War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the United States

September 11, 2012

For the past several months, the Israelis have been threatening to attack Iranian nuclear sites as the United States has pursued a complex policy of avoiding complete opposition to such strikes while making clear it doesn’t feel such strikes are necessary. At the same time, the United States has carried out maneuvers meant to demonstrate its ability to prevent the Iranian counter to an attack — namely blocking the Strait of Hormuz. While these maneuvers were under way, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said no “redline” exists that once crossed by Iran would compel an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli government has long contended that Tehran eventually will reach the point where it will be too costly for outsiders to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

The Israeli and American positions are intimately connected, but the precise nature of the connection is less clear. Israel publicly casts itself as eager to strike Iran but restrained by the United States, though unable to guarantee it will respect American wishes if Israel sees an existential threat emanating from Iran. The United States publicly decries Iran as a threat to Israel and to other countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, but expresses reservations about military action out of fears that Iran would respond to a strike by destabilizing the region and because it does not believe the Iranian nuclear program is as advanced as the Israelis say it is.

The Israelis and the Americans publicly hold the same view of Iran. But their public views on how to proceed diverge. The Israelis have less tolerance for risk than the Americans, who have less tolerance for the global consequences of an attack. Their disagreement on the issue pivots around the status of the Iranian nuclear program. All of this lies on the surface; let us now examine the deeper structure of the issue.

Behind the Rhetoric

From the Iranian point of view, a nuclear program has been extremely valuable. Having one has brought Iran prestige in the Islamic world and has given it a level of useful global political credibility. As with North Korea, having a nuclear program has allowed Iran to sit as an equal with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, creating a psychological atmosphere in which Iran’s willingness merely to talk to the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese and Germans represented a concession. Though it has positioned the Iranians extremely well politically, the nuclear program also has triggered sanctions that have caused Iran substantial pain. But Iran has prepared for sanctions for years, building a range of corporate, banking and security mechanisms to evade their most devastating impact. Having countries like Russia and China unwilling to see Iran crushed has helped. Iran can survive sanctions.

While a nuclear program has given Iran political leverage, actually acquiring nuclear weapons would increase the risk of military action against Iran. A failed military action would benefit Iran, proving its power. By contrast, a successful attack that dramatically delayed or destroyed Iran’s nuclear capability would be a serious reversal. The Stuxnet episode, assuming it was an Israeli or U.S. attempt to undermine Iran’s program using cyberwarfare, is instructive in this regard. Although the United States hailed Stuxnet as a major success, it hardly stopped the Iranian program, if the Israelis are to be believed. In that sense, it was a failure.

Using nuclear weapons against Israel would be catastrophic to Iran. The principle of mutual assured destruction, which stabilized the U.S.-Soviet balance in the Cold War, would govern Iran’s use of nuclear weapons. If Iran struck Israel, the damage would be massive, forcing the Iranians to assume that the Israelis and their allies (specifically, the United States) would launch a massive counterattack on Iran, annihilating large parts of Iran’s population.

It is here that we get to the heart of the issue. While from a rational perspective the Iranians would be fools to launch such an attack, the Israeli position is that the Iranians are not rational actors and that their religious fanaticism makes any attempt to predict their actions pointless. Thus, the Iranians might well accept the annihilation of their country in order to destroy Israel in a sort of megasuicide bombing. The Israelis point to the Iranians’ rhetoric as evidence of their fanaticism. Yet, as we know, political rhetoric is not always politically predictive. In addition, rhetoric aside, Iran has pursued a cautious foreign policy, pursuing its ends with covert rather than overt means. It has rarely taken reckless action, engaging instead in reckless rhetoric.

If the Israelis believe the Iranians are not deterred by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, then allowing them to develop nuclear weapons would be irrational. If they do see the Iranians as rational actors, then shaping the psychological environment in which Iran acquires nuclear weapons is a critical element of mutually assured destruction. Herein lies the root of the great Israeli debate that pits the Netanyahu government, which appears to regard Iran as irrational, against significant segments of the Israeli military and intelligence communities, which regard Iran as rational.

