Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Israel will not bomb Iran

David Samuels at Slate thinks Israel will bomb Iran.

The short version of his theory is that Israel is willing to trade a Palestinian state for the continuance of its regional nuclear monopoly and that this is a trade the US will be willing to accept. He goes further that most people in the Middle East, meaning most of the Arab states will be happy with such a trade.

The longer version of his theory is that Israel helps the US by trading concessions to Arab states for Arab cooperation with the US. Meaning the Arabs are more cooperative with the US than they would otherwise be because every once in a while the US can pressure Israel into giving them something they want. An attack would continue this relationship.

The short version of the theory is bizarre. Let's start with the idea that the Arabs would support such an action on Israel's part. Every public pronouncement regarding either hostilities or military action by either Israel or the US against Iran from every Arab capital has been negative. Samuels, in a common argument, claims that the Arabs secretly want Iran to be attacked and secretly accept and even support Israel's nuclear monopoly. Who are these dictators supposedly lying to and why? The Saudi king holds the Iranian president's hand. No member of the Saudi delegation would acknowledge the presence of any member of the Israeli delegation at Annapolis.

The Arab states are politically backwards. Their bufoonery has reached such a level that supporters of Zionism feel comfortable speaking for them. But while they are ineffective opponents of Zionism, and they are clowns, they are opponents of Zionism to the best of their abilities.

Anyway, when Arabs officially speak about US hostility against Iran or about the potential of a military strike against Iran, it is unanimously to say hostilities should be toned down, a compromise should be reached in which Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. No Arab has agreed with the Israeli line that Iran must not have enrichment or the capability to make a weapon in theory. They have nobody that they must lie to. When they publicly oppose a strike it is because they really oppose a strike.

Second, let's talk about the idea that Israel could cede enough territory to the Palestinians that they would accept a state on the remainder on terms acceptable to Israel after Israel bombs Iran. Even if Abbas accepts the disjointed cantons Israel is willing to offer the Palestinians, the Palestinians will not endorse that in a referendum. No external borders, no trade independent of Israel or Israeli proxies, no control of water resources or their airspace. This is not a state, and there is no indication that the Palestinians would accept this type of reservation. But each of the terms mentioned is a necessity from Israel's point of view, for the viability of Israel as a Jewish state.

Any state the Palestinians would accept would be in a position to critically threaten Israel's future as a Jewish state. Any state emasculated enough not to be a threat, would not have the sovereignty necessary for Palestinians to endorse it. Bombing Iran does not change this equation. The Saudis would have no problem making sure the Palestinians have plenty of money for weapons once they have a state independent enough to continue the fight to restore Palestine to Muslim rule.

The longer version of his theory is more bizarre. If there was no Israel the US wouldn't be able to buy limited cooperation from Egypt in exchange for Gaza. But if there was no Israel, the US would have open and willing cooperation from Egypt, even an Egyptian democracy for free. Trade with the US has just as much potential to improve the quality of life of Egyptians as it does of Singaporeans. The USSR was a communist, militantly atheist power. The most religious region in the world during the cold war could only have entertained the idea of aligning with militant atheists against a country that is majority "people of the book" because that country supported Israel and Israel's dispossession of the Palestinians.

I'm not sure what Samuels thinks Israel allows the US to give Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi alliance with the US is a source of shame in that country and the motivating factor behind the threat militant Islamists pose against the country that, other than its relationship with the US and relatively friendly relations with Israel, has spent most of its history, including today, as the most fundamentalist Islamic country in the world.

If the US was to turn its back on the idea that Israel should have a Jewish majority, the Saudis could promote their relationship with the US with pride, even stupidly attempting to take credit for any US turnaround. It would end the Saudi dispute with militant Islam in a stroke, and there would no longer be any reason for the Saudis to hide their relationship with the US. The Saudis cuold even reopen US bases on their territory.

Israel, today as always, is a strategic liability for the US, not an asset. It is a burden that is undertaken for emotional but not logical reasons. Not only the emotional attachment US Jews feel towards Israel - but that is a very important part of the story, including the fact that most US non-Jews are apathetic towards the region which vastly increases the influence of Israel's enthusiastic supporters. There is also an emotional connection US non-Jews, especially non-Jews of European descent, feel towards the Israeli state whose leadership is also mostly of European descent.

These emotional reasons for US support for Israel greatly outweigh the narrative Samuels attempts to draw of Israel somehow helping the US accomplish policy goals in the region. The Saudis would gladly be open, enthusiastic US clients if not for Israel, and they would actually be a strategic asset in many, many ways.

Samuel's theories are weird, but the most important reason Israel will not bomb Iran have nothing to do with the bizarreness and falseness of Samuel's theories. The most important reason Israel willl not bomb Iran is because bombing Iran would hurt the US and Israel far more than they would help. This is also the reason Arab states officially, and sincerely, are trying to dissuade any US attacks or escalations of hostility.

