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Countering The Iranian Threat

Emerging Military Alliances Between Israeli and Western Forces

By C. Hart

Iranian missile testing at night in the Persian Gulf; Israeli jet fighters practicing long-range military exercises over Mediterranean waters; stepped-up American naval maneuvers in the Straits of Hormuz and missile defense testing of U.S. communications equipment in the Middle East – all telltale signs of preparations for war in the region...

Until recently, no nation but Israel has wanted to talk about a military option against Iran, as the Islamic Republic races to finish its controversial nuclear program. While events in early July have changed international perceptions, it has taken a long time for Western nations to re-align their thinking on the Iranian threat.

A History Worth Noting

In the past, Israel’s desire to see the international community adopt a more urgent tone about the Iranian nuclear crisis was met with mixed responses. On one hand, U.S. and European leaders had willingly met with Israeli officials to discuss unprecedented upgrades in strategic cooperation on all levels. Yet on the other, while much was going on behind the scenes, the public heard continued assurances from international leaders that the diplomatic track of stiffer UN sanctions against Iran was the only initiative on the table.

A major difference between the U.S. and Israel had much to do with American officials thinking the window of opportunity to stop Iran was wider and longer than what Israel anticipated. Israel’s intelligence data gathered on Iran was measured against U.S. intelligence reports of when the Persian state might be capable of “going nuclear.” The conclusion was that the Americans were not as convinced as the Israelis that it was necessary to prepare for war while continuing with diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence officials faced another quandary. Did a military transaction take place between Russia and Iran that could hinder Israel’s ability to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran, if necessary? Israeli media reported that Russia allegedly sold Iran an advanced air defense missile system that could track dozens of targets, simultaneously, which might endanger potential measures by Israel’s Air Force (IAF). Threatening Israel’s qualitative edge, the deployment of this system into Iran could have major repercussions for the Jewish state. Therefore, for Israel, the window of opportunity became much shorter, with the IAF looking at a possible strike into Iran before Russian delivery of the system.

Persisting in his urgency to persuade the U.S. of the magnitude of the Iranian threat, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly talked to visiting U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in May 2008 about the need for a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. Olmert wanted American warships to limit the movement of Iranian merchant vessels in the Gulf. However, Israel’s objective to compel the U.S. to intimidate Iran militarily was overshadowed by more pressing issues for the Americans -- the presidential race, an economic slump, and critical weather conditions causing tornadoes, floods, and fires across the States.

Pressing For A Change of Direction

Then, in June, Israel carried out massive military exercises in the Mediterranean, gaining global media attention, and partially accomplishing what the government in Jerusalem had hoped for -- international recognition of Israel’s need to prepare for a confrontation with Iran. These exercises, which spanned 1500 miles between Israel and Greece (duplicating the distance between Israel and Iran), followed less known Israeli military exercises in North America, Italy, and Spain.

Subsequently, the government announced that the distribution of gas masks to the Israeli public could occur as early as January 2009 (instead of the original projection of spring 2009). A race against the clock to get the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system in place earlier than the anticipated 2010 deadline was also implemented, with contractors asked to work on the Sabbath pending rabbinical approval. (The Iron Dome system is expected to deter short-range missiles fired by Iranian proxies -- Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon.)

In addition, Israeli military officials implored the Pentagon to release the sale of F-22 and F-35 military jets to Israel, some of the most advanced fighters in the world.

But, despite Israel’s preparations and urgent warnings, U.S. leaders were still not prepared to go beyond talking, publicly, about diplomatic sanctions against Iran. And, while admitting that the military option was somewhere on the table, it generally remained on the back burner of American thinking.

Leaks to the media in June then revealed that U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen had been in Israel twice to talk with defense officials about Iran. His visit followed an unprecedented number of high level U.S. military officers visiting the Jewish state, including two four-star American generals.

Standing By Israel

The hesitancy on the part of U.S. officials to admit a possible partnership with Israel towards a military conflagration in the Middle East has had much to do with fears of repercussion. Iran has threatened that, if attacked, it would cut off global oil interests in the Persian Gulf, which could result in soaring oil prices in the future. A global escalation in oil prices is already occurring, and Americans can feel it in their pockets every time they fill up their cars at the local gas station. The U.S. is concerned about how another war in the Middle East might impact an already uncertain economy in recession.

Until now, Middle East analysts in the States, commenting on the Iranian threat, have demonstrated their own tentativeness to speak about what might happen if Israel acted alone against the Persian state. Would America stand by Israel? Few commentators have wanted to talk about that possibility. Instead, “think tank” experts have wavered back and forth about the pros and cons of what would happen if the U.S., itself, got involved in an attack on Iran, as if Israel would sit on the sidelines and not be involved in such a scenario.

At a forum hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 30, 2008, ThreatsWatch asked U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, 18th District of Florida), “Will the U.S. Congress stand by Israel in support of helping Israel militarily if there needs to be a confrontation against Iran in the future?” Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen answered, “If that were to happen, I would be standing by Israel’s side. So many members would. But, I do not perceive that happening.”

This reinforced Israeli feelings that U.S. interests were dictating a push, publicly, toward further diplomatic sanctions against Iran without a serious commitment toward launching a military offensive.

America's Hesitancy To Open A "Third Front"

As the debate raged on and U.S. citizens considered military actions vs. continued diplomacy, media outlets revealed that American naval officers in the Middle East had been engaging in new military drills. Reports indicated that the U.S. navy carried out communications testing of its Aegis missile defense system in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf during a visit to Israel by its chief officers in late June.