Avoiding Attaining a Weapon

Assuming the Iranians are rational actors, their optimal strategy lies not in acquiring nuclear weapons and certainly not in using them, but instead in having a credible weapons development program that permits them to be seen as significant international actors. Developing weapons without ever producing them gives Iran international political significance, albeit at the cost of sanctions of debatable impact. At the same time, it does not force anyone to act against them, thereby permitting outsiders to avoid incurring the uncertainties and risks of such action.

Up to this point, the Iranians have not even fielded a device for testing, let alone a deliverable weapon. For all their activity, either their technical limitations or a political decision has kept them from actually crossing the obvious redlines and left Israel trying to define some developmental redline.

Iran’s approach has created a slowly unfolding crisis, reinforced by Israel’s slowly rolling response. For its part, all of Israel’s rhetoric — and periodic threats of imminent attack — has been going on for several years, but the Israelis have done little beyond some covert and cyberattacks to block the Iranian nuclear program. Just as the gap between Iranian rhetoric and action has been telling, so, too, has the gap between Israeli rhetoric and reality. Both want to appear more fearsome than either is actually willing to act.

The Iranian strategy has been to maintain ambiguity on the status of its program, while making it appear that the program is capable of sudden success — without ever achieving that success. The Israeli strategy has been to appear constantly on the verge of attack without ever attacking and to use the United States as its reason for withholding attacks, along with the studied ambiguity of the Iranian program. The United States, for its part, has been content playing the role of holding Israel back from an attack that Israel doesn’t seem to want to launch. The United States sees the crumbling of Iran’s position in Syria as a major Iranian reversal and is content to see this play out alongside sanctions.

Underlying Israel’s hesitancy about whether it will attack has been the question of whether it can pull off an attack. This is not a political question, but a military and technical one. Iran, after all, has been preparing for an attack on its nuclear facilities since their inception. Some scoff at Iranian preparations for attack. These are the same people who are most alarmed by supposed Iranian acumen in developing nuclear weapons. If a country can develop nuclear weapons, there is no reason it can’t develop hardened and dispersed sites and create enough ambiguity to deprive Israeli and U.S. intelligence of confidence in their ability to determine what is where. I am reminded of the raid on Son Tay during the Vietnam War. The United States mounted an effort to rescue U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam only to discover that its intelligence on where the POWs were located was completely wrong. Any politician deciding whether to attack Iran would have Son Tay and a hundred other intelligence failures chasing around their brains, especially since a failed attack on Iran would be far worse than no attack.

Dispersed sites reduce Israel’s ability to strike hard at a target and to acquire a battle damage assessment that would tell Israel three things: first, whether the target had been destroyed when it was buried under rock and concrete; second, whether the target contained what Israel thought it contained; and third, whether the strike had missed a backup site that replicated the one it destroyed. Assuming the Israelis figured out that another attack was needed, could their air force mount a second air campaign lasting days or weeks? They have a small air force and the distances involved are great.

Meanwhile, deploying special operations forces to so many targets so close to Tehran and so far from Iran’s borders would be risky, to say the least. Some sort of exotic attack, for example one using nuclear weapons to generate electromagnetic pulses to paralyze the region, is conceivable — but given the size of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa triangle, it is hard to imagine Israel wanting to set such a precedent. If the Israelis have managed to develop a new weapons technology unknown to anyone, all conventional analyses are off. But if the Israelis had an ultrasecret miracle weapon, postponing its use might compromise its secrecy. I suspect that if they had such a weapon, they would have used it by now.

The battlefield challenges posed by the Iranians are daunting, and a strike becomes even less appealing considering that the Iranians have not yet detonated a device and are far from a weapon. The Americans emphasize these points, but they are happy to use the Israeli threats to build pressure on the Iranians. The United States wants to undermine Iranian credibility in the region by making Iran seem vulnerable. The twin forces of Israeli rhetoric and sanctions help make Iran look embattled. The reversal in Syria enhances this sense. Naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz add to the sense that the United States is prepared to neutralize Iranian counters to an Israeli airstrike, making the threat Israel poses and the weakness of Iran appear larger.

