Weekly Call at "The Gate" blog: Israel's Options After the Debacle of US Foreign Policy
Israeli President Shimon Peres, supported by a substantial section of Israeli opinion, insists that Israel cannot strike Iran's nuclear program without the support of the United States. President Obama, as Ha'aretz defense analyst Amos Harel observes, has done everything to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran short of appearing in person before the Knesset. Senior American officials, most recently Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, have been trotted out to assert that Israel can't stop Iran's nuclear program single-handed.
The problem is that American foreign policy faces catastrophic failure, or rather a comprehensive set of failures, bearing directly on Israeli security. Not only have sanctions failed to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but the Islamic Republic has broken out of diplomatic isolation. Turkey, supposedly America's partner in regional diplomacy, has reached out to Russia and China. And Egypt has reached out to Iran while threatening Israel in the Sinai. China is hosting a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement at which Iran will assume the organization's three-year rotating chairmanship. Egyptian President Morsi will visit Tehran on Aug. 25 on his way back from the summit.
In our April 12 summary, we concluded that
The shift towards a new equilibrium "much less favorable for Israel and more favorable for Iran" was already in progress as we wrote, with the purge of the Egyptian military's old guard and its replacement by officers allied to the Muslim Brotherhood. If Israel does nothing, it is likely to confront
1) A major Egyptian military presence in the Sinai in contravention of the Camp David treaty. An Egyptian build-up is already in progress.
2) An open alliance between Cairo and the Hamas government in Gaza, allowing Hamas to acquire new offensive capacities. As Amos Harel observed in yesterday's roundtable of Gatestone analysts, Israel already faces rocket attacks in parts of the country previously considered immune;
3) An alliance between Sunni Muslim Brotherhood elements in Syria and Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite irregulars, and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Threats to Israel from the Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syrian borders are likely to worsen as the Egyptian rapprochement with Iran proceeds. Iran's capacity to retaliate against any prospective Israeli strike will be enhanced and may include threats from Egypt.
The dilemma facing Jerusalem is that Israel can't live without the United States, but it also can't live with it. That may compel Israel to maneuver independently of Washington. As Rotem Sella reported on The Gate Aug. 17, there is speculation that Israel may concede the European natural gas market to Russia in return for Russia's forbearance in delivering anti-aircraft systems to Iran.
Blowback in Egypt
Egyptian President Morsi's announcement that he will visit Tehran on Aug. 30 occurs a week after Morsi purged the military leadership. Qatar's $2 billion loan to Egypt announced the morning of Aug. 12 preceded Morsi's purge by hours. The Obama administration sought to portray Morsi's new army chief, General el-Sissi, , as an an ideal compromise between the secular-minded military old guard and Mr. Morsi's Brotherhood , " as the Wall Street Journal wrote:
The notion of an "ideal compromise" is turning out to be absurd. The younger officers can't reproduce the career path of their elders, who will be retiring to yachts in Monaco, because the Egyptian economy is sucked dry and there's nothing more to loot. The old regime said in effect, Après moi le deluge. I can only imagine the apocalyptic stirrings among the younger officers. This has been brewing for some time; as the New York Times reported Aug. 16,
In Ha'aretz , Avi Issacharoff adds:
The Times account commented, "American officials said their confidence in Egypt was unshaken, while analysts argued that despite the changes in the nation's military and civilian leadership, any realignment in relations with Washington could be slow — in part because of Egypt's urgent need for assistance from the United States and the West." That is an egregious error, because the most that Egypt can expect is enough assistance to allow the poorer half of its population to keep body and soul together (and with the rise in food prices, perhaps not even that). Cozying up to Iran does not suggest that Morsi will go hat in hand to the Saudis, but rather that he will try to blackmail them. It is a high risk strategy, but the Egyptians really don't have a lot to lose.
Severe economic distress benefits the Muslim Brotherhood. I wrote in Asia Times April 11 under the headline, "Muslim Brotherhood Chooses Chaos", that the Brotherhood would use shortages of food and fuel to consolidate its power in the street:
Wishful thinking blinded American analysts to the Muslim Brotherhood's intent and methods. As late as Aug. 2, Fox News commentator Fouad Ajami still argued that "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia's rulers bury their differences to fight the Shiite enemy," adding, "An Egyptian alliance with Saudi Arabia is the beginning of wisdom—a necessary, though hardly sufficient, condition for Egypt finding a way out of its crippling past."
On the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to believe that there is no way out of Egypt's "crippling past" (45% illiteracy, 90% rate of female genital mutilation, 30% rate of consanguineous marriages, 50% dependency on imported food). Half of Egyptians live at the verge of starvation on $2 or less a day, dependent on the government bread subsidy, and the Brotherhood explains their privation and fear to maintain political control in Orwellian fashion.
