U.S. focus is currently centered on the Iranian issue, including its Israeli military dimension and the Russian-Chinese factor in international diplomacy. The case for undermining Iran through Syria, by mobilizing all efforts to overthrow the regime there, has somewhat receded. Yet, this does not mean that the goal of toppling the regime has been quashed or completely withdrawn, and there are differences regarding the means to achieve this and overall priorities. It seems that the main focus now in the rhetoric of the U.S. military, governmental, intellectual and media institutions has moved to Iran. This is happening in the wake of the success achieved by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in diverting the direction of American attention away from Syria and towards Iran. Here, most scenarios are military in nature, scenarios that are abundant and remarkable in their disarray and their implications for the domestic arena in the United States, having effectively become a major issue in the elections there.
During his visit to the United States a few days ago, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to score a great victory when he forced U.S. President Barack Obama’s hand into removing the containment of Iran as a hitherto main tenet of his policy, since the beginning of his term. This is a significant achievement for Netanyahu, given the fact that he has introduced to the U.S. political discourse a commitment at the level of the presidency to abandon the policy of containment. In fact, this policy has kept the military option at bay and instead focused on extended sanctions as a means to entice Tehran to cooperate, on the one hand, and to undermine and exhaust the regime in Tehran, on the other.
The other achievement Netanyahu secured was that, as he said, Obama has now acknowledged Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself. The word sovereign here, according to some, means that Netanyahu got Obama’s approval for Israel to unilaterally carry out a military strike against Iranian sites with a view to eliminate – or delay – the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
In truth, the military option is a subject of dispute for the Israelis, Americans and Arabs equally. There is a school of thought that says that it would be foolish to grant Tehran the ammunition of Islamic and internal support for the regime that would break its isolation and give it the equivalent of an escape rope. Proponents of this view believe that laying siege to Iran by means of the sanctions and international isolation is the most effective option, especially since a military option would be open to the possibility of failure, retaliation and perhaps even a catastrophic deployment of WMDs in the region. They also add that the best option to get rid of the regime in Tehran lies in shutting down the Syrian gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which requires overthrowing the regime in Damascus. This in turn would encourage the Iranian people to rise up against the regime, especially if there is going to be external support to do so.
The opposing school of thought, meanwhile, cites what Israel considers to be an existential threat, meaning that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Thus, the Israeli leadership has decided that now is the right time to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, for reasons related to Iran, Israel and the United States.
With respect to Iran, the above holds true given the fact that intelligence estimates maintain that Iran has come a long way in building up its nuclear capabilities; therefore, when containment takes effect, it may be too late, because Iran would have then acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. And with respect to Israel, the political calculations of both the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister Ehud Barak have concluded that the military window is open to Israel only before the U.S. presidential elections, not after. Both men do not have confidence in that Barack Obama will deliver on any military promises against Iran if he is to be elected for a second term. Thus, Netanyahu and Barak reached the conclusion that the matter cannot bear any adventures. Then with respect to the United States, the electoral battle opens the door wide open for Israel to achieve the maximum possible amount of support for anything it wants, even if that should be a war rejected by the American public.
The timing of the military strike, according to the information circulated by American circles close to Israel, may be before June or may be delayed until October, in accordance with military considerations and political calculations. What is important is that the strike must take place before the presidential elections, as some are saying. However, there is another opinion that says that what Obama and Netanyahu agreed to is to delay the military strike until after the elections, with the U.S. President pledging to be a stronger partner for Israel in this endeavor. Of course, there is a third view that believes that all this talk about a military strike is posturing with a view to intimidate and pressure Iran to comply with the efforts of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany for a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. According to this view, Iran and Israel have never fought a direct war in both their histories, while appeasement seems to be a feature of the historical co-existence between Persians and Jews.
Those who assert that an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites will certainly take place expect it to be a purely Israeli operation, and not a joint U.S.-Israeli one. However, this involves the first wave only, bearing in mind that any Iranian retaliation against Israel will cause the United States to carry out qualitatively different military operations, which a former general said would be devastating on a large scale and would instill fear and terror in the heart of the Iranian leadership and destroy it.
