Saturday, June 6, 2009

Obama's Middle East Endgame: Part I - Israel, Iran and Nukes

Tom Barnett, the eternal optimist, is less than sanguine about the possibility of avoiding an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program. In a blistering piece in Esquire, Tom looks at three possible scenarios for the near term relationship between Israel, American, the Sunni Arab countries and Tehran. Here is his "ugly" scenario:

Israel decides to act on its own by launching massive (even if they're dubbed "surgical") air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities sometime before the end of the year. Israel and its (re-)new(ed) prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are clearly not feeling the usual love from the Obama White House, as evidenced by how all the media coverage of their first summit centered on "who had the upper hand?" (Obama on freezing settlements, or Netanyahu on striking Iran?)

In his speech today, Obama slung some loaded words toward Tehran: "My country is ready to move forward," and "we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve," and "we have reached a decisive point."

If that means America isn't going to wait and see about anything when it comes to this increasingly tense triangle of love and hate, we may be reaching that big decision. And pursuing the Saudi-first scenario, however reticent Abdullah now may be to stepping outside the line of the Arab League (they want Israel to make the next concession on settlements), may just be Obama's best chance to beat both Tel Aviv and Tehran to their prospective punches. I mean, whatever Abdullah demands in return, the price will likely be worth it.

Here's why: If Netanyahu were to pull the trigger, Tehran would retaliate with both barrels — as in Hamas and Hezbollah. That would kill any two-state solution right there for Obama's entire first term, something Netanyahu would likely welcome as a two-birds-with-one-stone bonus. Stipulating that any direct kinetic response out of Iran against Israel would be a serious wild card, the more prosaic fall-out (pun intended) would be this: Iran would radically speed up its pursuit of nuclear weaponry, as would both Turkey and Saudi Arabia (who logically are colluding on this goal already). Toss in Egypt and the UAE as likely follow-ups.

In that scary pathway, the Saudis could well choose to reignite a proxy war (Saudi-backed Sunni vs. Iranian-backed Shia) within Iraq as a way of tying down Tehran somewhat (along with a generous buyout of wavering Iranian ally Syria). In this scenario, it really wouldn't matter whether or not Ahmadinejad won re-election next week, because a "righteously" angered Iran would be forced to ratchet up its anti-American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, shredding Obama wind-down goals in the process and setting him up for a tough re-election battle in 2012 (He didn't end any wars like he promised!).

You know, when you add it all up, The Ugly scenario seems like such a win-win-win for Netanyahu (bomb Iran, screw the two-state solution, pin down the untrustworthy Obama elsewhere) that it gets hard to see what could really happen in the short term to prevent its unfolding — other than moderate Iranians voting early and often!

Ugly is right. The Center for Strategic and Internarional Studies recently released a report on a possible Israeli strike on Iran and their analysis details what a nasty thing such an attack would be. Highlights include:

  1. It would be nearly impossible for Israel to reach the nuclear sights with conventional aircraft, so they would most likely use Jericho III ballistic missiles.
  2. The fallout would almost certainly kill thousands in the short term, and possibly cause contamination hundreds of miles downwind - including within the Gulf States, that could cause health problems for years to come.
  3. Despite all of that, they would probably only set the program back a few years.
It seems that Israel wants it both ways. They want the the U.S. to sign off on their strike package while they build their settlements and kick the can down the road on making peace with their Sunni neighbors. On the other hand, the Israelis fail to realize that the Sunni Arab regiems are at least as afraid of Iran as the Israelis are.

Interestingly, Jeffery Goldberg suggests that Obama may be attempting an end run around Netanyahu's government to force a new coalition that would be willing to strike a deal with the U.S. and the Sunni Arab regimes.

The end game in all of this is to put Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel on the same side of a security framework to resist Iran.

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