Washington, in sum, has helped to create a monster in the form of the Morsi government. The Israelis have to assume that Camp David is dead and that sooner rather than later, a new front will open against them in the South.
Iran's Threats to Saudi Arabia
Morsi came back from his July visit to Saudi Arabia empty handed. The Saudis evidently did not want to fund a movement committed to the overthrow of the House of Saud. Morsi appears to have chosen to ally with Iran to threaten the Saudis. A report by the Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi suggests the thrust of Iranian policy: Threaten the Saudis with subversion in Eastern province, perhaps via adjacent Bahrein, as well as assassination. Writes Naqvi:
Sanctions against Iran, meanwhile, are held in open contempt by a great deal of the world. Reuters Aug. 10:
The Saudi Gazette notes that with oil prices rising, "Tehran seems to be enjoying the unexpected windfall- despite the odds"
Iraq is also helping Iran skirt financial sanctions, and continuing to do in open contempt of American actions. President Obama personally announced in June that the US was "cutting off" the Elaf Islamic Bank, "but the treatment the bank has received in Baghdad since it was named by Mr. Obama suggests that the Iraqi government is not only allowing companies and individuals to circumvent the sanctions but also not enforcing penalties for noncompliance" (New York Times). Iran is also trading currency and gold through Afghanistan. Again, the New York Times: "On its own, the rush of Iranian money to Afghanistan is unlikely to be enough to undercut the sanctions, which are the cornerstone of Western efforts to coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. But it is clear that American officials are worried… The Iranians are 'in essence using our own money, and they're getting around what we're trying to enforce,' one American official said."
With inflation in the mid-20s, Iranians are buying local real estate, al-Arabiya reports:
Iran's economy is hurting but in no danger of collapse in the near future.
Regarding Turkey, I wrote in The Gate on July 31:
What Would be the Consequences of an Israeli Strike Against Iran?
Israeli (and Western) views are sharply polarized. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, reflecting briefings from the Israeli left, concluded:
The counterargument is that all of these things, and worse, are happening in any case. Yoram Ettinger, a former senior Israeli diplomat, argued in Israel HaYom Aug. 17 that an Israeli initiative to strike Iran would benefit America's world standing, even if the present administration opposed such a strike. He wrote:
* * * *
The Call for August 19, 2012
This week's call reviewed the material contained in the summary above and tried to evaluate the US-Israeli relationship and the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran. The participants seemed to agree that Prime Minister Netanyahu is deadly serious about attacking Iran, and that President Obama is equally serious about trying to stop him from doing so.
Our regulars are:
Pepe Escobar -- Author of the"Roving Eye"feature for the Asia Times
David Goldman -- aka "Spengler"
Amos Harel -- military correspondent and defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz
David Samuels -- Contributing Editor at Harper's Magazine
Rotem Sella -- a journalist at Ma'ariv, an Israeli daily newspaper
David G.: Yoram Ettinger says that Israel should strike Iran and shouldn't care what Washington thinks.
Amos: David, Netanyahu has to care, at least about 3 billion $ a year, not to mention the American follow up needed for an Israeli strike against Iran. Also - It's amazing how much the Israeli media resents a strike at this moment, and not just the usual suspects in Ha'aretz. Ettinger now seems a part of a tiny minority. The PM actually calls journalists saying he needs their help on Iran. I kid you not.
Rotem: Well, Haaretz and Yedioth mainly.
David G: Here is how I would organize the mass of material we have viewed in the past week. 1) the US has a set of objectives; 2) US policy isn't working (sanctions, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, you name it); everybody is maneuvering independently of the US, including (if we believe Rotem's Russian gas story) maybe even Israel; 4) there are a number of branching points for all the players. The branching points include:
1) are maybe Israel hits Iran
2) maybe the Saudis cut a deal with Iran behind the back of the US;
3) what else?
Am I wrong about how much US influence has diminished? I know Pepe shares that view.
Rotem: I don't think that Netanyahu won't strike because he have bad press, but I think he won't strike in the next months. I don't see how it's possible that he and Barak are talking about it and striking Iran at the same time.
Amos: I agree about the diminishing influence. Again, I might be overstating this because of my specific perspective - but the final test is: Israel vs. Iran. Will Bibi risk it - and how will Obama react, if he hopes to preserve some regional stature, especially considering the elections? We're talking late September to late October, presumably. Bibi is dead serious about a strike on Iran.
Pepe: Gen. Dempsey laid down the law; Israel cannot do it technically, and the Pentagon apparently is not delivering the goods in time.
Amos: In his speech in March, at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, President Obama declared that he will not settle for containment against Iran. Obama, however, had never sworn that he would not contain Israel. This is exactly what he is about to do now. His only mission regarding Israel in the next two and a half months would be to prevent an Israeli strike against Iran - by any means necessary. This should include a speech at the Knesset - as former Israeli military intelligence chief General Amos Yadlin just suggested - but the President hasn't made a decision yet, although it seems that President Peres at least is hoping for that.
