President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Israel has strategically re-aligned Israel and the United States, readying them for potential action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Although the crowning achievement of Obama’s visit – Israel’s apology to Turkey – took place in the final minutes of the U.S. president’s stay, another diplomatic feat took place only hours after Air Force One landed at Ben Gurion Airport. Arriving in spring – a time when, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in speech to the United Nations last September, Iran’s nuclear program might cross Israeli “red lines” – Obama persuaded Netanyahu to backtrack. Admitting that “Iran has not yet reached the red line I defined in my U.N. speech, but it is getting closer all the time,” Netanyahu instead for the first time adopted America’s estimate, saying that it would take Iran “about a year” to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
In convincing Netanyahu to go along with him, Obama obtained more time for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue with Iran, but also sent an unequivocal message to the Islamic Republic that Israel and the U.S. would act in unison should the nuclear program continue at its current pace.
Two further outcomes of the visit re-enforced this interpretation.
First, Obama pledged increased funding for Israel’s missile defense systems and other security support. Talks will begin to extend the U.S.-Israeli military aid agreement beyond its current 2017 deadline. And while slashing its own defense budget, the U.S. will continue funding Israeli state of the art missile defense systems – including Iron Dome and the new Magic Wand medium-range missile interceptor. It is not rockets from Gaza that are the key concern anymore, but rather potential Hezbollah and Iranian retaliation should a pre-emptive strike against Iran occur. According to the Israeli armed forces, Hezbollah possesses an estimated 50,000 missiles, of which several thousand have two-thirds of Israeli territory within range.
Obama’s diplomatic coup was the surprise reconciliation of Israel and Turkey, engineered by the U.S. president directly from the airport runway as he was about to set off. Israeli-Turkish ties are important for two reasons: Cooperation over an increasingly lawless Syria is necessary. Obama himself noted that Turkey and Israel were the two anchor countries when it comes to the crisis in Syria, which they both border. And second, Turkey is a vital partner in addressing the Iranian nuclear program. Ankara’s acquiescence to military action against Iran is deemed vital to any potential showdown.
Together, the three steps – agreeing to red lines when it comes to Iran, restoring Israeli-Turkish relations, and increasing defense funding – all helped to synchronize Israeli and U.S. policies on Iran’s fast moving nuclear program, the issue at the top of the two countries’ foreign policy agendas.
According to the February 2013 International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran is for the first time about to start using advanced centrifuges at Natanz, one of its main nuclear plants, for uranium enrichment. It is also accelerating not only the uranium but also the plutonium track, widely assumed by the international community to be a step forward to advance Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.
However, far from instigating the drumbeat of looming war, the outcome of the Israeli-U.S. rapprochement is paradoxically that it more than ever deters the launching of a unilateral pre-emptive strike on Iran. By reassuring young Israelis in his Jerusalem address that they are “not alone,” and by persuading Netanyahu – who had previously clashed with Obama – that the U.S. was determined to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, Obama rendered a unilateral Israeli strike senseless, buying time for further nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Obama’s reasoning was already apparent in the weeks before his trip to Israel. In an interview with The Atlantic, the president noted that “at a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally, [Syria,] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?” Obama administration officials, quoted in The Washington Post in early March, noted “we’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel.”
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren who accompanied Obama during the trip, acknowledged a new stage of cooperation. “We believe the best chance of dissuading the Iranian leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons is a combination of escalating sanctions and a very credible military threat,” he said.
Such a threat has now been put in place more firmly than ever, with Israel and the U.S. both now working from the same page. Speaking two weeks ago, a former U.S. undersecretary of defense, Dov Zakheim, said that “the United States does not want to have to react to Israeli military action ... We don’t want the tail wagging the dog, and with all due respect to Israel, we’re still the dog.”
Inna Lazareva is a British journalist and political analyst. She specializes on the Middle East and North Africa, having spent a number of years researching the region. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.