The exit strategy scenario some invoke, meanwhile, is notable albeit unconvincing. The scenario revolves around letting the leadership in Tehran know that it would be better for it not to retaliate against an Israeli military strike targeting the Iranian reactors, because non-retaliation would enable the leadership to remain in power while a response would lead to its defeat.
In other words, advocates of this theory want to tell the leadership in Tehran that retaliation against an Israeli strike will invite the United States to enter as a direct party in military strikes against critical sites for the regime in Tehran, which would ultimately lead to the downfall of the regime. Otherwise, if the leadership in Tehran ‘swallows’ the Israeli strike without retaliation against Israel, then this would be one way to stay in power.
What does not seem to worry the proponents of this view is a potential response by Iran through proxy wars, for example by using Hezbollah or other groups against GCC countries. This is not a pressing concern for them, because the only priority is for Iran not to become involved in direct or proxy war against Israel, through Hezbollah.
Syria for these people is not an issue they are concerned about today, and the fact of the matter is that they don’t care whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power or steps down. They are speaking the language of ‘what is the alternative?’ and not the language of ‘the regime must be overthrown’, which was popular a few months ago. While these voices may be rather marginal in decision-making, they indeed influence the process of decision making, being senior pillars of the military and media institutions.
In truth, the Obama administration has in turn backpedaled from its enthusiasm for overthrowing the regime in Damascus by any means. Indeed, the administration has made it clear now that it will not take part in arming the opposition, will not intervene militarily as proposed by Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, and will not take a tough stand in the Security Council as it had previously done. For this reason, negotiations over the U.S. draft resolution tell us that the Obama administration is willing to appease, rather than confront, Russia, and therefore, the U.S. draft resolution will most probably be a toothless one.
It could be that the pillars of the Obama administration are giving priority to cooperation with Russia and China in the Iranian issue, which is now ever more urgent because of what the Israeli government has elucidated. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the Obama administration has resolved to maintain the Assad regime in Damascus, but rather it believes that its ouster and disintegration will inevitably come.
It is for this reason that both U.S. and British diplomacy speak the language of peaceful resolutions, humanitarian aid and negotiations, and not that of regime change by arming the opposition – but of regime change through Syrian-made solutions. However, this does not intimidate the regime in Damascus, which is undaunted by talk of isolation and sanctions, as much as it would be frightened by arming the opposition and the reiteration of the need to overthrow the regime.
It is in this context that the mission entrusted to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a joint UN-Arab League envoy can be understood, as tantamount to a mediation mission between the United States and European countries on one hand, and Russia on the other. This is not to mention its self-evident effect in buying time for the Syrian regime on one hand, and for the benefit of the efforts for reconciliation between the United States and Russia on the other.
While Russia is not budging from its basic positions, it is making room for enticements here and foreclosing prejudgments there. Currently, Russia is partner to the Americans in scaremongering against al-Qaeda and the unknown elements in the ranks of the Syrian opposition. Russia is also partner to a segment of the Israelis in trying to persuade the other hesitant segment that the present situation in Syria is better for Israel than a restive alternative with unknown orientations.
As there are divisions in Israel with regard to the Syrian regime, there are divisions in the Arab- and even the Gulf- camp, as evidenced by the developments of last week. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are at the vanguard of the efforts and strategy to arm the Syrian opposition, while other countries in the GCC – and also the Arab League and Turkey- want regime change in Damascus to take place by way of isolation, containment and sanctions, and not through arming the opposition.
Things are getting more complicated and obscure with the emergence of the Iranian question as an Israeli and American priority. U.S. officials are saying that while they are not fond of the idea of the U.S. taking part in arming the opposition, they do not mind if others do so. And while Gulf countries may not mind an Israeli military strike against Iran, they do fear U.S. military involvement as this may invite reprisals and anger against them.
It is an extremely dangerous phase then, and everybody is on the line regardless of whether any party is pretending to be safe and impervious to harm.
The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in Dar Al Hayat on Mar. 9, 2012