Iran, in fact, has been the only place in the region where the Obama administration did not fail miserably during the last year. Washington failed in dealing with Libya, Egypt, Syria - and would probably fail again now with Mursi in Egypt. But regarding Teheran, Obama actually led quite an impressive campaign, which brought about some very tough sanctions. Evidently, this isn't enough. If the President wants to prevent chaos - he'll have to deal with Netanyahu directly - and block an Israeli military strike before November.
David G.: It's easier for Obama if Bibi promises to wait until the day after the election. It's also better for Israel to wait: none of the technology is perfect and the more time to prepare, the better. If we believe the Hans Rühl account, success depends on placing one bunker buster directly into the crater made by the last one. Israel has enough bunker-busters already to do it in theory. Dempsey is saying what Obama tells him to say. It's not necessarily "true."
Amos: Dempsey said it publicly - and the Israeli generals are saying it privately. David, I have to disagree here. Barak himself (Ehud) estimates a success as a year to two years delay. Dempsey is quite correct, it seems
David G.: OK, it's a policy issue not a technical issue as to what "success" means. Apart from flattening the whole country there's no way to permanently stop any country's nuclear program.
Pepe: Allow me to stress once more this is not the point; the point is - if there is a strike THEN Tehran will go all out for a nuclear weapon, which, for the moment, is not the case according to every bit of intel available.
David G.: No-one ever has intel on where a nuclear weapons program stands, Pepe. India, N. Korea and others took the world completely by surprise.
Pepe: Of course, because they were not monitored 24/7 by the IAEA.
David G.: I don't know any pro in the field who thinks that IAEA or any of the alphabet soup, least of all CIA, can tell what Iran is doing.
Rotem: There are voices in Israel claiming that the operation to knock out Iraq's Osiris nuclear reactor was a failure because it caused Iraq to speed up its nuclear program. I think the Iranians will try to get nuclear weapon as fast as they can anyway.
Pepe: The IAEA inspectors are all pros. Just like the guys in Iraq, which I met - and nobody believed them at the time when they said there was nothing in Iraq.
Amos: Nobody knows for sure. Israeli Intelligence still claims it would be able to identify an Iranian breaking-out towards a bomb. The PM and Defense Minister doubt that, as one might expect
Pepe: The IAEA would be able to verify a break out practically just--in-time - and the US intelligence agencies know it.
Pepe: OK, we agree to disagree. The best info I get from Iranians inside Iran is that the IRGC controls the program - but they depend on a Khamenei order to go all out. There is absolutely NO evidence Khamenei wants a bomb, either by what he has said so far of being un-Islamic and comparing to the Iranian strategy.
David G.: Pepe, I just don't believe it and I don't know anybody in the business who does. Let's move away from stuff we simply don't know about and can't find out.
Any thoughts from regarding Egypt a week after the Morsi purge? And how this is perceived in Israel
Rotem: No one knows what "Egypt" wants, but it seems Israel is pretty clueless and without a coherent plan. The Egyptian army is now in Sinai with our permission, which hasn't, of course, happened since the peace treaty. We aren't getting any gas, and Morsi visits Iran, even as the Egyptian people starve.
I spoke to some people at an Israeli company that is among the world's largest manufacturers of underclothing. They have 2,500 employees in Egypt, and there are more Israel companies like them who keep working, but don't know what will happen tomorrow.
Israel built a fence with Egypt to try to guard against the flood of Sudanese and Eritrians that have come into Israel at a pace of more than 2,000 a month. This year, the number has dropped by 90%, not, in my opinion, thanks to the fence. The mayhem in Egypt and in Sinai is playing to Israel's benefit here. We had less than 300 refugees in July. I don't think its the fence, fences don't stop refugees anywhere else
Amos: Rotem, the fence isn't finished yet. It will be helpful, but it can't prevent Katyushas from falling on Eilat, as it happened just last week. This is a completely different situation for us. There are new dangers in arenas that were considered relatively safe before. Meanwhile the Israeli public is busy watching "Survival VIP."
Rotem: Which is a good show!
Pepe: They should export it. Good PR.
Amos: The fence should be finished by march 2013. Have you seen it from up close? It looks almost impossible to pass through
I have seen it. I don't think a Sudanese who walked thousands of kilometers will be stopped by a fence.
Rotem: Another area in which the Egyptians are being unreasonable is gas. In the last year, there were several explosions in the pipeline that brings gas from Egypt to Israel. In April, the Egyptians said they would 'stop selling gas' to Israel. Then they said 'let's negotiate a better deal'. (That 'better deal' was then found in May, with the Jordanians). Then, they said, they'll negotiate a new, more economically favorable deal with the Israelis. Nothing has happened since. Three days ago, the Egyptians announced that they would go to the UN, seeking a share of the "Leviathan" gas field which Israel claims as its own.