But, despite U.S. naval testing, Admiral Mullen warned that an attack on Iran would open a "third front" in the Middle East, which he considered a bad idea. His hesitancy regarding further U.S. military engagement in the region was, most likely, due to America's extensive commitment in Iraq as well as ongoing operations in Afghanistan. US forces are already heavily committed with losses incurred since 2001. Furthermore, his comments confirmed that there is a limit to the American population's willingness to get involved in another war overseas.

Pentagon officials for some time now have tried to discourage Israeli leaders from escalating tensions with Iran, or from publicly speaking about the hope of a Western alliance in any future military venture. America’s leaders have acknowledged that for years resources have already been spread too thin in field operations. They have understood that their armed forces overseas, as well as their naval fleets, would be likely targets for direct Iranian retaliation or for terrorist strikes from an Iranian proxy should a war begin.

Until recently, it seemed that the U.S. Bush Administration was divided from within, with reports claiming that the Pentagon was holding back on the idea of an operation against Iran, while Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to be embracing it. Additionally, a wave of short-lived optimism floated in the global media that maybe Iran might retreat from its nuclear ambitions in lieu of the latest round of sanctions imposed on it by the UN. But, so far, that optimism hasn’t led to a confession by the Iranian government that it will obey the demands of the international community and stop enriching uranium.

Before July 2008, Israelis began to wonder if America would publicly align itself with Israel in a serious commitment towards confronting Iran to insure global stability. Moreover, what concerned many Israeli citizens in this deliberation was whether the U.S. would give Israel the proper IFF military codes to be able to fly over Iraq and Turkey, if the Jewish state had to act alone in a war with Iran.

Building Towards A Western Coalition

Finally, change on the Iranian issue began to surface, publicly, during the first days of July, when Iran’s leaders threatened that, if attacked, Tehran would respond by seizing control of the Straits of Hormuz. These statements compelled American naval officials to declare their objections. They responded by stating that Iran would not be able to choke off the Straits of Hormuz and hold 40% of the world’s oil hostage. Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff said that the U.S. would not allow Iran to close the Straits.

On July 9 and 10, Iran tested long-range missiles at night near the Straits. This new act of belligerence may have altered the American public discourse regarding the Iranian issue.... at least for a period of time. Currently, calls for increased diplomatic sanctions against Iran have faded away, replaced by an escalation in saber-rattling and public pronouncements that there is a need for Western powers to prepare to fight against this new Iranian antagonism.

For years, Israeli leaders have been united in declaring that Iran would not be allowed to “go nuclear”. Now, there are new factors taking place, much to Israel’s satisfaction. As U.S. officials declare they will not allow Iran to close off the Straits of Hormuz, a Western military coalition to deal with Iran seems to be gaining momentum.

This development can be seen to be reinforced when, after Iran’s recent testing of ballistic missiles, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately declared America’s commitment to stand by Israel in the face of Iranian aggression. Rice and Czech Republic Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg signed an agreement allowing America to deploy a controversial U.S. missile defense shield on Czech soil. In a coordinated effort, Rice and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pronounced that the anti-missile defense system needed to be placed in Europe, and insisted that Russia re-consider its objections. The system would protect Europe, as well as U.S. forces in the region from Iranian hostilities. But, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has threatened that it will respond militarily if the U.S.-Czech agreement is ratified.

Puzzled by Russia’s reaction Paulo Casaca, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal told ThreatsWatch, “Europe did not take a position on the shield. Therefore, we really do not know what Europe is about to do. I think this shield will be important for Europe, but it will not deter Iran.”

A key component in this all-out effort of Israel to encourage a Western led military coalition against Iran, will be whether Europe accepts the defense shield. It also depends on Europe’s willingness to face the Iranian threat with more than diplomatic sanctions. Casaca acknowledged, “All the military demonstrations by Iran coupled with its persistent daily threats against Israel, make a strong case for answering to Iran. I think that the European position is more or less, ‘don’t put us in the picture, but we could understand that some pre-emptive strike against nuclear facilities in Iran will take place.’ This is what more or less is being heard from European leaders.”

The "New Union"

An opportunity to discuss Iran’s latest tactics is expected during a conference of 44 countries in Paris on July 13. French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, who is also the rotating President of the EU, is trying to form a new union of European and Mediterranean countries, hoping for greater strategic relationships. The EU and Israel have upgraded their economic, trade and education ties. And, Israel has curried favor with European nations such as France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., resulting in a stronger partnership of mutual interests.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy’s conference is controversial because European leaders think he is side-stepping the EU to set up an additional union, one which they feel is not necessary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed strong opposition. She doesn’t want to see Europe separated into another bloc, which includes some European and Mediterranean nations and excludes others. EU members have also protested Sarkozy’s plans because they say it drains funds for crucial EU projects.

Meanwhile, Arab countries don’t want Israel to use the new union to try and establish closer diplomatic ties without dealing first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Olmert hopes to meet Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Paris, signaling that peace negotiations are moving forward on the Golan Heights. This could further infuriate Arab leaders who already think peace negotiations between Israel and Syria are overshadowing a firm “land for peace” deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Despite objections to Sarkozy’s plan for a new union, it could be the basis for an emerging alliance of European and Arab states who, along with Israel and the U.S., determine what to do strategically about Iran before time runs out. Leaders will be sitting together at the French negotiating table in the Grand Palais with other rooms available for private talks. Whether hidden from public view or not, the topic of Iranian aggression in the Middle East region is certain to dominate some discussions, with a welcome debate on whether to move forward with military options now or press on for another round of diplomatic sanctions.

C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.