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Israel planning a strike on Iran?

The New York Times has an article up discussing this week’s reports that Israel is planning an attack on Iran.

Israeli officials would not confirm or deny multiple reports in the Israeli news media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were pressing for a decision on whether and when to strike a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the centerpiece of Iran’s known nuclear-fuel production, and related sites across the country.

Israel has debated the viability and effects of attacks many times in the past seven years, often to Washington’s consternation. Obama administration officials, in private conversations with the Israelis, have argued that the combination of economic sanctions and covert sabotage of the Iranian effort has been more effective than an attack could be, without the risk of provoking counterattacks or a war.

It seems like Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran surface every 15 months or so, so it is hard to say that this story will actually amount to anything.  But Israel’s behavior over the past two weeks does strike me as odd.  Following the Shalid swap, Israel has refused to turn over taxes collected from Palestinians, is aggressive in enforcing its naval blockade of aid to Palestine, is increasing settlements, and now word leaks that planning against Iran has hastened.  Perhaps its coincidence, but the confluence of so many tough actions makes it seem like something is brewing behind the scenes in Israel.

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Tunisia, Israel, and Syria – varying degrees of progress

Our resident Tunisia expert, Rob Prince, posted on his blog a few days ago about the Tunisian elections.  If you haven’t already read it, you need to stop and do so!

Meanwhile, Israel continues to ignore international consensus on the matter of settlements, and is going to put more in East Jerusalem.  Given past statements from Obama condemning further settlements, these actions by Israel can also be viewed as a failure of the US president to control an ally.  So much for good momentum toward peace following the Shalid swap.

Also, apparently the Arab League and Syria reached an agreement on how to wind down the violence in Syria.  Personally, I’m cynical that this matters.  The experience of Ali Abdullah Saleh in working with the GCC makes me skeptical that anything positive will come from working with the even more entrenched Assad.  From the New York Times article:

The Arab League called on Mr. Assad to withdraw security forces from the streets, release prisoners who had been detained since February and allow Arab monitors to enter the country. The initiative also calls for Syria to negotiate with the opposition, though terms of the talks remain unclear. Syria has resisted negotiating outside Damascus, its capital, fearing that a foreign locale will give the opposition more credibility.

And questions persist over precisely what opposition it would recognize — figures it has cultivated within the country who have stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s fall, or an exiled opposition that has claimed to speak on behalf of the uprising.

“Bashar al-Assad’s comments suggest that he is against the Arab proposal,” said Samir Nachar, a prominent figure with the exiled opposition. “Until now all the indications are negative. I think this is an attempt to buy time on behalf of the regime.”

According to the New York Times, the Israel-Palestine prisoner swap has completed its first stage, in which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel in exchange for 427 Palestinian prisoners.

The soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, 25, was taken from Gaza, where he had been held since Palestinian militants abducted him in a cross-border raid in 2006, into Egypt and from there to Israel, where he was given a medical check and declared in good health. Looking pale and thin, he changed into a military uniform and was flown by helicopter to an Israeli military air base where he was reunited with his family and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Today we are all united in joy and in pain,” Mr. Netanyahu said shortly after in a televised address from the base, Tel Nof, south of Tel Aviv.

The article also describes the scene in Gaza, where festive crowds greeted the returned prisoners.  550 more will be returned during the next few months in accordance with the deal.

As for the significance of this exchange, there now are several major questions to answer:

  • Will this exchange help establish the trust necessary for the peace process to make major strides forward?
  • How much are Hamas and Netanyahu strengthened in the realm of domestic politics?
  • Will capturing Israeli soldiers now be a recurring tactic for Israel’s adversaries?
I might be overly optimistic, especially given Netanyahu’s record, but this deal feels to me like it will increase momentum toward peace.

Two woah! stories

Al Jazeera reports that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced that after five years of being held captive, Israel has finally struck a deal with Hamas for a prisoner swap that will free IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.  Shalit has become a sort of symbol in Israel, and while his release is of little tactical or strategic value, it is a huge political win for Netanyahu, in my opinion on the level of Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  There is room to question if a swap of a captured IDF soldier for many Palestinian prisoners will only encourage future kidnappings, but for now that does not seem to be a concern.