David G.: So Israel has additional dangers on its southern border, not just rockets, but also the Egyptian army moving in violation of the treaty, led by a guys who don't believe in the treaty. Egypt is a wild card. Let me put this very simply: Morsi goes to Saudi Arabia July 17, comes back with nothing -- he's almost out of money. On August 12 the Emir of Qatar hands him a $2 billion check, and he goes for broke: fires Tantawi, and sets up a visit to Iran. He's telling the Saudis he'll play with their enemies -- he's got nothing to lose.
Or am I missing something? This is what I don't see reflected in any of the press coverage: Morsi is taking big risks because if he just sits there without money from the Saudis he's dead in a few months anyway. That seems like arithmetic to me, but I don't see anyone talking about it, so I am wondering if I am crazy.
Amos: I'm still impressed by the way he handled the generals. Maybe he's here to stay, at least more than what some experts have led us to believe
Pepe: David, the answer to all of your questions is: the Emir of Qatar.
David G.: I'm impressed, too. But there are a few ways to read that. One is that you have a legitimate, democratic government clearing away old has-been, corrupt generals. Another is that Tantawi et. al. will retire to their yachts in Monte Carlo and leave an economic catastrophe to younger officers who won't get rich, even if they wanted to.
Amos: Follow the money. But what about Iranian money? Do they still have enough to help both Bashar and Hezbollah?
Pepe: We'll see after the Morsi meeting in Tehran.
David G.: Pepe, Qatar has about $30 billion -- it can't do much. Iran's oil exports are way down and they have 22% inflation driven by shortages -- they can spare the old $100 million to keep their surrogates in business but they can't bail out Egypt. The numbers don't add up. My point is that everbody is weak: Egypt, Iran, Saudi, Syria, Turkey -- and that's what makes them take risks.
Pepe: It's not only money. It's barter, and for Iran the essential relationship with Egypt back in business. But I agree; everbody is weak at the moment, including the US.
me: Pepe, barter what? Even they wanted to barter oil to Egypt, Iran and Egypt both need the same things, mainly food.
Amos: And another point about Hezbollah: It was hardly noticed anywhere, but last week the Shin Bet arrested a group of Arab Israeli drug dealers. Apparently they received 20 kilos of C4 explosive from Lebanon and hid it inside Israel, waiting for an order to use it. That could have been a very effective terror operation. That supports the theme that everybody is taking greater risks. I'm not sure we can pass this summer season without any conflict, even before discussing Iran
David G.: One has to presume that Iran is already preparing for a possible Israeli strike.
Pepe: Hezbollah is ready; how did the Nasrallah interview play in Israel?
Amos: Nasrallah's speech wasn't taken too seriously. Israelis keep reminding themselves that's he's still in hiding - which isn't exactly true.
David G.: Amos, where is conflict most likely?
Amos: I'm not sure. I suspect Gaza, by way of Sinai. But Lebanon is also tense, partly because of the Syrian crisis.
David G.: It would be in Iran's interest to distract Israel with problems on its borders. That was part of David Samuels' point last week: the situation now is maximally fluid (less fluid after Morsi fired the generals) and any change is likely to be to Israel's disadvantage.
Amos: Peres' attack on Bibi was very interesting. He's been saying that off-record for two years. I think he's really worried
David G.: He should be worried. If Israel hits Iran now, the shape of the Middle East will change radically (presuming the operation is a success). Effectively it's a statement that the treaty with Egypt is dead anyone so not worth trying to save, no? The Roger Cohen op-ed in the NY Times is interesting. Cohen talked to someone with a coherent readout. Here's Cohen (and probably what Peres is thinking): "But a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran today would be disastrous. It unites Iran in fury; locks in the Islamic Republic for a generation; gives a substantial boost to the wobbling Assad regime in Syria; radicalizes the Arab world at a moment of delicate transition; ignites Hezbollah on the Lebanese border; boosts Hamas; endangers U.S. troops in the region; sparks terrorism; propels oil skyward; rocks a vulnerable global economy; triggers a possible regional war; offers a lifeline to Iran just as sanctions are biting; adds a never-to-be-forgotten Persian vendetta to the Arab vendetta against Israel; and may at best set back Iran's nuclear ambitions a couple of years or at worst accelerate its program by prompting it to rush for a bomb and throw out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors."
Pepe: Let me advance an hypothesis here. Israel is in fact winning as we speak. The Palestinian question simply disappeared. It rated a mere mention at the OIC summit. The Bibi-Barak hysteria is all about Iran and that plays marvelously for all those players interested in fomenting Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian hatred.
What Cohen says is more or less what would happen.
me: Pepe, I agree. The question is whether it's worth it.
Pepe: Excellent point for the next call.
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