When we step back and view the picture as a whole, we see Iran using its nuclear program for political reasons but being meticulous not to make itself appear unambiguously close to success. We see the Israelis talking as if they were threatened but acting as if they were in no rush to address the supposed threat. And we see the Americans acting as if they are restraining Israel, paradoxically appearing to be Iran’s protector even though they are using the Israeli threat to increase Iranian insecurity. For their part, the Russians initially supported Iran in a bid to bog down the United States in another Middle East crisis. But given Iran’s reversal in Syria, the Russians are clearly reconsidering their Middle East strategy and even whether they actually have a strategy in the first place. Meanwhile, the Chinese want to continue buying Iranian oil unnoticed.

It is the U.S.-Israeli byplay that is most fascinating. On the surface, Israel is driving U.S. policy. On closer examination, the reverse is true. Israel has bluffed an attack for years and never acted. Perhaps now it will act, but the risks of failure are substantial. If Israel really wants to act, this is not obvious. Speeches by politicians do not constitute clear guidelines. If the Israelis want to get the United States to participate in the attack, rhetoric won’t work. Washington wants to proceed by increasing pressure to isolate Iran. Simply getting rid of a nuclear program not clearly intended to produce a device is not U.S. policy. Containing Iran without being drawn into a war is. To this end, Israeli rhetoric is useful.

Rather than seeing Netanyahu as trying the force the United States into an attack, it is more useful to see Netanyahu’s rhetoric as valuable to U.S. strategy. Israel and the United States remain geopolitically aligned. Israel’s bellicosity is not meant to signal an imminent attack, but to support the U.S. agenda of isolating and maintaining pressure on Iran. That would indicate more speeches from Netanyahu and greater fear of war. But speeches and emotions aside, intensifying psychological pressure on Iran is more likely than war.

War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the United States is republished with permission of Stratfor.”


The impact of the Syrian revolt on Israel and the Region

September 10, 2012
Will developments in Syria have an impact on Israel? I will endeavour to answer this question by analyzing the current developments in the region which can be interpreted as a seismic shift of epic proportions.
The Shi’ite forces in the region are emboldened by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This victory widens the Sunni-Shi’te divide and the growing strength of the Shi’ites serve the regional agenda of Iran perfectly. The Shi’ite orientated and Iranian backed Hizbollah in Lebanon is also emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt. They are also strong supporters of the Al-Assad regime of Syria. President Assad and his family are of the Allawite sect, an offshoot from the Shi’ite minority Islam sect.
The Sunni’s as a majority sect within Islam is understandably on edge by the seemingly victorious forward march of the Shi’ites under the influence of Iran.
A further worrying factor is the role of Russia since Vladimir Putin started his second term as President of Russia. The foreign policy of Putin is very clear – to increase Russia’s influence in the Balkan and the Mediterranean. For that reason he despatched 6 warships and hundreds of navy personnel to Syria. At the same time Iran is supplying Hisbollah with advanced weapons and is eager to receive at least some of Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal.
The above developments put Israel on alert. It is well known that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is no friend of Israel and many times uttered the words in public that Israel should be wiped of the map of the earth. Hizbollah in Lebanon is a proxy of Iran and is also a staunch enemy of Israel. The Israeli intelligence is well aware of the grave consequences should Hizbollah receive the command from Iran to fire its missiles, some of them advanced, into Israel.
Another reason for concern is the invitation Iran extended to Pres. Muhammed Morsi, the newly elected President of Egypt. Even before his election, Morsi declared that the Egyptian constitution should be guided by Islamic Sharia Law and that the Peace Treaty with Israel should be abolished. His election also created a safe haven for Hamas, the extremist Islamic rulers of Gaza. Pres. Morsi also made it clear that the Egyptian government will not stand idly by if Israel should attack Gaza. A further concern is that the Intelligence establishment believe that Al Qaida elements infiltrated the Sinai from where a recent attack was launched on an Israeli army bus. The security situation in the Sinai turns for the worse since the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Jordan will not escape the effects of the so called Arab Spring which turned into a terrible winter. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will eventually seek alignment with their counterparts in Egypt. If the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds with a regime change in Jordan, the possibility exists that the Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan will also be abolished.
Syria is the battleground for the war between Sunni and Shi’ite and between East and West. The outcome of this war could have a detrimental effect on the security of Israel and could significantly reduce the influence of the Western world in the region. The strategy of Western powers thus far, is to stay out of the conflict. The vacuum they left was eagerly filled by the Shi’ites backed by Russia and China.
Reports on the infiltration of Al Qaida elements in Syria are a reason for great concern and could embroil the region in conflict for years to come and could draw Israel into an unwanted war. Such a war will be an existential threat for Israel, keeping in mind the large quantity of chemical weapons that may fall in the hands of Al Qaida. Unfortunately, in such a scenario Israel has to strike with brute force to end the conflict as soon as possible to minimize casualties.
This is the time to heed the Biblical call – to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Persecution of Christians on the rise

