hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Is Obama Decoupling Israel?

Alphen, Netherlands. 5 March. The great historian A.J.P. Taylor once said of Winston Churchill, “If he could not do something effective, he would do something ineffective”.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly has a similar view of President Obama and the latter’s efforts to secure a permanent P5+1 treaty with Iran that would prevent Tehran arming itself with nuclear weapons.  In what was a brazen intervention into US politics, and a deliberate snub to President Obama, Netanyahu warned the US Congress Tuesday that any permanent deal with Iran “could pave Iran’s path to the bomb”.  Netanyahu’s high-risk gambit was clearly a brazen attempt to boost his political standing prior to the 17 March Israeli elections.  Equally, his Washington intervention not only shows the extent to which the world views of Netanyahu and Obama diverge, but a dangerous fragility in the US-Israeli “strategic partnership”, and at a dangerous moment. Certainly, an imperfect agreement would tip the balance of power in the Middle East at several levels, a prospect that worries the Saudis just as much as the Israelis.

In May 1976, shortly after President Carter had taken office, senior State Department official Leslie Gelb wrote that the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe would create a Eurostrategic balance and thus have the effect of decoupling the US strategic arsenal from the defence of Europe.  Consequently, the credibility of the US strategic deterrent would be reduced and with it US extended deterrence of Soviet aggression.  Europeans also worried that as the Americans closed in on a warhead-limiting SALT 2 treaty with the Soviet Union the US nuclear deterrent would be further decoupled from the defence of Europe. Such an aim was clearly part of Soviet strategy at the time and the European Allies were particularly concerned by Washington negotiating over Europe's security with Moscow, and yet over their collective heads.  Netanyahu’s Washington speech echoes those concerns.

Netanyahu’s view of Obama is also reminiscent of then West German Helmut Schmidt’s view of President Jimmy Carter. A March 1977 editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said, “Bonn is concerned that Jimmy Carter is a man ruling the White House whose moral and religious convictions are incompatible with the demands of world politics”.  Contrast that with what Netanyahu said of the proposed P5+1 treaty, “We’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal. We’re better off without it”.  

Netanyahu’s world-view is that one only deals with states such as Iran through strength and enforced denial.  Netanyahu’s fear is that as Obama approaches the end of his presidency he will become ever more focused on his legacy. And, that consequently, Obama might agree an imperfect nuclear deal with Iran over Israel’s head from which Iran could defect with relative ease and face little effective sanction. 

The Iranian negotiators seem to be betting on the same outcome.  In the Geneva talks they are negotiating particularly hard (the Iranians are hard negotiators) over on-site inspections and the extent and scope of the verification regime at the heart of the proposed treaty.  Their tactic seems to be based on the apparent hope that as time runs out on the Obama presidency the Americans would concede sufficient ground to enable Iran to continue clandestine development of an Iranian bomb. 

There are of course differences between Israel in 2015 and Europe in the late 1970s.  Back then the Soviet Union threatened the destruction of Continental North America. Iran could not possibly hope to strike America with a first generation nuclear capability.  However, given Iran’s missile arsenal  Tehran, at least in theory, could attack America’s allies, either in the region or in Europe.

Furthermore, Israel has some 450 nuclear warheads in its arsenal at Dimona as an independent guarantee against attack. Like the British and French nuclear systems the Israeli nuclear capability is designed as much to tie the Americans in as keep the Iranians out. And, although the US and Israel do not share the kind of formal commitments to nuclear deterrence and defence as those between Washington and its European allies, there is an implicit understanding that the US will afford Israel extended nuclear deterrence.  That implicit agreement is the ‘strategic’ in the US-Israeli strategic partnership to which Netanyahu referred.

However, an imperfect P5+1 permanent treaty could permit Iran to suddenly break-out of its commitment and announce to the world that it did indeed possess the capability to destroy the State of Israel.  If that happened much of Israel’s (and indeed America’s) conventional military capability in the region would be instantly stalemated.  Moreover, Tehran would have successfully crafted the strategic and political space to continue with its hybrid, proxy war against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and by extension decisively tip the balance of power in the Middle East.

Therefore, for all Netanyahu’s politicking in Washington this week he does have a strategic point.  A P5+1 treaty with Tehran, and any subsequent easing of economic sanctions, must be linked to a change in Iran’s regional strategy.  Netanyahu fears that Obama will focus instead on a narrow, rules-based approach and simply concentrate on the modalities of the proposed treaty without linking a final agreement to a shift in Iran’s wider foreign and security policy behaviour.

In 1975 Amos P. Jordan, the US Principal Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs, wrote, “The thing that is troubling our European allies in particular is not our military capability but what they perceive to be shaky coherence and national unity which may make it impossible to use those military capabilities. It is the credibility of our commitment, not the existence of our commitments or the strength of our forces that is the doubt in their minds”.  These concerns were also held in Europe.  On August 20, 1978, The Economist wrote, “Some Europeans have always doubted whether the Americans would fight a nuclear war for Europe; and even the trusters are beginning to think that what might have been true when the United States had a commanding lead [in nuclear capability] is not necessarily true now”. 

Some say Netanyahu over-played his political hand in Washington this week. Given Israel's precarious strategic situation it is hard if not impossible for an Israeli leader ever to over-play a political hand given the possible alternative. Iran clearly has its own strategic interests as do all states and they must be respected. Equally, such interests remain driven by Tehran's determination to destroy Israel to confirm Iran's regional-strategic dominance. Therefore, whilst the Obama Administration has tended to emphasise an America that speaks softly, and not without effect, Washington must never forget its big stick.  Indeed, when it comes to matters nuclear it is always better to do something effective than something dangerously ineffective.

Of course, Tel Aviv's ultimate deterrent is that for all the current friction with Washington Israel enjoys something the British, for example, do not enjoy - a real Special Relationship with America. Any decoupling would only ever happen by mistaken strategic calculation and it is that which clearly worries Netanyahu.   

Julian Lindley-French

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