|How Netanyahu's bomb Iran ploy failed
by Gareth Porter
THE REST OF THE world can stop worrying about Israeli Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu's supposed threat to bomb Iran. Netanyahu's speech
at the United Nations General Assembly last week appears to mark the
end of his long campaign to convince the world that he might launch a
unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The reason for Netanyahu's retreat is the demonstration of
unexpectedly strong pushback against Netanyahu’s antics by President
Barack Obama. And that could be the best news on the Iran nuclear
issue in many years.
Commentary on Netanyahu's speech predictably focused on his cartoon
bomb and hand-drawn "red line", but its real significance lay in the
absence of the usual suggestion that a unilateral strike against Iran
might be necessary if the Iranian nuclear programme is not halted.
Although he offered yet another alarmist portrayal of Iran poised to
move by next summer to the "final stage" of uranium enrichment,
nowhere in the speech did Netanyahu even hint at such a threat. His
explicit aim was to get the US to adopt his "red line" - meaning that
it would threaten military force against Iran if it does not bow to a
demand to cease enrichment.
Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Netanyahu had twice used to convey
to the US his purported readiness to go to war with Iran, called it a
"concession speech". Netanyahu conceded, in effect, that his effort to
force the US to accept his red line had failed completely.
Although Netanyahu has been generally perceived as deadly serious
about the threat of war against Iran, there is good reason to doubt
that Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ever intended
to attack Iran. A review of the record of statements by Netanyahu and
Barak on Iran reveals that both of them have carefully avoided issuing
an actual threat to attack Iran under any circumstances.
In fact, Netanyahu has been distinctly more cautious in that regard
than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, whose government twice issued
actual military threats against Iran - in February 2006 and again in
June 2008. A former Israeli official who requested anonymity confirmed
to me last spring that people who had worked under Netanyahu as well
as under Olmert and Ariel Sharon had found Netanyahu "less decisive"
on Iran than either of those former prime ministers.
Despite Olmert's much more explicit threats of attack on Iran, we now
know from US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks to Haaretz
newspaper that on December 2, 2005, American diplomats had reported
that their conversations with Israeli officials indicated that there
is no chance of a military attack being carried out on Iran.
Israel's 'red line' option
Even more telling, before his retirement as IDF Chief of General Staff
in February 2011, General Gabi Ashkenazi told then Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that all the talk about the
Israeli military option against Iran by Netanyahu and Barak was "empty
words", because "Israel has no military option", according to a report
by Shimon Shiffer of Yedioth Ahronoth.
The evidence now available indicates that the Netanyahu campaign about
a unilateral strike on Iran was from the beginning a bluff aimed at
pressuring President Barack Obama to adopt both "crippling sanctions"
against Iran's oil export sector and an explicit threat of war if Iran
did not end its nuclear programme.
Netanyahu had successfully manipulated the Clinton administration on
the Oslo "peace process", and in 2001, unaware he was being recorded,
he said, "America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the
right direction. They won't get in the way". He evidently calculated
in late 2011 that his pressure on Obama would be amplified by a
majority of the US Congress, which the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC
had repeatedly mobilised in support of legislation desired.
Obama's vulnerability to such pressures would at its maximum during
the Presidential election campaign season of 2012, according to
Netanyahu's calculation. It was no accident that Defence Minister Ehud
Barak suggested in an interview with CNN last November that Israel
would be forced to make a decision on war either during the summer or
fall of 2012. There was no objective, technical reason but an obvious
political logic for suggesting such timing. The Republican Party’s
candidate could be expected to be heavily dependent on Sheldon
Adelson, the same big funder who had bankrolled Netanyahu’s own
During late 2011 and the first half of 2012, the Obama administration
was ostensibly alarmed by what was widely viewed as a Netanyahu threat
of unilateral action. When the US and Israel agreed in mid-January to
postpone a joint military exercise originally scheduled for early
Spring, US defence officials and former officials lined up to tell
Yahoo news reporter Laura Rozen and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic
off the record that they feared Israel was planning an attack during
that period. And in early February, Washington Post columnist David
Ignatius reported that Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta was alarmed
about a possible Israeli attack between April and June.