I've seen it argued that bombing Iran may actually accelerate Iran's nuclear program. It is not true that Iran would be able to immediately rebuild its nuclear stocks if attacked. On the other hand, Iran is not planning on having weapons in the short or medium term any way. But it is true that an attack on Iran would give Iran a moral basis for an all-out war against the US and US interests in various parts of the region. Iran expects to damage the US severely in this war.

First Iran will attack the US presence in the gulf. The advanced missiles China and Russia have sold Iran may not succeed in sinking a US warship causing a mass-casualty event, but they might. If it's done in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli bombing of Iran part of the blame for these casualties will be correctly laid at the foot of Israel by the American public. Israel's main advantage in the US arena of popular opinion is that its supporters are enthusiastic while most Americans do not care enough to find neutral viewpoints.

Second, Iran will attack the US position in Iraq. Iran certainly has the ability to return us to the days when 100 US soldiers died a month in Iraq. The kill rate went beneath a dozen or two per month for the entire campaign season, but Americans still want to get out of Iraq. When it goes back up, and there is no maybe this time, Americans will not only want to leave Iraq more urgently, but they rightly will blame Israel for the fact that the exit will now be under fire with heavier than necessary US losses.

Third, Iran will attack the US position in Afghanistan. An Iranian-Pakistani alliance, while under the table, will make the US position in that country unsustainable and may well bring death rates up to those in Iraq. The US is more willing to remain in Afghanistan than in Iraq, but the US will be expending a lot more resources there and losing a lot more lives than it was before Israel's attack. And Israel will no longer have the luxury of being low on the list of priorities for Americans who do not have an inherent empathy with that nation.

Fourth, Iran will attack shipping and oil installations. Iran cannot close the flow of oil, but it can certainly raise the price of oil as it transits. It may be able to reduce Saudi production with missile strikes. The increase in oil price during an already severe recession in the West will have a large impact on economies, not only in the US but even more in Asia and Europe. That this price increase will follow immediately Israel's strike against Iran will decrease Israel's support around the world more than the attack on Gaza did.

Lastly, Iran will attack Israel. Will an Iranian missile hit Dimona? Maybe. Surely it will not render it destroyed beyond repair. It will be a symbolic strike. The real strike against Israel will be the price it imposes on the US for being Israel's enabler.

Hopefully Israel will not be drawn into attacking Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas after any bombing. Israel's sense of legitimacy will already be tested by the punishment the rest of the world feels from Israel's action. Attacking anyone directly only will produce massacres against civilians which are bad enough during normal times, but if this happens at the same time a world recession is worsened because of Israel, there is a real chance it could rapidly push opposition to Israel over the edge.

Samuels thinks Israel could trade the destruction of Iran's nuclear program for a Palestinian state. Iran thinks Israel could force Iran to trade its nuclear program for the expulsion of the US from Iraq and an open Iranian client there, an alliance with Pakistan for an Afghan client and a severe blow to the legitimacy of the Zionist project, in other words substantial progress from Iran's point of view towards a one-state solution which, even if Jews remain on the territory as a political minority with full rights, would represent Iran's greatest foreign policy victory since its revolution.

It would also clear the way for Iran to move forward without any sanctions and rebuild its nuclear program into one like Brazil's or Japan's, which would be fine because with a Muslim-majority Israel, Iran would have perfectly fine relations with its neighbors and no need for a nuclear weapon.

Samuels thinks this would be a bad trade for Iran and a good trade for Israel, as a Jewish state. I disagree completely. I think Iranians also disagree and I think US decisionmakers disagree. I actually think Israeli decisionmakers disagree.

But it probably wouldn't even get there. Israel would ask for permission to attack and be denied that permission. If Israel tries to attack anyway, the US would smartly prevent Israeli jets from crossing US airspace. Likely it would not have to shoot any Israeli jets down, but before watching the entire US position in the region dissolve, the US would probably shoot every participating Israeli jet out of the sky.


Ziad said...

The most annoying implication of Samuels is that once Israel's enemies are neutralized, Israel will then be much more willing to compromise on a settlement. Such a foolish notion is accepted without a thought.

As for U.S. policy, it does tend to seek dominance whenever possible. This is true without Israel's presence. It is why the U.S. overthrew democratic leaders in South America and replaced them with fascist puppets.

In the Persian Gulf, The U.S. would find it hard to accept a strategic competitor, which a nuclear Iran would be. Israel complicates that fact and gives it another reason, but does not create it.

Glad to see your posting so often.

Arnold Evans said...

The US does have an interventionist foreign policy all over the world, and has for a long time.

Israel as a Jewish state makes US foreign policy goals in the Middle East vastly more difficult and expensive to meet. Not that the US would not have interventionist goals, but that those goals could be accomplished through less drastic measures.

Specifically, Iran and Saudi Arabia could have a balance of nuclear capability like that in Brazil and Argentina - except that Israel adds a new constraint that not only must the regional countries be balanced against each other, which is relatively easy, but they also must be unable to dominate a tiny regional country with a 6 million population and no natural resources.

