As a resident of Israel, I followed President Bush’s speech last week, in which he announced a change of direction in Iraq, less with an eye to the shifts in American policy and more with an eye to what those shifts reflect about the President himself. Only the most extreme optimist could state with confidence at this point that another 20,000 American troops in Iraq will succeed in establishing some degree of stability in the country and preventing its return to the Hobbesian state of nature – a war of everyone against everyone else.
The results of the new American initiatives will depend greatly on the Iraqis themselves. Can the Sunni insurgents be neutralized? Will the Shiite-led government have the courage to confront and destroy the Iranian-sponsored Shiite death squads associated with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Brigades?
Most press attention centered on the President’s announcement of an increase in troop strength – a step that had long been anticipated. But that increase in troop strength was far from the only new step announced by the President, and perhaps not the most significant.
President Bush announced, "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." That statement, opined the New York Sun, effectively declared that the United States is at war with Iran.
While the United States has long accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, even American officials were said to be shocked by the scope of Iranian involvement revealed by the capture last month of five Iranians, including Brig.Gen. Mohsen Chirazi, the No. 3 ranking official in Iran’s elite al-Quds Brigade. Documents seized at the time showed that Iran is in contact with both Shiite and Sunni militias, the latter including those who have in the past attacked some of the most holy Shiite mosques. They also confirmed that Iran is shipping weapons to these groups, including deadly, shaped charges designed to pierce armored vehicles.
The President’s threat of armed confrontation between American forces and Syrian and Iranian forces flew directly in the face of the recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. The ISG had recommended the United States enter into dialogue with both Iran and Syria in an attempt to convince them to play a more constructive role in Iraq.
The significance of President Bush so blatantly rejecting the ISG’s recommendations lies not just in the fact that the President is right and the ISG wrong (though it is important to first understand why he is). Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s largest daily paper, writing in the November Commentary, rejects the notion that it would be possible to live with a nuclear Iran: "As the embodiment of the Islamic Revolution, [Iran] is genetically programmed to clash not only with those of its neighbors who do not wish to emulate its political system but also with other powers that all too reasonably regard Khomeinism as a threat to regional stability and world peace."
And as former CIA director James Woolsey testified last week, the chances of the current Iranian regime giving up its nuclear ambitions are virtually nil. The only way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is either regime change in Teheran or a direct military attack. American engagement with Iran would deal a death blow to any immediate hopes of regime change by totally demoralizing all democrats and reformers.
It would, in effect, throw a lifeline to the mullahs at a time when the regime is beset by a wide variety of internal tensions. Forty percent of Iranians today live under the poverty level, as opposed to 27% when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979. In 1977, Iran’s per capital GNP was equal to Spain’s; today it is one-quarter of Spain’s According to Taheri signs of fraying power are all about: the regime’s coercive forces, including the Revolutionary Guards, have refused to crush strikes and student demonstrations; no major intellectuals or cultural icons still support the regime; each election has been more and more rigged, depriving the regime of legitimacy.
But, Taheri warns, the nucleus of a political alternative to the regime cannot be created "so long as the fear exists that the U.S. and its allies might reach an accommodation with the regime and leave Iranian dissidents in the lurch."
BUT FROM AN ISRAELI POINT OF VIEW, the most significant thing about President Bush’s rejection of the advice tendered by the ISG was what it revealed about the man’s character. Faced with plummeting poll numbers, widely criticized, even in his own party, for his stubborn adherence to his vision of a new Middle East, and advised by one and all to heed the advice of the foreign policy solons appointed by Congress to show the way out of the morass in Iraq, the President held his ground.
And just why is that so significant for Israel? Because it means that President Bush might still take military action to stall the Iranian nuclear program before leaving office, despite the fact that doing so would be widely condemned both in America and by her "allies," and might well result in articles of impeachment being brought against the President.
When he sees something clearly, and feels that the responsibility has been thrust upon him, the President is not dissuaded by political expediency or questions of his good name. President Bush has said many times that the United States cannot afford to have an Iran committed to leading an Islamic jihad around the world in possession of nuclear weapons and sitting atop the waterway through which 40% of the world’s oil supplies flow. And that is particularly true when, as Woolsey pointed out in his congressional testimony, the Iranian leadership has spoken repeatedly of its willingness to "martyr" the entire Iranian nation, and has even expressed the desirability of doing so as a way to accelerate an inevitable, apocalyptic collision between Islam and the West. . . . "
If the United States does not act to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the feeling in Jerusalem is that Israel will do so for the reason expressed by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh in November (and previously quoted in these pages): "I’m afraid that living [under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction] most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can will live abroad. . . . I’m afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button."
But it makes a very great difference whether the United States or Israel strikes at Iran. Even if an American attack resulted in oil prices skyrocketing $40 per barrel and the world economy tanking, the U.S. cannot be turned into a pariah nation; it is simply too powerful and too central to the world economy. That is hardly the case with respect to Israel, which has already been declared a pariah by a wide swath of European elites.
Should Israel strike at Iran, it would face a barrage of missiles from Iran’s large arsenal of missiles easily capable of reaching Israel. In addition, it is almost certain that Hizbullah, an Iranian puppet, would renew last summer’s missile attacks, and likely that the Syrians would also join in. Israel would, then, face a potential ground war on at least two fronts while much of its air force was engaged against Iran.
Admittedly, even in the event of an American attack on Iran, Iranian missiles would almost surely be launched at Israel, though direct American involvement might deter Syria from joining in for fear of retaliation. Israeli defense experts are divided about whether Israel’s anti-missile defenses and civil defense networks are capable of keeping the casualties from an Iranian attack in the hundreds, rather than thousands or tens of thousands.
The final reason that an American attack is vastly preferable is that America has military capacities far beyond those in Israel’s possession, and could greatly limit Iran’s ability to respond to attack, without having to commit virtually any ground troops. Arthur Herman argues in the November Commentary that it is a great mistake to focus exclusively on the ability of air power to take out Iranian nuclear installations.
While most defense analysts point to the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz in response to an attack, Herman notes that the ability to close the straits is a double-edged sword that actually works against the Iranians because of their dependence on imported petroleum products. Before attacking Iranian nuclear sites, he suggests, an American naval force could first cut off Iranian tankers, while guaranteeing the safety of non-Iranian tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. The U.S. air force would then destroy Iran’s air defense systems, missile sites along the Gulf coast, and its gasoline refineries. Within weeks, if not days, Iran would run dry of gasoline, and its military would be rendered useless. Amphibious American forces could also seize Iranian oil assets in the Gulf, including 100 off-shore wells and platforms. Only after, or in conjunction with these steps would a direct attack be launched on Iran’s nuclear installations.
Herman points out that America successively carried out a smaller-scale version of these actions in 1987, and thereby helped to bring the Iraq-Iran war to a close. Israel has nowhere near the naval power to carry out any of the preliminary steps outlined by Herman, and would have to rely exclusively on air power to destroy Iranian nuclear installations, but without the ability to drastically limit Iran’s ability to respond.
If President Bush does not act against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure before leaving office, it is almost impossible to imagine any possible successor, whether Democrat or Republican, who might do so subsequently. Therefore it was good news for all those who care not only about Israel’s survival but that of the free world that the President showed last week that he is still capable of doing what is necessary despite the political cost.
Upon his determination a great deal depends.