Haaretz: In Iranian-Israeli brinksmanship, Obama is powerless

Aluf Benn in this morning’s Ha’aretz describes an increasingly dangerous poker game being played out over Iran’s nuclear program. With war now being threatened, "the stakes are constantly rising with the expectations that one of the players will recognize his weakness, blink and leave the table."

Player one, the Prime Minister of Israel has certainly upped the ante since taking office.

"Netanyahu managed to convince the world that Israel is on the verge of a preemptive war to try to foil Iran’s nuclear program. His speeches on a second Holocaust and Amalek, the acceleration of military preparations, the exercises on the Home Front, the distribution of gas masks and even the stockpiling of dollars by the Bank of Israel all suggest that Israel is preparing to strike Iran, as it did when it attacked the nuclear plants in Iraq and Syria."

According to Benn, Player two – the President of Iran, Mahmoud Amadinejad – recently raised Netanyahu’s ante, "when he posed the destruction of the Zionist regime not merely as a religious-ideological ambition, but as a practical goal."

It’s not clear what the third player, President Obama, is going to bet, as he "holds the weakest hand." 

"This is so because of domestic political weakness and because he can’t seriously threaten Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. Obama doesn’t want to attack Iran himself and will find it hard to restrain Israel at the moment of truth."

How did the tail wind up so successfully wagging the dog? For weeks the President of the United States has been "airlifting senior officials [to Israel] to ask Netanyahu to hold back." You might think the world’s last remaining superpower and leader of the "international community" would be able to keep its number one aid recipient under wraps, but that does not seem to be the case.

While Benn ignores the role that Obama advisor Dennis Ross is playing – the current scenario is awfully similar to the game plan etched by Ross in 2008 – Benn does pose some reasonable questions:

"What will happen if diplomacy and sanctions fail, as they are expected to, and Ahmadinejad continues on his nuclear path? Will Netanyahu then be able to pull back from his heated statements and announce that the Iranian threat is not so bad? Or has he already burned the bridge for a withdrawal and will have to go to war?"

It’s a pity the American media does not allow itself to ask such questions, except for a few neocons such as the Washington Post’s Anne Appelbaum, who has already demanded that Obama let Israel go to war with Iran if necessary.

About Bruce Wolman

Bruce Wolman is a citizen journalist who has lived in Norway and the Washington area.
Posted in Iran, Israel/Palestine, US Politics

{ 38 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Mooser says:

    When Obama did not immediately upon taking office regain control of the Bush military and stop Bush’s wars, he was screwed. He’s made no attempt to do this, and he is at the mercy of whatever the military cooks up in pursuing their prime directive (For God’s Sake, Avoid Any Accounting for The Bush Years).

    And it’s weakened him on every domestic front too. What a chump!

    • Mooser says:

      Besides, if the military can provoke (or more likely back their stupid, corrupt and incompetent beaten-by-Iraq asses into) a crisis big enough to “require” conscription, they can take credit for solving the unemployment crisis. Does it get any better?

      • Citizen says:

        Hey, quit stealing my material! I said that on another thread here a couple of days ago. It’s twofer! The arsenal of democracy will rise to the challenge–jobs for everyone! And they call this slowly double-dipping Depression a Recession, the nerve! FDR’s got nothing on Obama!

    • Bruce says:

      The military stopped Bush from attacking Iran. I’m afraid they are the only ones that can stop the Ross-Netanyahu-Barak combo. Obama is like a deer in the headlights.

      • Chaos4700 says:

        Not that I have any experience with the leadership of the US military, but veterans I speak two fall into one of three categories: anti-war and anti-occupation activists, who are regrettably a fairly small and deliberately ignored minority; people who just want to keep their heads down and stay out of military or political affairs entirely and take care of themselves and their familes, who are the vast majority and who are deliberately silent; and xenophobic, war profiteering bought off pseudo-patriots who care more about Israel than they do about New Orleans or Detroit, who generally openly confess that they spent much of the time either working with Israelis or in Israel (as “liasons”), who are the most vocalizing and recognized minority.

        We couldn’t trust the military to stop Bush from attacking Iraq, and Obama is already content to antagonize Pakistan as it is. I don’t have a lot of confidence that the military leadership (and therefore, the military as a whole) will put up much of a fuss in the rush for war with Iran.

        • Bruce says:

          I’m speaking of the top leadership. Some of the Generals and Admirals felt they were maneuvered into Iraq, and they felt they just didn’t have the troops to take on another war. The pushback on Iran was real, and Bush backed off. The ranks of the top officers have since been weeded out, and it seems the current leadership may be more eager for further adventures than their predecessors.