September 10, 2012

The news media reported many incidents of attacks on churches and Christians lately. While this is of great concern in a volatile region, Israel stands out as a beacon of hope where freedom of religion is protected and entrenched in law. Although incidents of religious intolerance have taken place, the government of Israel quickly acted to stop such actions and brought the perpetrators to book.

Sadly, the opposite is true in the neighbourhood and surrounding countries which are often not reported in the main stream media. More sadly is the silence of peace activists and prominent church leaders itself, a phenomenon difficult to understand. How does one explain the silence in church circles when their brothers and sisters are attacked, intimidated and often killed? What happened to the love and compassion associated with Christianity?

The Gatestone Institute (formerly the Hudson Institute, New York), document and report attacks on Christians and churches and clearly indicate an increase in such attacks. Let us look at just a few of these incidents reported in February 2012:

Egypt: Thousands of Muslims attacked a Coptic church, demanding the death of its pastor. Some 100,000 Christian Copts fled Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.

Syria: About 30 armed and masked Jihadists attacked a Catholic monastery, unprecedented in Syria’s modern history.

Iran: The Ministry of Intelligence of Iran has ordered the last two officially registered churches holding Friday Farsi-language services in Tehran, to discontinue the language. Banning church use of Farsi prevents most Iranians from hearing the Gospel.

Algeria: Armed men raided and ransacked a church formally recognized since 1958. In late 2011, heaps of trash was thrown over the compound walls while an angry mob shouted death threats.

Turkey: A new report indicated that Christians in Turkey continue to suffer attacks from private citizens, discrimination by lower-level government officials and vilification in both school textbooks and news media.

Pakistan: A Christian student who missed the grade to get into medical school by less than 0.1% would have earned 20 extra points if he had memorized the Quran, but no bonus points were allowed for having similar knowledge of the Bible.

Somalia: The group Al-Shabaab beheaded a 26 year old Muslim convert to Christianity who had worked for a Christian humanitarian organization.

Israel:  Some 50 Palestinian Muslims stoned a group of Christian tourists atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, wounding three Israeli police officers in the process.

These are only a few examples of intolerance towards Christians and statistics indicate that it is on the rise. It is in light of this information that I regard the deafening silence amongst prominent and iconic Christian leaders unacceptable and thus ironic that those same people brand Israel as an Apartheid state.

If hypocrisy is part of Christianity, how could non-Christians respect Christianity?