Another example is that the US wants governments all over the world with policies that are not hostile specifically to US interests but are at least initially somewhat neutral in disputes between the US and other parties. Governments that cannot be depended upon to provide that are everywhere pressured as a US foreign policy objective.

But Israel transforms routine foreign policy goals, by US standards, into goals that can only be met through extraordinary efforts. Because that region is the only region in the world, post-Apartheid, that the populations and decision-makers widely and nearly unanimously believe the US is an active participant on the wrong side of a struggle against injustice.

Iran need be no more of a strategic competitor to the US than Brazil. The commitment to Israel as a Jewish state heavily skews US perceptions and interests in Iran's region in a fundamental way.

Ziad said...

I do see your point. Without Israel, the U.S. could employ a softer version of intervention and experience less resistance. But an Iranian government whose interests differ from America's would be treated harshly still. In 1953, the current dynamic with Israel did not exist and yet the U.S. was quite prepared to overthrow its elected government.

The Brazil analogy is a good one but Venezuela would be more a appropriate. If it were to move towards nuclear capability , U.S. hostility would equal or surpass that towards Iran, even though Israel wouldn't be a factor.

Perhaps American imperial goals could be better reached without Israel. I guess that is the "Realist" argument. Then again, most of America's goals have been met. U.S. friendly governments exist in all of the middle east except for Iran and possibly Syria. And the latter would gladly cut a deal if it were offered a good one (like Anwar Sadat's deal for example)

True, the populations of all these nations hate the U.S., but the governments control them well as long as they have the guns, prisons and torture chambers.

So I guess I see U.S. support for Israel as a bit of a symptom of U.S. imperial thinking rather than the cause of it.

Now, I do agree that with the presence of Israel, Iran becomes a much greater threat. Now The populations of Egypt, Jordan and many Arab nations like Iran/Hizbullah more than their own governments. Iran provides a sympbol of successful resistance. No Arab collaborator nation has a serious nuclear program. None have a space program, with satellites being launched. None have assisted Palestinian and Lebanese resistance as Iran has and none are able to force the U.S. to negotiate on their terms.

This does threaten U.S. backed governments and their clumsy efforts to publicly attack Iran (witness Mubarak's accusations against Nasrallah) make them laughing stocks in their own nations.

Thanx Again,

Arnold Evans said...

I don't perceive the US to have become substantially more hostile towards Iran when its nuclear program was exposed than it was before.

What the US got at that point was an issue that it could use to pressure other countries to impose the kinds of sanctions the US was imposing anyway, and that the US had been trying to pressure other countries into imposing already.

But US policy towards Venezuela is vastly less hostile, even under Chavez, than it was against Iran before the nuclear issue.

US policy against Cuba is comparably hostile to Iran. I have difficulty explaining US policy against Cuba beyond that it is a small island, close to the US that US policymakers on which US some decision-makers take some sadistic pleasure in imposing as much misery as they can, while most US decision-makers cannot be moved to care.

I doubt the level of sanctions against Cuba would be able to withstand the amount of oil Iran has, meaning US measures against Cuba cost a lot less than those against Iran. My argument is that in the absence of Israel the US would not be willing, and would have no reason to even consider, its bearing the costs of its current policies against Iran.

There is a mythology that before 1967 the US was neutral on Israel. The US favored Israel since its foundation. I read a poll that 28% of Americans in 1947 or 1948 favored Jews and 7% favored Arabs. To the degree US Mideast policy today can be explained by disproportionate influence of American Jews and some amount of pro-European racism, the US didn't become more Jewish or more racist in 1967.

Yes there are pro US governments throughout the Middle East. One was recently installed by a trillion dollar invasion and thousands of lost lives of US soldiers. Others require constant bribery.

About Syria, the US is clear that it will give an Egypt-style deal, if Syria becomes hostile towards Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria hasn't bitten yet.

Could Syria survive the loss of legitimacy that would entail? Does it want to become a state that depends on constant torture of any potential organized opposition for its survival like Egypt and Jordan? These are only questions because of the US association with Israel as a Jewish state.

Post communism, dictatorships are a lot less necessary for the US imperial project - except around Israel. They have a moral cost, they have material costs and the US is not eager to bear those costs except in one region.

Peter said...

Great post, as usual, but I just want to point to one detail in your comment above:

Does [Syria] want to become a state that depends on constant torture of any potential organized opposition for its survival like Egypt and Jordan?

Isn't Syria that way already? In fact, isn't there less political freedom in Syria than in Egypt or Jordan? And made more difficult because the rulers belong to a minority religion?

Arnold Evans said...

Peter, thanks for commenting.

From memory, I recall Syria being higher on a scale of personal and political freedoms than Egypt or Jordan. I could easily be misremembering though.

I am sure that polls throughout the Middle East, including Syria, indicate that support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are popular, and if Syria was to withdraw such support as Egypt has, there would be a cost in popularity, or legitimacy on the part of Syria's leadership. Even if from where it is to a still lower level.

Whereever Syria is now, my take is that an Egypt-style deal with the US would lead to steps backwards in individual political freedoms.