U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is clearly concerned about the likelihood of Israeli strikes against Iran “in April, May or June.” For its part, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu fears that, if it does not step in soon, Iran will inevitably become a nuclear state. Enrichment of uranium by the Islamic Republic would mean that only the United States would be able to stop Iran, and Israel is not willing to entrust its fate to the Obama Administration.
The threat of war has unnerved Georgia’s population as well. That’s no wonder at all – Tbilisi is a mere seven-hundred kilometers within reach of the Iranian border.
Against that background, the Obama-Saakashvili meeting on 30 February gave added impetus to fresh conspiracy theories about how the Georgian nation would become an expendable target. Fervent conspiriologists depicted a wicked government plan and exposed the “real” intention behind opening all those new, comfortable hospitals. Soon, we will also learn about the “real” purpose of rehabilitating Kopitnari Airport near Kutaisi – the deployment of a squadron of flying elephants.
Conspiracy theories aside, there is no doubt that geographical proximity increases the odds that military action in Iran would affect us to a certain extent – the threat of terrorist acts against U.S. and Israeli citizens and facilities here cannot be ruled out. An attempt by Iranian special services to assassinate the Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan in Baku was foiled several weeks ago.
Some see the visa-free regime between Georgia and Iran, which was established in 2010, as an additional risk. In reality, toughening the visa regime will not neutralize the threat. Visas serve the purpose of controlling migration, not potential terrorists – the latter is the task of special services.
The possible consequences of conflict with Iran may be felt on a wider scale. In response to an attack inside its borders, Iran could try to cut off the trade route passing through the Strait of Hormuz which is used to carry Mideast oil to the rest of the world. One also should not discount subversive acts on oil fields of neighboring countries. Any such action would cause a spike in oil prices which could affect the world economy and benefit oil-rich authoritarian countries such as Russia and Venezuela. Some also reckon that a strike against Iran would lead to radicalization of the Muslim world, although that is a less likely scenario given historic antagonism between Shiite Iran and its Sunni neighbors. Popular support might be expressed on a wider scale, but Sunni governors would probably just shed a few crocodile tears.
Today, the leadership of the United States is categorically against any military conflict with Iran. With the election ahead, however, the American President may find it very difficult to “stay to the side” if Israel strikes and Iran reacts. Although Jewish Americans comprise only about two percent of the U.S. population, they constitute one of the country’s most powerful voting blocs. Garnering Jewish votes is especially critical in so-called battleground or swing states, and Republicans have wasted no time in exploiting the topic of Iran in their election campaign. Apart from the votes of American Jews, Obama’s chances of reelection could largely hinge on the effect a military conflict in the oil-producing region would have on the American economy. The current resident of the White House faces a difficult objective – if Obama wants to avert a military conflict, he has to dissuade Israel from a military attack.
Political analysts surmise that Leon Panetta’s disclosure of the imminent plans of America’s close strategic ally was meant to deter Israel. In that way, the American leadership could distance itself from Israel and, at the same time, send a clear message that if Israel does not change course, America will make Israeli plans public. Why else would the U.S. Defense Secretary divulge presumably classified information about the possible military action of one of the United States’ closest friends against the country most Americans identify as the United States’ greatest enemy and, even more so, indicate the timing of Israel’s possible military strike against Iran? Some analysts believe this may all be a bluff to scare Iran, but that theory does not seem plausible given the nature of Iranian politics.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. leadership hopes to convince the Israeli authority that peaceful means to solve the problemhave yet to be exhausted and that sanctions should be tightened against Iran. The weakness of that approach is that it serves only to harm the economy and population of the Islamic Republic of Iran and nothing to halt implementation of the country’s nuclear program.
Israel has not denied the possibility of war. Even those once against a military confrontation with Iran today speak about the necessity of taking action: “When the moment comes I don't know if we won't be alone, and for this reason Israel must also rely on itself,” said Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces who until now had been seen as opposing any attack on Iran.
Israel believes that time is running out. Iran is suspected of enriching uranium at various sites and storing the enriched uranium in a bunker located in the mountains of Qom province. Unlike America, Israel does not have the type of ammunition that can rip through bunkers. Israeli attempts to secure that ammunition have been unsuccessful. Israel therefore intends to shell those places where the enrichment takes place to prevent Iran from storing enough enriched uranium in the Qom bunker to build a nuclear bomb.
According to Secretary Panetta, Israel apparently plans a brief military operation. Most pundits who have weighed in on the issue agree that Israeli forces alone cannot take out Iran’s nuclear program once and for all. The most an Israeli strike will do is gain time. Iran should be able to overcome whatever damage it sustains and resume building its nuclear weapon within a few years’ time. Israel doubts that the Islamic Republic of Iran will be able to retaliate on a large scale, but expects Iran to encourage retaliatory action by Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Netanyahu’s government believes those groups have enough arms to impose a death toll on the State of Israel of up to five hundred Israelis.
A nuclear Iran poses an existential threat for the Jewish nation. The annihilation of Zionists is considered a sacred mission of the Iranian regime. Iran does not mince words on this issue: “The Zionist regime is really the cancerous tumor of this region and it needs to be removed and will be removed,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the other day. The systematic Nazi annihilation of six million Jews during the Holocaust led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Some believe that Israel must strike Iran now to prevent a second holocaust. As American political commentator Charles Krauthammer notes: “The Jews have a history of hearing 60 years ago, 80 years ago, about annihilation — and the world didn’t believe it. So it’s not going to tolerate it [another risk of annihilation]…. Israel is taking a huge risk. But you have to understand the mentality. In May, ‘67, Israel was surrounded by enemies, all alone, and decided [that it]would preemptively attack the Egyptian air force. It sent its entire air force to attack and succeeded [and] won the war…”
While the entire world worries about the growing specter of war, not an ounce of panic can be sensed in Israel. The Israeli government is keeping a cool head while it calculates what is in its own best state interests.
“War is an evil,” Harvard University history professor Niall Ferguson says, “But sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement… a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.”
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 87, published 13 February 2012.
Editor’s Note: On 13 February, the bombing of an Israeli diplomatic car in New Delhi injured four people, including a diplomat's wife. A similar bomb found under a car in Tbilisi, on the same day, was defused. On 14 February, four Thai civilians were wounded in Bangkok as a result of explosion. Israel has blamed the bombings on Iran.