But there was more to those apparent expressions of alarm than met the
eye. Panetta was making the threat of an Israeli attack during those
months seem more credible than it really was, and he was doing so
without any pushback against it. Those were tell-tale indications that
the Obama administration was using the supposed threat of a
unilateral Israeli attack to increase the pressure on Iran in advance
of the negotiations between Iran and the "P5+1" scheduled for the
As the Republican Party prepared to nominate Netanyahu's old friend
Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate, all the pieces seemed to be
in place for Netanyahu to maximise the impact of his Iran war bluff.
Two weeks before the convention, Netanyahu and Barak telegraphed their
intention to convert their campaign into decisive influence over US
Iran policy. In an interview with Ynet news on August 11, an unnamed
"senior official in Jerusalem" offered an explicit deal with the Obama
administration: Netanyahu would "reconsider" Israel's unilateral
attack option if Obama would adopt Israel’s red line - meaning that he
would threaten to attack Iran if it had not agreed to stop its
enrichment by a date certain.
US resistance to 'pressure tactic'
But Netanyahu met unexpectedly firm US resistance to his pressure
tactic. On August 30, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, talking with reporters in the UK, said an Israeli
strike on Iran would be ineffective, and then dropped an unexpected
bomb. "I don't want to be complicit it they [the Israelis] choose to
do it," Dempsey said.
That Dempsey comment was the first public rebuke to Netanyahu and
Barak, and former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland was
emphaticabout its impact on Netanyahu's strategy. "Israeli officials
cannot do anything in the face of a very explicit 'no' from the US
president," he said. Netanyahu had been arguing all year that the US
"might not like" an Israeli attack, but that it would "accept it the
day after". But after such a "public, bold statement" by Dempsey,
Eiland said, "the situation had to be reassessed". Netanyahu and Barak
were now "exploring what space is left to operate".
That space had shrunk even further, moreover, because the Republican
convention in Tampa Bay from August 27 to 30 failed to make an
American ultimatum to Iran, as demanded by Netanyahu, a central theme
of the convention. The only major foreign policy figure to speak at
the convention was Condoleezza Rice, who had been reviled by the
neoconservative allies of Israel for favouring diplomatic engagement
Obama and other senior US officials had clearly decided it was time to
cut off Netanyahu’s ham-handed effort at pressure on US policy at the
knees. In an interview with Bloomberg Radio on September 9 Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton declared, "We're not setting deadlines". And
when Netanyahu pushed Obama in a phone conversation on September 11 to
adopt his "red line" - a threat to attack Iran if it refused to comply
with demands by the P5+1 - Obama flatly rejected the demand, according
to American sources. Three days later, Panetta told Foreign Policy
magazine, "Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to
put people in a corner".
Asked by CBS 60 Minutes on September 24 whether he felt any pressure
from Netanyahu's efforts to change US policy toward Iran, Obama
replied that the only pressure he felt was to "do what is right for
the American people, then added, "And I am going to block out any
noise that's out there".
And in an unmistakable signal by Obama that Netanyahu should end his
meddling in US politics and policy, the White House even rebuffed a
Netanyahu request for a meeting during his upcoming US trip, as the
Israelis leaked to the news media.
Haaretz editor Aluf Benn has suggested that Netanyahu's UN speech
reflected not only the Obama administration's rebuff but the realities
of Israeli public opinion. He wrote that the Prime Minister had
tailored his speech to polls showing that Israelis wanted the US to
handle the problem of Iran, not Israel. Benn summarised the public's
verdict: "Not now and not alone".
Netanyahu will no doubt campaign for re-election at home by demonising
Iran as an "existential threat" and will continue to say that "all
options are on the table". But his effort to convince the world that
he is seriously contemplating an attack on Iran has run its course.
Netanyahu badly miscalculated his leverage over US policy, and with
Obama now widening his lead in the polls, the extraordinary series of
events in September may indicate how US-Israeli relations on Iran will
develop in 2013 and beyond.
An Obama who is no longer intimidated by Netanyahu or the Israeli
lobby might finally be willing to make a serious effort to find a
diplomatic solution to the conflict over Iran's nuclear programme for
the first time. Netanyahu's failure could provide the first real break
in the long chain of actions and reactions that has led to the present
contest of wills with Iran.
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian
specialising in US national security policy and winner of the 2012
Gellhorn Prize for journalism.