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How Will Iran’s Threats Affect U.S.-Israeli Ties?

February 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a warning at a security conference Thursday that time is running out, and dealing with a nuclear Iran would be more complicated and costly than attempting to stop one. Ray Suarez and guests discuss the potential of a unilateral Israeli strike and a U.S. response to Israeli action.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined now by David Ignatius of The Washington Post, who’s with the defense secretary in Munich, Germany, and David Makovsky, former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post. He’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

David Ignatius, let me start with you.

You have written of the zone of immunity that Iran is supposedly entering which is pushing the timeline. What is that? What does that mean?

DAVID IGNATIUS, Columnist, The Washington Post: Israeli officials have described it to U.S. officials, the zone of immunity is the moment at which Iran has accumulated enough enriched uranium that it is able to proceed to build a nuclear weapon from that point on.

In other words, if you don’t strike before they enter that zone of immunity, they will be able to construct the bomb and you won’t be able to stop it. This is a concern in part because of a very deep Iranian bunkered facilities near Qom that Israeli weapons probably could not reach. U.S. weapons might be able to reach them, which is why the U.S. timeline is somewhat different.

The U.S. could wait longer before attacking until it saw evidence that the Iranians were actually making a bomb, that is to say, after they had entered this zone. The Israelis think that they can’t wait, and they don’t want to depend on the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: David Makovsky, zone of immunity or not, given the way the Iranian system is scattered, well protected, would a military strike be effective at halting it?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: Well, I think they believe in Israel that it would be. I was just there last month. And there’s an active debate at the top among the cabinet people and the top security people. They’re pretty convinced they could attack.

But David Ignatius got it exactly right. Ehud Barak gave an interview in November, didn’t get a lot of play, where he said basically you have got six to nine months until — that they enter the zone of immunity, meaning that they have such well-fortified sites underground, that there’s a certain point where you just can’t attack.

So this is kind of a year of decision for them in Israel. It’s a kind of now-or-never kind of element. It is not something they are yearning to do. They would hope that sanctions work. But they feel they have to make a decision amid suboptimal conditions. They don’t have America’s military capability, and their window closes quicker than the United States’.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned the sanctions working.

David Ignatius, is that a big gamble for Israel, not to wait to see if the sanctions, which, by widespread reporting, are really cutting deep in Iran, do have time to work?

DAVID IGNATIUS: The United States government believes that it is a mistake for Israel to consider launching or launch such an attack.

They believe that the sanctions are working, that there is an international coalition that has been assembled that is increasingly aggressive in trying to stop this Iranian program. They worry that a unilateral Israeli strike would blow that coalition apart.

So they think this is a bad idea. I want to be very clear about that. Also, I should make clear that U.S. officials don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu has yet made the decision to strike. They just think that there’s a strong likelihood that he will make that decision.

RAY SUAREZ: David Makovsky?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I agree.

I think that there’s two people kind of leading the effort. It’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak. I would say a quarter-step behind him is the prime minister, Netanyahu. And these are two people who would prefer a — their first preference, sanctions work, this issue is solved peacefully, everyone’s happiest.

Their second preference, I think, would be that Israel could back off and that the United States that has greater capability and a longer timeline could deal with it. But because they’re not sure of what the U.S. would do if sanctions don’t prove to be decisive, they’re left with their third choice, which is that they might have to strike earlier because of their closing window.

But, you know, what I’ve learned, if you look at the history, where there’s two other incidents where Israel has hit — have hit nuclear sites, one of Iraq, one of Syria, in each case, there were divisions. And at the time when Israel hit the Osirak reactor of Saddam Hussein, the head of the Mossad was against, the head of military intelligence was against it.

But a determined prime minister brought his cabinet around, even though it took a little longer, frankly, until they made a decision. David Ignatius got it exactly right. They haven’t made a decision yet.

But I think that Barak and Netanyahu would prefer that somehow this is somehow is taken care of otherwise. But they are fearful is they are going to be left holding the bag, because, unless they have greater understandings with the United States — when Leon Panetta says this is a red line for America if Iran does such and such on their nuclear program, I think if there is a greater understanding of what that red line was and what the consequences of an American response would be, I think the United States could reshape that debate in Israel, even though it’s at a late phase, and the Israelis would back off.

So I don’t think we should speak about it as an inevitability. I think it’s just, rather, a strong possibility.

RAY SUAREZ: David Ignatius, greater understandings between Israel and the United States. Is there also a risk, given that the United States, by your reporting, is discouraging Israel at this point, that any unilateral action by the Israelis would drive a wedge in that close bilateral alliance?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes, I think that’s one of the dangers that the Israelis need to consider.

This administration, as I understand it, has made clear to Israel that we don’t think this is wise, that we don’t think it’s in our interest or Israel’s, and that we think the unintended, unanticipated consequences could be very damaging across the region.

And so I think Israeli does need to consider whether its crucial strategic relationship with the United States would be seriously negatively affected if it went ahead and did something despite these strong arguments against it from the United States.

Again, Israel feels, this Israeli government, but I think every Israeli government feels that in the end it alone has to make decisions about how it’s going to be secure. It can’t depend on anybody else.

And that is part of what I think we’re seeing play out, is the pressure of Israel against its key ally, but this sense that in the end we have — Israelis have to be masters of their own fate.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we close, I would like to hear from both of you about the cost-benefit analysis being made on both sides.

If you only slow down and don’t stop the Iranian program, but unleash military strikes, could the possibilities for Iranian retaliation, for destabilization in the region be so severe, that the blowback is worse than what you accomplish with the attack?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I think that is why there’s division inside Israel, because there are concerns about regional consequences.

I don’t think they believe there is going to be a full-blown Middle East war as a result of this. The worst they see it would be that they have to deal with some retaliation from Iran, and there would be a Hezbollah northern border situation.

They have to weigh the risks of action versus the risks of inaction. They see the risk of inaction meaning you’re going to have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey all wanting to counter the Iranian bomb. You’ll see a proliferation to non-state actors like Hezbollah maybe some dirty bomb technology, that you’ll be emboldening rejectionists, you’ll be intimidating moderates.

So they see this as a profound change in the balance of power. On the other hand, as you point out, there is risk of action. Where I would generally disagree with David Ignatius, respectfully, is that I don’t think it as much like the Zionist ethos of self-reliance. I think it more like, if there was a way to synchronize the clocks, I think Israeli would certainly be welcome to it.

They are aware of the risks, but their view is, once Iran crosses the finish line, it’s just going to be too late for anyone to do any more things, like North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: David Ignatius, quick response?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think what bothers U.S. officials and what bothers me as an analyst and columnist is that this is a role of the dice.

And the Israelis believe that the Iranian response would probably be limited, that their own casualties would be limited, that the effect on the global economy wouldn’t be severe, that this would pass, as their strike on Iraq passed, as their strike in 2007 on Syria, a Syrian nuclear reactor passed.

But it’s impossible to know. And a roll of the dice, with the consequences this high for everyone concerned, bothers me. That’s a risky way to make statecraft.

RAY SUAREZ: David Ignatius, David Makovsky, gentlemen, thank you both.