Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

US, Israel Have Time to Deal with Iran Threat

| November 10, 2011

ISRAEL'S LEADERSHIP is publicly suggesting that a military strike against Iran's nuclear industry is necessary. But time is on Israel's side, and America's. The greatest risk now for the United States would be to let Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bluster make us impatient.

Iran does not have a nuclear bomb, and nothing in the International Atomic Energy Agency's report released Tuesday brings the world any closer to doomsday. The IAEA report is disturbing; it concluded that Iran had let up on past efforts to build nuclear weapons but, as suspected, has conducted significant work more recently. The report will help build international support for isolating Iran; that is its intent.

Yet Netanyahu's rhetoric suggests a more immediate crisis. In interviews, he has likened the current standoff with Iran over nuclear issues to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938. This crisis atmosphere helps Netanyahu shore up his own tenuous political position in Israel — in part by playing on American domestic politics. The problem with this war frenzy is that it may inhibit a strategy of containment and punishment against Iran that has been working

Israel enjoys strong support among US politicians of both parties — so much so that many in Congress take a much harder line on security threats to Israel than Israeli public opinion does.

A bipartisan coalition of US politicians and policymakers is now pushing the argument that, on Iran, we have no time. Though most in Congress have stopped short of calling for immediate military action, demands for "decisive action’" have grown more urgent. "The clock is ticking," House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said recently.

In fact, we do have time. And there are a whole host of questions that are either being ignored or dismissed in our frenzy to show support. Would an aerial strike actually work against Iran, which has spent a lot of time hiding its efforts? If Israel were to strike Iran militarily, wouldn't the world view Israeli action as implicitly condoned by the United States? And what would happen after the strike?

The Israeli public is wrestling with this last point; four-fifths of them agree an attack on Iran will lead to war with Hamas and Hezbollah. Aerial strikes will have regional consequences as missiles from Lebanon would strike Israel. Iran would unleash violence in Iraq. There is no quick fix; as many in Israel's defense community note, a shock-and-awe aerial strategy against Iran is unlikely to solve the problem.

The United States should instead be maintaining a strong voice in international institutions that can be used to isolate Iran and buy us more time. But in a mindless game to punish the Palestinian Authority for seeking recognition by the United Nations, we are no longer even in the room.

Under a 1994 law, no UN body which admits Palestine can be funded by Washington. Period. Last week, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, voted to accept Palestine as a member. That seems like no big loss; few Americans know what UNESCO does. But the Palestinians will seek recognition elsewhere, and a key agency in its sights is the International Atomic Energy Agency. If the United States refuses to pay dues there, we would no longer have a say in holding states like Iran accountable. Meanwhile, the House Foreign Relations Committee has now proposed macho-sounding legislation that would make it "illegal for any American diplomat to have any contact with an Iranian official."

But US engagement with multinationals — and even with Iran — can only help Israel's security. We are Israel's best, and sometimes only, ally.

Ironically, what might be called the BFF strategy — best friends forever — has paid off, at least up to now, in the Iranian nuclear debate.

"The US has continued to communicate and consult that we are on the same boat here. That strategy is based on the correct assumption that Israel was less likely to go off on its own if it felt that its BFF was with it and did not underestimate the (Iranian) threat," says Brandeis professor Shai Feldman, a Middle East scholar. But this view also assumed that domestic political interests in the United States would not impede the very nimbleness necessary to buy more time.

Boxing ourselves in and imposing a gag order on ourselves serves no one's interest. A military strike will be a nightmare for Israel. The United States ought to position itself in the best way possible to stop that from happening.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“US, Israel Have Time to Deal with Iran Threat.” The Boston Globe, November 10, 2011.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem