Israel and the United States disagree because their stakes are different
August 30, 2015 12:00 AM
By Christopher K. Mellon
Why is it that two ostensibly close allies, the United States and Israel, have starkly different views regarding the proposed agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?
This seems odd since both agree that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. If this dispute were merely a disagreement between the leaders of each country that might be one thing, but it is evident from their public comments that the gulf between the highly professional diplomatic, military and intelligence officials of both nations is just as large.
The difference in perspective is largely a function of geography. Israel faces fanatical, Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah troops on its northern border as well as Hamas militants in the Gaza strip. It is also within striking distance of Iranian missiles. Israelis are acutely aware that lifting economic sanctions would permit Iran to expand missile production and increase support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Israeli officials generally acknowledge that the inspection provisions are probably adequate so long as they remain in place (constant monitoring of all known nuclear facilities and access to any suspect location within 24 days), but they correctly point out 15 years is not very long in the life of a nation.
However, the decisive difference between the Israeli and U.S. governments’ views stems from their respective assessments of the costs and benefits of a war with Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been advocating the use of force against Iran for decades, much as he enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. For Israel this would be a major coup — another enemy defeated, as Saddam Hussein was, at America’s expense rather than Israel’s. Although Mr. Netanyahu now says the goal should be a “better deal,” he advocates the inclusion of issues, such as Iranian recognition of Israel, that are plainly unrealistic and would preclude a diplomatic agreement.
Without an agreement, Iran could go nuclear in as little as two to three months. Meanwhile, there would be no intrusive inspection rights and all the monitoring equipment at Iranian nuclear facilities might be removed. We would therefore be left on the precipice of war any time suspicious nuclear activity was detected. Inevitably such reports will arise and the drumbeat for war with it, just as we saw in Iraq. The risk of costly and unnecessary war with Iran would dramatically increase.
Notably, Iran’s population and military forces surpass those of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. As we know too well, those wars incurred tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and burdened U.S. taxpayers with trillions in debt. A ground invasion would be untenable, leaving the U.S. to rely on an air and naval campaign. Targeting would be complex because of the large number of widely dispersed nuclear facilities and missile and naval units that Iran would use to retaliate. Having rejected a diplomatic solution, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to find allied support. If the Arak reactor is completed, it could not be bombed without subjecting large numbers of innocent civilians to radiation poisoning.
The most likely outcome would be a costly, prolonged conflict since neither side could deliver a decisive blow. The U.S. would primarily employ cyber warfare and conventional military power while the Iranians and their proxies responded with terrorist attacks and missile strikes.
Meanwhile, other vital U.S. interests would be compromised. For example:
U.S. personnel in Iraq would be put in a difficult if not impossible position amidst heavily armed Iraq Shia soldiers and Iranian military advisers. Collaboration with Iraq against the Islamic State group would suffer badly. This is a matter of serious concern to the U.S. but of much less interest to Israel. Indeed, Israel is the only U.S. ally in the Middle East not participating in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS.
Oil prices are extraordinarily low, powerfully reinforcing U.S. and European economic sanctions intended to dissuade an increasingly restive Russia from further regional aggression. Iranian attacks on Persian Gulf shipping and oil facilities would cause oil prices to spike for an uncertain period, reducing the impact of sanctions. While this is not an issue for Israel, which has no NATO obligations, it is a vital issue for the United States since any conflict between NATO and Russia could precipitate a nuclear war. It is very much in America’s interest to maintain maximum pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Managing rising tensions with China is a challenge of monumental importance. China is cracking down on dissent at home, aggressively pursuing expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and generally seeking to supplant U.S. influence in Asia and the Pacific. The U.S. has lagged in meeting this vital challenge largely due to immensely expensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The need for a “strategic pivot” toward Asia enjoys broad bipartisan support. Unfortunately another costly and prolonged Middle East conflict would divert more scarce security resources from Asia and the Pacific. Again, this is not a factor in Israel’s strategic calculus, but it inevitably weighs on the minds of U.S. strategic planners.
The rift between the United States and Israeli governments is readily understandable as each nation has distinct threats and costs to consider. Ultimately, however, the best guarantee of Israel’s long-term security, as well as that of our other allies, is a prosperous America leading a world that embraces free trade, democracy and respect for human rights. Given the vast and diverse challenges America faces today and our limited resources, it is no wonder that 36 retired generals and admirals recently signed a letter supporting the agreement, concurring with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey who correctly observes that, “Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior to trying to do that militarily.”
Those who most vociferously oppose the agreement, including Mr. Netanyahu, are the same crowd who in 2002 falsely claimed Iraq was a threat and that a war with it would be quick, easy and cheap. In all probability another costly and destabilizing U.S. war in the Middle East would spread more terrorism and chaos while driving the Iranian nuclear program underground and strengthening isolationism at home. This is not in anyone’s interest. For all these reasons, extending the agreement beyond 15 years should be the next goal of U.S. policy toward Iran.
In general, America would be better served if the public and press paid closer attention to the views of our senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials rather than foreigners whose nations do not carry America’s unique burden of leading the free world.
Christopher K. Mellon served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Bush and Clinton administrations. He is a private equity investor living with his family in Pennsylvania.
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