still time for Obama to repair the damage and to return to the policy he had begun developing in December. But unless Obama warns Netanyahu publicly that an attack against U.S. wishes would indeed mean he is on his own, the chances of deterring him and avoiding war with Iran will be sharply reduced.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian journalist on US national security policy with a PhD in South-east Asian studies from Cornell University. He has taught international studies at City College of New York and American University and has written several books on Vietnam, including Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War (University of California Press, 2005). He has also written on war and diplomacy in Cambodia, Korea and the Philippines. [This story was originally published at AlJazeera.]

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15 comments on “Obama’s Chess Match with Israel/Iran

  1. rosemerry on said:

    What is the matter with a reputedly intelligent man who holds all the cards? israel has not a hope in hell of hitting with impunity a country ready to retaliate and ten times as big. All the weapons in Israel depend on the USA, and there is NO casus belli. Nuclear war and more destruction, after all the problems caused by the Zionist entity, are not just a little point of argument. This is a devastatingly important matter, and if it is not too late, the USA and its pals should treat Iran as a sovereign nation and negotiate in good faith. At the same time, Obama should realise that the Likudniks hate him, as do the Repubs, and the few million dollars given by AIPAC is vastly overshadowed by the benefits given to Israel. Most US Jews realise this, and vote for the US interests,but Obama deals only with Zionist extremists (even Victoria Nuland for a spokesperson), and is unwilling to make a principled decision.

    • more of your antisemitic bullshit. Just go to Iran and leave us alone. They respect women there too!

      • You Zionuts toss out the the antisemitic card in ad nauseum whenever there is so much as an iota of criticism of Israel that now the effect has lost any punch–it’s meaningless. Antisemitic, antisemitic, antisemitic–blah, blah, blah.

        • TheAZCowBoy on said:

          Amen bro…. Yassar, the eternal victim Jews are always there with their ‘unholstered’ anti-semitism ‘trump’ card for anytime they are criticized like for murdering some 12 year old Palestinian kid that is scratching their 60,000 Merkava tanks with a rock. Let us pray that one of those Russian X-55h cruise missiles that were obatined by Iran from Bellaruss in 2010 includes the standard 10 kiloton warhead that they normally carry and that Messer Natanyahu catches the Ayatollah’s in a nasty mood with all of the continuing ‘saber rattling’ and shuts his kosher pigs mouth with a sizable mushroom cloud that fills the skies over Israel
          at 90,000′ with a glittering cloud of kosher confetti. As for the New Delhi and Georgian ‘events’ let us pray the the Iranians spill a little Jewish ‘tripe’ with their own ‘magnetic bombs’ like the recently confirmed in the Iranian assassination incident which have been examined and determined of USA origin.

  2. coralsea on said:

    More Likudnik propoganda posted by a shameless Zionist shill.

  3. go kiss iran’s ass you jerk

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      Which jerk do you mean?

      • F. G. Sanford on said:

        Reminds me of that ‘Get Smart’ skit, where Maxwell Smart says, “Sure, you have facts and logic on your side, whereas we have trickery and deceit”. Just a thought about bombings and logic: Has no one read Flaubert? Or Dumas? It apparently took Dantes fourteen years in Chateau d’If under the tutelage of a wise man to figure out who screwed him. And Matho failed to evade the worst fate of any fallen conquerer: to be paraded through the streets as a war trophy. Hitler was obsessed with this fundamental weakness of human nature, and feared being paraded through the streets in a cage by the Russians. So, why would we hand the deliverance of death with dignity to our greatest nemesis in recent history? Let me give you a hint. You don’t have to water-board somebody 183 times to get a confession. Once usually does the trick. But if you’re looking for recantation, that’s a bit more difficult. Some people will never get a public trial, and it isn’t because of what they confessed. Dead bodies tell no tales, so why bother dumping them in the drink? Dumas? Flaubert? Speak up, one of you.

  4. Tit for tat, Flat. Israel bumps off Iranian scientists; America imposes sanctions. Iran retaliates. That’s the way it goes. The modern history with Iran began with the ouster of Mossadegh. The Brits talked us into believing he was a Communist when all he wanted to do was nationalize oil and keep most of the profits at home to help his people. Imagine something that outlandish. We put the brutal shah in his place and its been downhill ever since.

    • TheAZCowBoy on said:

      With so many uninformed Israel 1ster’s here in cyberspace it’s really enjoyable, in those rare moments when they come aboard, to hear some ‘true’ facts see it breach the light of day. As it is now we have to listen to all that ‘poor is us’ Jewish caca that tries to explain all that ZioNazi ‘history’ that was ‘invented’ from 1948 on forward and only happened in their dreams.
      (Every Jew, a history major) Jews or ZioNazi inspired ‘trolls’ in cyberspace its like a whiff of Spring time flowers to read something written by an ‘informed’ person.

  5. WellActually on said:

    It could of course be possible that the bombings may have been retaliation for the murders of 5 prominent Iranian nuclear scientists in the last 2 years, which many commentators and experts consider are the work of the Israeli secret service Mossad (who do have an acknowledged history of such assassinations). The fact that the bombings seem to closely mirror the circumstances and tactics of the assassinations would seem to confirm this.

    Both the bombings and the assassinations have resulted in the the deaths of innocent civillians, which absolutely should be condemned, as all human life is sacred. Yet funnily whilst the bombings are condemned, we’ve yet to hear much condemnation of the systematic murder of men persuing a career in scientific research. It would appear that for some, the value of a human life is relative.

  6. Hossein on said:

    Hey Flat 5
    Your Zionist bull Shit does not fly any more. And that “antisemitic” crap is also worn out and every one recognises it for what it is. Evey time Israel’s propaganda gets exposed they patch it up with “antisemitic”. You are a joke and every one here knows it.

  7. This feels reminiscent of the Bay of Pigs to me.

    CIA-director Dulles and many others within the National Security apparatus wanted a war with Cuba. Dulles assured Kennedy that the military would not be needed at the Bay of Pigs, but also assumed that once the shooting started, Kennedy would see that defeat was imminent, and he would have no choice but to call in the Military. Kennedy stood up to that pressure, which may have averted World War 3, but which had other tragic implications.

    Once again, the Hawks seem hell-bent on an incredibly risky course of action. They seem to believe that if Iran attacks Israel, the President will have no choice but to defend Israel from Iranian retaliation.

    If Obama can resist this pressure– and Iran can resist the temptation to attack the U.S.– the Hawks (and their Israeli allies) have another option: A false-flag attack on U.S. forces in the Middle East, or even (as Mr. Silber hints) on American soil. In this case, Obama’s hands would be completely tied.

    If Israel attacks, and Obama resists defending Israel from Iranian retaliation, we will need to look very critically at any evidence that Iran has attacked the US anywhere in the world.