Israel Ups Iran Ante, But Is It Bluff?

Heightened Tension May Be Effort To Leverage U.S. Election

Escalating Tension: Benjamin Netanyahu may think he has leverage over the White House in the months leading up to the U.S. election.
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Escalating Tension: Benjamin Netanyahu may think he has leverage over the White House in the months leading up to the U.S. election.

By Trita Parsi

Published August 16, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
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On August 12, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, called for an international declaration that diplomacy with Iran had definitively failed. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government itself declared the talks all but dead even before they began, but Ayalon’s explosive comments added fuel to the bizarrely public debate in Israel about whether to bomb Iran.

This debate has lingered for several years now, though currently it appears to be at a crescendo. But precisely because it’s yesterday’s news, both the markets and the international community seem to be treating it as yet another Israeli cry wolf moment.

Indeed, the timing of the latest round of public speculation and leaking by Israeli Cabinet ministers seems to have more to do with America’s election cycle than with any particular developments with the Iranian nuclear program.

It is no secret that Netanyahu prefers a Romney victory in November. His tensions with President Obama are well documented and cover a broad spectrum of issues — from the Iranian dossier, to the Palestinian conflict, to the Arab Spring.

Netanyahu appears to have Obama in a box in which escalation or mere threats of escalation by Israel can have no negative repercussions. If the threats result in — as they have in the past — even more sanctions and pressure on Iran, then that would be a win for Netanyahu. Sanctions cripple Iran’s economy and slowly weaken Tehran’s ability to be a potent challenger of Israel in the region. Sanctions also render a return to talks more unlikely, which means an increase in the probability of war.

If Obama, on the other hand, resists the pressure from Netanyahu and ends up in a public dispute with the Israeli government, then that would shine a light on the differences between Obama and Netanyahu. This, in turn, would benefit the Romney campaign, as it would open up Obama to further criticism of being insensitive to Israeli concerns. Romney would come across as being on the same page as Israel, whereas Obama would be out of sync with the Jewish state. Strategists in both camps believe that this would hurt Obama in key battleground states in the elections.

Consequently, there are few drawbacks to the Netanyahu government consistently increasing the pressure on Obama as we get closer to the elections. Obama’s options are limited, and all appear to end up benefiting Netanyahu.

But what if Netanyahu isn’t bluffing this time around? What if he views the likelihood of a second Obama term as high and as a result the window before the elections as his last best chance to strike Iran? Keen analysts of relations between the United States and Israel, such as former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, caution against believing that Netanyahu is crying wolf this time around.

What will Iran’s response be if Israel does attack? The government in Tehran takes pride in being unpredictable in such situations, but a few scenarios can be envisioned.

If the attack is unsuccessful or only moderately successful — that is, the nuclear program is damaged but not destroyed, and civilian casualties are limited — then, contrary to its stern warnings of a crushing response, Tehran may play the victim card.


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