Striking Iran Possible Despite Delay of War Games
By: Max Blumenthal
Published Saturday, January 21, 2012
In a speech before the US Congress last May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted, "you don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves." Six months later, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro announced a record deployment of US troops to Israel to help the country defend itself against a potential missile strike. Called "Austere Challenge 12," the joint drill would have involved thousands of Israeli and American troops in a planned missile defense exercise.
On January 15, days after an assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist that was widely believed to have been the handiwork of the Israeli Mossad, and which Israeli generals offered winking approval for, the joint drills were postponed for several months. The postponement raised important questions that have yet to be answered in a convincing fashion by either side: Who initiated the postponement and why? And does the delay alter possible Israeli plans to attack Iran?
On the day the delay was announced, Laura Rozen, a national security reporter for Yahoo News, published a report citing "American and Israeli officials" claiming that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called off the exercises.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) spokesman Captain John Ross offered Rozen a boilerplate statement, declaring that "in general, leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year." Rozen then cited the Jewish Telegraph Agency blogger-reporter Ron Kampeas' claim that "Israeli budget cuts" prompted the postponement.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story a day before that raised strong doubts about the notion that Israel initiated the delay of the joint maneuvers. The Journal reported:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons to take effect.
Stepping up the pressure, Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week.
The Wall Street Journal story clearly rattled the Obama administration, which initiated the Austere Challenge drills to promote its pro-Israel bonafides. As Assistant Secretary of State Shapiro said when he announced the drills back in November: "I believe that no American administration has done as much as ours for Israel’s security." Now, the White House risked the perception that it had reneged on its promise to Israel and its supporters in the United States.
On January 17, a group of senior US defense officials (most likely civilians with political roles in the Pentagon) initiated a call with Jeffrey Goldberg. One official assured Goldberg that "Minister [Ehud] Barak called Secretary [Leon] Panetta and asked if we could take the exercise off the calendar. The Israelis were concerned that they did not have the resources in place to carry it out effectively."
The following day, Goldberg published an anodyne statement he received from Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren. “The exercise between the U.S. Army and the Israel Defense Forces, scheduled to be held this spring, has been postponed to the latter half of the year," Oren declared. "The decision, taken jointly by the European Command (EUCOM) and by the IDF, stemmed solely from technical issues. Such postponements are routine and do not reflect political or strategic concerns. The United States and Israel remain committed to holding the exercise – code-named Austere Challenge 12 – the largest and most robust in their historic alliance.”
Goldberg is a self-appointed enforcer of pro-Israel orthodoxy in Beltway media circles who maintains access to the Obama administration. An unrepentant promoter of the war on Iraq, he recently proclaimed, “I’m all for creating the impression in Iran that Israel or America is preparing to strike.”
Instead of questioning the pablum US and Israeli officials fed him on the joint drill postponement, Goldberg took a characteristic stand, pushing hard to legitimize Israeli claims.
Under closer examination, the Israeli explanations did not hold up very well. Were Israeli budget cuts a plausible excuse for the drills' postponement? On January 6, Netanyahu announced he was increasing military spending by 6 percent due to "abundant challenges and threats." Unless there are some hidden cuts buried within the overall budget, it is hard to take this explanation seriously.
That leaves Oren's vague reference to "technical issues" as the only remaining excuse. It is hard to imagine what technical problems could have suddenly arisen days after what was almost certainly an Israeli-orchestrated assassination of an Iranian scientist – an operation the US heatedly denied any role in. Perhaps the issue was American ire at Israel's provocative actions, which former CIA case officer Robert Baer said were designed to "force [the US] into hitting the Iranians."
However, with a tough re-election bid approaching, the administration risked feeding the perception that it was pulling back from the US-Israeli special relationship. In light of the administration's frenzied effort to plant denials with Goldberg and others, it is not impossible that the Obama administration averted the likely political backlash by arranging for the Israelis to lay claim to delaying the joint maneuvers.
But no matter which side called off the joint drills, an Israeli strike on Iran remains a real possibility.
A springtime strike?
The American deployment to Israel would have placed the US in a precarious situation. In the event of any Iranian attack or Hezbollah rocket strike on Israel, whether triggered by Israeli belligerence, US-led sanctions, or Iran jumping the gun, American troops would have been directly in harm's way. The US would have been automatically involved in Israel's war with Iran, whether it liked it or not.
American troops dying on Israeli soil – and, if it came at the hands of an Iranian provocation, the likely wider war – would already be an Israeli public relations disaster. A strike before or during the drill inviting Iranian retaliation and dragging the U.S. into a war raises the spectre of political backlash too strong for America's Israel lobby to paper over.
Now that the US-Israeli drills scheduled for this May are off, or at least postponed, Israel has an open window to attack in the spring. "Everybody talks about the spring, because everyone is convinced that Israel will be striking Iran at that time, a move that will ignite the Middle East," Alex Fishman, a military correspondent for the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharanot, wrote (Fishman went on to insist on the likelihood of Iran attacking first, a speculative assertion based on a particularly Israeli view of the Iranian regime).
For now, the Israelis appear to be publicly backing away from the notion that they're on the verge of an attack. While on a trip this week to Israel originally scheduled as part of the joint exercise, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey will reportedly receive an Israeli intelligence report in line with U.S. estimates that Iran has not yet decided to produce a nuclear warhead mounted on a missile. And Israeli Defense Minister Barak stated this week that Israel is "very far off" from initiating a strike on Iran – though Barak is said to be the hawkish Netanyahu's "Siamese twin" on Israeli policy towards Iran.
Public proclamations like Barak's may mean little, however. Indeed, Israel ratcheting down its saber-rattling could still portend a strike. With Iran already threatening to close the key global oil transit point at the Strait of Hormuz (a stated U.S. red line that would trigger military action), the adverse consequences of an attack could rattle the world economy. By the start of the Democratic National Convention in September, Obama would likely find himself under attack from his Republican adversaries, such as neoconservative-oriented front-runners Mitt Romney and New Gingrich, for presiding over an economic free fall and, if he does not immediately strike at Iran, displaying weakness before the enemies of America and Israel. With Netanyahu desperate to unseat the Obama, an economic downturn resulting from conflict with Iran could present the eventual Republican nominee with a political windfall.