  2. Chaos4700 says:

    If (or when, maybe) Israel attacks Iran, World War III will result and the United States will collapse under the weight of an overtaxed, in debt up to its eyeballs war machine with virtually no manufacturing base left to support itself. Or else who here thinks China or India or Europe will blindly throw money as credit at us so that we can wage war on Iran? Those countries actually do business with Iran.

    Our “special relationship” with Israel is going to get us nothing but a knife in our back. Et tu, Netanyahu?

    • Citizen says:

      Seems I’ve that knive-in-the-back theory before…

      • Citizen says:

        Jeez: I’ve heard

        • Chaos4700 says:

          Actually, yeah, weren’t you the one who first came up with that metaphor? I won’t pretend to take credit for being its origin. :)

        • Citizen says:

          I was only thinking of the irony of it all, referencing how the Nazis used the ancient “stab in the back” theory–remember, during the Weimar period when they constantly told the masses
          that, since the Germans were never defeated on the battlefield, their miserable
          German lives (due to the viciously unfair terms of the Versailles Treaty which ignored inter alia Wilson’s Point Plan and put sole blame on Germany for causing WW1, and hence harsh reparations were cool) were caused by the Joos.

  3. Shingo says:

    Israel still can’t do it alone, so when reports claim Obama is powerfless to sop Israel, what they mean is Obama is powerless to stop Israel dragging the US into the conflict.

  4. Citizen says:

    Obama should get Finklestein’s new book (Advertized top right of this blog; there’s a long excerpt of it on Counterpunch today detailing the increasing expansion of “Pro-Palestinian” luminaries–Finklestein mentions Adam and Mondoweiss in the excerpt:
    link to counterpunch.org

  5. seafoid says:

    Israel should go ahead and bomb Iran. It won’t achieve anything practical and will lead to more people recognising that Zionism has reached the insane stage. Bibi will get all the consequences that flow from another thoughtless Israeli resort to violence where diplomacy would have done a cleaner job.

    As Niall Ferguson wrote recently in the LA Times

    “Great powers are complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis — a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse.”

    Bombing Iran involves massive execution risk for Israel with unknowable downstream repercussions. Bibi is dumb enough to go for broke.

    • Shingo says:

      “Bibi is dumb enough to go for broke. ”

      No he’s not. If he decides to go and do it, it will be because he’s been assured by Washington that his back is covefred, that diplmatic cover is guaranteed at the UN and that the bill is covered by Congress.

    • Citizen says:

      It’s arguable that what Israel seeks to accomplish by bombing Iran is not eliminating
      any possible Iran nuclear threat, or even pushing it back for a few years, but rather,
      it seeks to weld the USA to Israel forever. This premise of course assumes Israel
      believes and has calculated that the USA congress will clamor immediately for the US to join the battle in behalf their best friend and ally, Israel. The resolution will fly, Obama will bend right to it. The rest of the West doesn’t even count since the gamble is also based on the notion Israel only has one friend in the first place, the USA.
      With all eyes on the USA & Israel doing their thing to Iran and any helpers coming to Iran’s aid (Hesbollah, Hamas), Israel can take care of its Palestine problem for good–what will the USA care? It’s in a war with Iran who supports the Pals.

      • Citizen says:

        Israel’s and AIPAC’s constant beating the drums for war with Iran registers to me as a cost-benefit analysis already completed. The historical cases where wars did not
        end up as their initiators planned, expected, is legion. That’s never stopped the latest cycle of predators.

        • Citizen says:

          The growing BDS movement, the event of Carter’s book, and W & M, Obama’s Cairo speech, the push to “delegitimize Israel”–for the Israeli mindset I just tried to describe, those are a gaggle of trend convincing Israel leaders the quicker we bomb Iran the better, or we will lose our last chance to cement Greater Zionism forever. They tried to get Shrub to do it near the end of his last term, but Shrub
          didn’t bite–they have to force the issue.

          Those frenzied ants going everywhich way do eventually get their queen properly ensconced.

    • potsherd says:

      Israel should go ahead and bomb Iran, and the rest of the world should then attack Israel and disarm it as an agressive state and a threat to world peace.

    • MRW says:

      Bibi may be dumb enough. But. He’ll be fighting in an internet age when news of his activities will spread worldwide in nanoseconds. The US govt can support him all it wants. Bibi will not be immune to public opinion about him, nor will Israelis.