Then there is this article from the New York Times, which reports that US Federal Authorities broke up a plot of two Iranians, with connections to Iran’s Quds Force, to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US and bomb the Saudi Embassy (I’ve been there!).  The men were supposedly attempting to hire Mexican drug cartels to carry out the operation.  The National Security Council has been on top of this plot since June.

Abdullah Alshamri, a Saudi official in Riyadh, predicted the disclosure would send Iranian-Saudi relations to “their lowest point yet.” Though no government steps had been taken, he suggested that a diplomatic row was inevitable.

“We’re expecting from our government a serious and tough reaction to give a message to the Iranians that enough is enough,” he said by telephone. “If we keep our diplomatic ties with the Iranians, they will think we are weak and they will keep trying to attack us.”

He said this was only the latest Iranian attempt to attack Saudi diplomats.

“This is their hobby,” he said. “Iran has no respect for international law.”

Edit: Professor Rob Prince, a friend of MEDG, blogged about Israel’s rough September.

Egypt, Turkey, and Israel

The New York Times has an article up regarding Filed Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi of Egypt, the top military officer who would be the most likely presidential candidate to come out of the military.  Yet he has given statements saying that the military has no intention of running a candidate.  Speculation that Tantawi could run began when he appeared in public in civilian dress rather than his usual military garb.  Tantawi not running is good news for those who are concerned that civil society will struggle to take power back from the military.  I’d add that this article does not dispell the possibility of Tantawi leaving the military and then running for president.  Anyone else’s thoughts on this story?

Elsewhere, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ripped Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and the lack of international concern for Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.  Erdogan discussed a double standard, saying

“Here I am talking about 89 resolutions of the UN Security Council and 247 resolutions of the General Assembly, none of which are implemented.”

“On the other hand you have resolutions for example about Iran, the Sudan and Palestine which are implemented.”

Erdogan also reiterated his country’s stance on endorsing international pressure on the Assad regime in Syria.  The article mentions that the Tureky-Israel spat will challenge Secretary of State Clinton when she heads to Istanbul next month.  If she asked for it, what would be your advice for handling worsening relations between two allies?

Finally, this article from Al Arabiya is kind of funny.  I’m not sure if this prize is a big deal or if it is some obscure thing that Al Arabiya picked up on.

Tidbits

It was a busy day around the region.

  • Israeli settlers vandalized and burned a mosque, an action that Netanyahu has condemned
  • US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed the US commitment to maintaining a militarily superior Israel, although he questioned Israel’s diplomatic isolation
  • Israel has signaled that it is willing to return to negotiations sponsored by the US, UN, EU, and Russia, although Palestinians are skeptical that any progress can be made
  • In Egypt, the country’s military leadership has agreed to amendments to the election laws, changes called for and endorsed by the country’s anti-Mubarak political elements
  •  Libyan transnational government forces (we’re calling them that instead of rebels now I guess) are pressing in on pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte, one of a few strongholds of Gaddafi remaining
  • In ongoing upheavals, Bahrain has sentenced participants in protests to lengthy jail terms, Syria has been rounding up thousands of citizens to quell protests, and Yemeni youth don’t just want Saleh out as president, but want criminal charges pressed against him as well
  • There was a terrifying attack in Iraq, in which Sunni insurgents took hostages at a police station.  Several hostages and a police chief were killed before Iraqi forces recaptured the building, killing the militants.  This bit of ties to the piece from Dean Hill from yesterday, as he brought up the matter of Sunni insurgents, whose funding, objectives, and strategy are harder to pin down than their Sunni counterparts
So, there is a lot happening, although I don’t know if any of it can be considered as a major development.  I guess that for me the most interesting thing is Panetta’s statements, and the context of the attack in Iraq.

Iran postures

This short article from the New York Times is pretty thick with things that deserve more details.  So I’m going to take it piece by piece.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, said the new missile, first unveiled a month ago and known as the Qader, which means Able in Farsi, had been mass-produced “as quickly as possible,” the country’s state-run media reported. The missile, designed to destroy warships and coastal targets, has a range of about 125 miles, the media said.