The Arab Spring Revisited

September 10, 2012
Since the beginning of the Arab Awakening (Arab Spring), many developments took place. What are these developments and how will it shape the Arab world and the Middle East in particular?
Tunisia had its first free election. The Ennahda party outpolled all other parties by a wide margin. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s success in the upcoming parliamentary elections are guaranteed.
The Ennahda ruled government of Tunisia announced that the political system of the state will be based on Sharia law. The Libyan Transitional Council is working towards the same form of government. We also see a similar development in Egypt. Yemen will most probably follow the same trend.
It is thus ironic that many analysts and commentators on the Arab uprisings are of the opinion that democracy has reached the shores of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and  will eventually reach the other Arab regimes soon. It might be that these analysts and commentators over-optimistically viewed the grassroots-led uprisings as a start to the democratisation process of these dictatorial regimes, and it certainly was the real intentions of the demonstrations.
However, the uprisings created a perfect situation in which fundamentalist Islamist groups could implement their Jihadist agenda. Some realised it too late as in the case of Tunisia and some will not realise it until the implementation of Sharia law has filtered through to impact every fibre of society.
“The power of Islam makes it virtually impossible for Muslims to distance themselves in any way from the politico-religious influence of Islam.  Muslims must surrender even the most mundane aspects of their lives, and to resist is very costly”. (Islam: The House Left Behind – Dr. Daniel Shayesteh).
The recent developments will have a major impact on the Geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Israel in particular has to adjust to the new realities. The development in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood as the majority party in government, will almost certainly lead to the cancellation of the Peace Treaty with Israel, which necessitates a major rethink in the Israeli Defence establishment to protect the border with the Sinai.  A Muslim Brotherhood Government in Egypt will pressure the Jordanian Government to also relinquish their peace treaty with Israel.
The Western powers and especially the United States have to monitor the development closely or risk losing their influence in the Middle East.  If the new Islamist Regimes align themselves with Iran, there will be a real possibility that the Arab Spring will turn into an Arab Winter with dire consequences for the region.

The Reality of the “Arab Spring”

September 10, 2012
The Arab uprisings, also known as the Arab Spring, are seen by some analysts as the start of the democratisation of autocratic regimes. Although many of the young demonstrators certainly had this in mind, we need to recognize the power of the extremist forces taking advantage of the volatile situation.
The role of Iran is often underestimated. Iran desperately wants to establish a footprint in the Middle East and is doing so by propping up its proxy forces financially and militarily. These proxies, Hizbullah, Hamas and a myriad of other Jihadist forces welcome the support of Iran. It is a rather strange coalition between Sunni and Shia, but their hate for Israel unite them.
The Egyptian revolution is of particular importance. Egypt is within an historical context a very important Arab country. It is also the biggest Arab country. Egypt is besides Jordan the only Arab country who signed a peace treaty with Israel. The Mubarak regime succeeded in suppressing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore kept them from building a coalition with Hamas and other Jihadist groups. This scenario changed rapidly with the fall of the Mubarak regime and translated into (i) A sharp increase in weapons smuggling through the underground tunnel system, (ii) The infiltration of Al Qaeda forces in the Sinai, (iii) The sabotaging of the Gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel, (iv) The attack on Israeli buses and soldiers near Eilat, (v) The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
It is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a major role in a future government in Egypt. In such a scenario it is almost certain that Sharia law will be instituted and that the peace treaty with Israel will be cancelled.
Will the Libyan revolution lead to a democracy? The question is answered by the interim leader of the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) on Monday 12 September 2011, “We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where Sharia (Islamic Law) is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions”.
The rulers of the 21 Arab countries is fearing an takeover by Islamic fundamentalists. These fear is the driving force behind the killing of demonstrators by Syrian government forces. Although Pres. Bashir Al-Asad is a dictator and the Syrian people deserve a better leader, Al-Assad grasped the situation surprisingly well. And this is the crux of the matter. Western governments display an astonishing lack of understanding of reality.
The irony is that many thought that the Arab Spring will cause the ousting of the dictators in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Bahrain, which will pave the way for democracy to be ushered in. If the mentioned countries follow the same trend as Egypt and Libya, there is reason for concern. Are we witnessing a situation of replacing evil by more evil?
In an hour long video to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the leader of Al Qaeda, Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri said he hoped the protests that overthrown leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya would establish what he called true Islam.