  6. syvanen says:

    To respond to something Bruce said above — It is the top brass of the military that are urging caution with Iran. This is especially the case for the Navy, at first there was Fallon and today it is Mullin. The Navy has to be particularly concerned with Iran’s antiship cruise missiles that have the range and capacity to sink most any warship in the Persian Gulf. These are a new generation of missiles developed by the Russians (google sunburn-22 and the Persian Gulf if interested). Iran has them as do the Chinese. If the US attacks Iran then it seems only logical that the Iranians would attack US warships in the Gulf. Iran may have the capacity to sink any that they can target and possibly even puncture holes in our aircraft carriers and start serious fires. It is almost impossible to imagine what the US response to such a counter attack would look like. The other big unknown is how Iran views US warships after Israel attacks. It just might be logistically impossible for Israel to attack without some US support at least giving them right of passage over Iraqi airspace.

    One thing to worry about is that if such an engagement did occur it would likely result in a tremendous loss of prestige for the Navy which could lead to less defense dollars for them. This would have to benefit the Army and Air Force. I think that is why the top command in those services are more hawkish towards war in the ME.

    • Shingo says:

      The Airforce are very keen on the idea of a strike on Iran. They are itching for such a challenge and believe the risks are small (for them at least) as there ate few air defense systems in the world that preent any obstacle. The reason the Russians have been stalling on delivery of the S300 air defense system, is that they are holding onto it as a bargaining chip with Washington, but everyone has admitted the S300 is a game changer.

    • MRW says:

      Syvanen is right. Google Sunburn AND Onyx. (Russian name = Topol)

      “Iran may have the capacity to sink any that they can target and possibly even puncture holes in our aircraft carriers and start serious fires.”

      If iran has the Sunburn and Onyx — and it does, google Jane’s Defense Weekly — it’s more than ‘puncture holes’ and ‘start serious fires’.

      It is complete obliteration. We’re talking Mach 2 to 3 missiles that our commanders will see five seconds before they hit as they travel 25-45 ft above the water with an advanced stealth computerized target-headed warhead. They wont put holes in our aircraft carriers. They will waste them them, turn them into vaporized atoms. The Onyx (real name is Topol Something-Or-Other) is the most deadly piece of anti-aircraft missile known to man right now, and the USA, according to Bloomberg and ABC News, has nothing that can counter it.

      The problem is not Iraq airspace, although that presents one set of problems. Aircraft have to fly halfway into Iran over mountainous terrain before they can drop ordinance. Those mountains are filled with advanced anti-aircraft artillery that we know nothing about other than that they are Russian.

      • syvanen says:

        MRW I appreciate your comments. In general many of the political pundits seem quite oblivious to technical problems that an attack on Iran entails.

        If the US does not agree then Israel has three options: 1) send its bombers over Saudi Arabia or 2) send them over Turkey. There is, of course, option 3 and send them over Iraq in opposition to the US. I think most analysts agree that Israel would try option 3 and dare the US to show any opposition. Quite frankly, I do not see Israel choosing any of these three options though Nyahoo may end up forcing himself to do one or the other as Alof Benn is suggesting.

        But given that MRW, I think you are making a few errors here. You do point out how devastating these Russian missiles could be. But it is not correct to say how they “will” perform in any real battle situation, rather we should consider their capability. As yet they have not been tested in a real war.

        Also it is not correct to say that they could ‘obliterate’ or ‘atomize’ a US Aircraft carrier. They do have the capacity to puncture the hull of any US warship and deliver 300 kg of explosives inside the ship (I am avoiding the issue of nuclear warheads). This will not atomize or obliterate an aircraft carrier though it has the capacity to set off a chain reaction that might sink such a ship. Frigates, destroyers and cruisers, on the other hand, might suffer catastrophic breaches of their hulls and sink as a result.

        Basically we really do not know how these weapons will perform in real war, but some of the tests by the Chinese were quite impressive and were witnessed by the US Navy have resulted in changes in Naval tactics with any potential war with China (today we no longer conduct exercises in the Taiwan Straights because those waters are within range of these missiles). BTW Onyx (also known as Yakhoontz) is not an antiaircraft missile, it is designed to attack ships.

        • Shingo says:

          We do know that the Sunburn and Onyx vastly outperform an Exocet, and even a modern warship is powerless to stop those.

          The unique thing about the Onyx, is that it has the mass and velocity to sink an aircraft carrier even with a conventional warhead alone, due to it’s massive kinetic energy. As for evasive manouvers, any navy in the Straight of Hormuz is very limited with options, given how narrow the deep water channel is and the physical size of the waterway.

          While the US were spending billions on aircraft carriers, Russia focused on missile technology and gained a large lead in hhis field . The simple fact is that the supersonic anti ship missiles have made US warships into floating coffins.

        • syvanen says:

          I agree except that these missiles still do not have the ability to destroy an aircraft carrier with a single hit. Also true that the Russians developed these weapons once they realized they could not compete with the US in building surface fleets. They then focused on these missiles. It could very well be true that the US Navy is obsolete.