There is a picture of the new missile behind Ahmadinejad at the top of the article.  The obvious intention here is to have a weapon that threatens the US naval presence in the Gulf.  Iran’s long term goal is likely to push the US military out of the Gulf, which it views as a destabilizing force (and which we Americans view as a stabilizing force).  I’m not a military person, so I can’t get into technicalities of how effective this weapon might be, or how likely it is that the missile could successfully take down portions of the Sixth Fleet, but Iran surely hopes that our Navy is intimidated.

The announcement coincided with front-page headlines in a number of Iranian newspapers quoting the head of Iran’s navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, as saying he intended to deploy Iranian warships close to the Atlantic coast of the United States to reciprocate for the patrols in the Persian Gulf by the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The patrols are a constant source of irritation to Iran.

The article also points out that the US thinking is that the suggestion is ridiculous.  The Iranian Navy lacks the capability of deploying boats that far from Iran.  Besides, what is the point? Hypothetically, if such warships were understood to have any violent intent, they would have to cross the Atlantic,  where our military destroy them.  Instead, the idea works as a rhetorical device.  For many Americans, Iran approximates evil, and their deployment of warships to our coast would be anathema.  Yet they view us as an enemy too, and our warships have been patrolling their coast for years.

In another slap at the United States, General Vahidi also rejected any thought of creating a telephone hotline between Tehran and Washington. The idea that was floated a few weeks ago by Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a way of avoiding an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, where American and Iranian naval vessels and aircraft sometimes operate within sight of each other.

“We do not need such a line in the region,” General Vahidi said, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. “They are seeking to set up a hotline in order to solve any potential tensions, whereas we believe if they leave the region, there will be no tension.”

The US does not have any diplomatic relationship with Iran.  Perhaps Mullin’s desire to have a military channel of communication reflects the poor logic of that diplomatic stance, which we discussed here a few days ago.  Score one debate Zing! for Vahidi here.

His remarks may also have been an indirect slap at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who endorsed the idea of a hot line when asked about it last week at a news conference at the end of his visit to the United Nations. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s standing within Iran’s hierarchy is in question because of his clashes with Parliament and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There has been a lot made over the past six months of a fall out between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.  Part of me wonders if it is exaggerated, wishful thinking on the part of those in the media who detest Ahmadinejad and would like to see him removed.  In this case, I’m reminded of when McChrystal was critical of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in a Rolling Stone interview.  But then this case seems less severe than its American counterpart that I’ve brought up.

Iran’s latest military pronouncements come against a backdrop of continued foreign skepticism about its claims of peaceful nuclear energy development. Even Turkey, which has cordial relations with Iran, recently agreed to be one of the host countries for part of a new missile-interceptor system designed by the United States, which has expressed concern that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon that can be delivered via a long-range missile.

This paragraph implies that Turkey feels threatened by long-range nuclear missiles flying out of Iran, which I believe is not the case.  My understanding is that the US had to strong arm Turkey into putting up that missle-interceptor system.  So it is the US that is concerned and is working to surround Iran, much like we hoped to contain communism, which reminds me of a fantastic Foreign Policy article from last year.  Continuing…

Last week, American officials confirmed that the Obama administration had quietly provided Israel with bombs capable of destroying buried targets, including sites in Iran that could possibly house such a nuclear weapons program. Israel considers Iran its most dangerous enemy, and had been pressuring the United States for a supply of the so-called “bunker-busting” bombs .

I missed this news when it happened.  Bunker-busting bombs implies a preemptive strike on Iran from Israel, or at least that is the implication Iran will take away.  That would be incredibly destabilizing for the region.  I don’t like that the US made this sale.  Maybe it was to comfort Israel in the face of the Palestinian UN bid, I don’t know, but the move removes some ability of the US to control how events might transpire in the future.  If Israel were to use these bunker-busting bombs in a first strike, would Iran’s response not be to deploy as many of those Qader missiles as possible on our fleet in the Persian Gulf?  I know that the popular view is to see Iran as the irrational, militaristic, rogue, evil state, but in my view it seems like the US is doing its share of saber-rattling as well.

Honestly, I am incredibly liberal in my views on Iran.  I would prefer that the US aggressively seek rapprochement.  But what do you all think?  If Iran is damned determined to get nuclear weapons, how do we stop them?