2013: The year of Iran

Will the US president truly resort to force if all else fails to thwart Tehran’s nuclear program? Perhaps more important, does Israel’s PM think he will?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Illustrative photo of Iranian worshippers listening to a sermon during Friday prayers in July 2012. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Illustrative photo of Iranian worshippers listening to a sermon during Friday prayers in July 2012. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

We’ve been saying it for years: This coming year represents the moment of truth on Iran.

Except that this year, it’s for real: 2013 represents the moment of truth on Iran. The year the Iranians pass the point of no return in their drive to the bomb. Or the year, one way or another, they are dissuaded.

It’s the now or never year.

But will it be now or never?

Speak to some of those who claim to know Barack Obama best of all, and the response is definitive. The president is not bluffing. He means it when he says he will thwart a nuclear Iran by whatever means necessary — up to and most certainly including the use of force. This is not about protecting Israel, or rather not just about protecting Israel. It’s about American credibility. It’s about American interests throughout the Middle East — defending those interests against an Iranian regime that is already ideologically and territorially rapacious and that would be terrifyingly more potent if its ambitions were backed by a nuclear weapons capability. And it’s about the president’s sense of his historic obligation and legacy — Obama as protector, pushing hard now for gun control at home, and determined to reduce, ideally eliminate, the nuclear peril worldwide.

Speak to some of the president’s bitter political rivals, and the assessment is withering. An Obama resort to force? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Forget the fine rhetoric about containment not being an option. This is a president bent on extricating the United States from combat zones, not plunging his forces into new military misadventures. This is a president who knows the electorate shudders at the prospect of confrontation with Iran. This is a president who wants to appoint Chuck Hagel, firm opponent of a resort to force against Iran, as his next defense secretary. This is a president who had to be dragged into Libya by the French and the British, and who hasn’t lifted a finger as Bashar Assad waged war in Syria for almost two years. This is a president whose commitment to Israel can be gauged by his readiness to pick a major fight with Benjamin Netanyahu over building in an established ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of East Jerusalem (Ramat Shlomo) two years ago, a president who couldn’t spare half an hour for Netanyahu in the US this fall, even as he was insisting Israel hold its fire on Iran and thus entrust its security to him.

So which Obama are we betting on? The stakes for Israel could hardly be higher.

The coming months will provide ostensible evidence for both assessments. The US will engage in new efforts at diplomacy, insisting it is seeking a negotiated solution to the standoff.

A necessary precursor to a US-led resort to force, some will say. It is typical of Obama, they will argue, that he is both exhausting all other options, and being seen to exhaust all other options, in order to maximize perceived international legitimacy and support for armed intervention when — not if — he gives the order to strike.

Far from it, others will counter. Diplomacy and more diplomacy and more diplomacy — that’s the Obama way. And when it’s too late, the president will tell his public that he tried — that he pleaded and cajoled and demanded. That he did everything short of military action. But that Iran would not be budged. And that he opted not to resort to a preemptive military strike, recognizing that the America that just reelected him would have been horrified by such action, and that he is confident the Iranians would not dare target the United States.

Where do these absolutely conflicting assessments leave Israel? Worried. Wary. Uncertain.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

It’s just possible that the two leaders, despite their frustrations with each other — “you did your best to help my rival”; “you’ve never really understood the challenges my country faces” — have reached a private understanding. If so, it could only be in the form of a pledge by Obama to Netanyahu: If the Iranians haven’t suspended the program by this or that date in 2013, America will strike.

That could explain the relative absence of bitter rhetoric emanating from Jerusalem these past few months. No more talk of the need for US-set red lines. No more dismal daily declarations from the prime minister that sanctions haven’t slowed the Iranian program “one iota.” It would explain the cessation of US administration warnings to Jerusalem to hold fire, the cessation of off-record briefings by administration officials warning Israeli journalists that their government is flirting with disaster, bringing the region to the brink of apocalypse.

Or it could be that there are no understandings — merely that, their public sparring over, the American and Israeli leaders have retired to their respective corners, a little bruised but far from broken, to plan their next moves.

If so, the dilemma for Netanyahu — who surely wanted to hit Iran last summer, but was derailed by the weight of opposition from the US and from his own security chiefs present and past — is unenviable, indeed. Existentially unenviable.

If he heeds the assessments of those Obama confidantes, watchers and friends who believe the president does have the stomach to order in the bombers, then just maybe he dares let Israel’s already much-narrowed window of opportunity to thwart Iran close altogether — even though to do so is to place Israel’s destiny in the hands of others, a breach of every independent Zionist fiber of the prime ministerial being.

And if he heeds the Obama critics, the insiders and the observers who scoff at the notion of a presidential resort to force, he will be preparing for a desperate, immensely risky utilization of Israeli military power, unprecedentedly far away, on targets hardened against precisely such intervention, over the objections of Israel’s greatest ally, with potentially catastrophic repercussions even if everything goes as planned.

He will be torn, furthermore, between a certain fealty to his late father’s fierce mindset — confront the threat, take action, use the Jewish nation’s hard-won restored sovereign power to strike down the latest advocates of Jewish genocide — and his own far more cautious inclinations, his tendency to talk the talk (on defying international pressure on settlements, refusing to negotiate with terrorists, ousting Hamas) but not always walk the walk.

He’ll know he could be saving Israel, or he could be dooming it.

We’ll all find out, it rather seems, in 2013.

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