        • RoHa says:

          We know what Exocets can do in a real war.

          link to historylearningsite.co.uk

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          The new Russian missiles are supposed to be much more dangerous than Exocets.

          Suppose that the Iranians sent a cloud (a dozen or so) of Silkworms against an American fleet, with a few of the fiercer Russian missiles mixed.

          This has certainly never been tried, so no-one knows what would happen.

          I wouldn’t want to be around, though.

        • RoHa says:

          We know what Exocets can do in a real war.

          link to historylearningsite.co.uk

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          The new Russian missiles are supposed to be much more dangerous than Exocets.

          Suppose that the Iranians sent a cloud (a dozen or so) of Silkworms against an American fleet, with a few of the fiercer Russian missiles mixed in.

          This has certainly never been tried, so no-one knows what would happen.

          I wouldn’t want to be around, though.

        • RoHa says:

          “If the US does not agree then Israel has three options: 1) send its bombers over Saudi Arabia ”

          Given the amount of hardware the Saudis have, they would have very red faces trying to explain to the rest of the world why they couldn’t (or didn’t try to) stop the Israelis.

          “or 2) send them over Turkey.”

          Good strategy. Piss off the Turks even more.

          ” There is, of course, option 3 and send them over Iraq in opposition to the US. I think most analysts agree that Israel would try option 3 and dare the US to show any opposition”

          And who would believe that the US couldn’t stop them? Everyone would assume that the USA helped.

          There is actually a fourth option. Use the close relations with Georgia to attack from there. A short flight over Armenia, and next stop is Tabriz. Of course, the Russians have dented that prospect a bit.

        • Shingo says:

          “‘There is actually a fourth option. Use the close relations with Georgia to attack from there. A short flight over Armenia, and next stop is Tabriz. Of course, the Russians have dented that prospect a bit. “‘

          That option is dead too. When the Russians entered Georgia (during the 2008 conflict) they discovered these bases and sent the Israelis packing. The discovery of the Israeli bases really infuratited the Russians, and soured relations with Israel.

          Israel wouldn’t dare pull that stunt a second time.

        • syvanen says:

          Flying from Georgia means that an Israel warplane armada would have to fly either through Turkish or European airspace. And what if the Russians saw the appearance of 90 warplanes near their border — I wouldn’t predict their reaction.

  7. MHughes976 says:

    Just to whistle in the dark for a minute – threats from Israel against Iran have been coming thick and fast for many years and have repeatedly been amplified by sympathetic journalists and academics. Why didn’t they do act when Bush would, even if he had not cooperated with them, been quite likely to give them encouragement? Bibi may be fool enough to go for broke if he has per Shingo cast-iron assurances from Washington. But for all our doubts about Obama, we surely know both that he would never give these assurances and that other forces in Washington are not united and powerful enough to sweep the President of the United States, the most powerful man on earth, aside? I shudder with doubt as I write this – am I wrong?
    Israel must know that a point will come at which endlessly reiterated threats without action begin to be treated by the other side as a sign of weakness. I think that the Iranians suppose that that point arrived a year or two ago and won’t change their minds unless they see Obama lining up behind Bibi.
    On the Keller & Karsh thread there was reference to an article by George Friedman of Stratfor arguing very strongly that an attack on Iran would be utter folly. I whistled a bit louder when I read that. But I admit that it’s a dark March night.

    • MRW says:

      Israel is stupid, MHughes976. It’s run by aging white men with a 1950s consciousness, who think their mistakes can be covered up with cries of anti-semitism to mask their incompetence both politically and militarily. Colonel Pat lang (who has his own blog) was the US military liaison with Israel for seven years. He labeled their intelligence skills as sub-standard compared to US capability. He basically described the Israelis as rubes, highly dependent on US expertise.

      Israel fucked up Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2008. They dont even know how to choose a proper PR firm these days.

  8. syvanen says:

    The threats coming from Israel do not make sense if, in fact, Israel does not act on them.

    But we should remember that between 2004 and 2008 or so Bush and Condi repeatedly warned Iran that “all options are on the table” with even a vague hint that one of the options were nuclear weapons. I began to despair at one point in 2007 that the US government was talking itself into a corner. But then nothing happened. Iran continued doing what it was doing and the US kept on blabbering about “all options are on the table”. No one seems to remember all the noise Condi and Bush were making back then so maybe we can relax a bit now — at some point Netanyahoo will just keep his mouth shut and everyone will forget about his threats.

    Perhaps this is an epistemological question: If one loses face but everyone pretends not to notice, did they really lose face? I am happy to pretend not to notice if war is avoided.

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  11. bigbill says:

    Sadly for us, He is “powerless” in most things.