We’re not on the verge of war — yet

Someone recently asked me if I thought we would be at war again soon. Not just Gaza, but the big one — Hizballah and Iran. As the West’s red lines crumble, it’s a forgone conclusion that Iran can have a bomb as soon as they wish; and with President Obama rushing to relieve sanctions and unfreeze Iranian assets, the regime will have all the money it needs to fund its aggression, nuclear and non-nuclear.

So what is Israel going to do about it? After all, I don’t think the traditional position of the Israeli government that it will not allow any of its regional enemies to obtain nuclear weapons has changed.

There are good reasons not to attack Iran today. Most of Iran’s deterrent rests with its expeditionary force, Hizballah in Lebanon. Although Israel would very much like to pull the fangs of this particular snake, Hizballah has entwined its rocket launchers and command centers deeply with the civilian infrastructure, and destroying it will destroy the homes and many of the lives of the population of southern Lebanon.

Israel would be completely justified in doing this. We aren’t obligated to commit suicide to protect civilians who have rocket launchers in their garages and cellars. This would be tragic for those people, but it’s a tragedy for which Iran and Hizballah would be fully responsible.

Israel too would suffer home front casualties, predicted to be worse than in any war since 1948.

Nevertheless, we know from the example of the recent war in Gaza — in which Gazan casualties were comparatively modest —  what the reaction from US President Obama would be. We can expect an immediate embargo on weapons and ammunition, support for UN demands for a disadvantageous cease-fire, and who knows what other punitive measures. Paradoxically, the better our defensive systems perform and the fewer Israelis die, the greater will be the pressure on us to stop fighting.

Obama’s strategy is perplexing, because the initiative to tilt toward Iran against Israel and the conservative Sunni Arabs is not particularly in the interest of the US. The enemies of America are the radical Islamists of both streams, the Sunni IS and Iranian revolutionary Shiite regime. These are the forces that are metastasizing terrorism throughout the world in an attempt to put an end to Western hegemony. Allowing Iran to nuclearize in the hope that it will bring stability is a potentially disastrous policy. It also alienates former US allies like Egypt and the Jordanian and Saudi regimes, and of course Israel, whose aspirations do not include bringing down the West.

I think, however, that this policy is not being implemented out of a consideration of true long-term American interest. Rather it is based on the personal predilections of Barack Obama, his reverence for Islam and the post-colonialist ideology that characterized his mentors Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, etc. Michael Oren said that if you want to understand Obama, look at his Cairo address of 2012. Unfortunately, as we saw during the Gaza war last summer, this ideology is the opposite of pro-Israel.

If Israel’s leaders agree with me that much of the stress between the US and Israel today comes directly from the president’s personal ideology, then perhaps they are waiting for Obama’s term to be over before taking on Iran and Hizballah. We can’t predict how a different president will behave, but it’s hard to imagine any of the contenders being worse than Obama.

Our adversaries also are not interested in conflict in the near future. Hizballah is enmeshed in the war in Syria, and Iran wants to put the finishing touches on its nuclear program. If a war with Israel were to splinter Hizballah and weaken Iran, it’s likely that the radical Sunni forces in Syria and Iraq would triumph. Teheran wants to consolidate control of Syria and Iraq before taking on Israel, and it seems to have Obama’s full support in this.

So I don’t expect that Hizballah will provoke Israel tomorrow; and I think Iran will carefully stay on the safe side of Israel’s red lines, while preparing for a last minute dash across them to nuclear-armed status. Israel, for its part, will want to avoid trouble with Obama.

On the other hand, time is not on our side. Iran’s newly-gained economic strength as it is freed of sanctions will enable it to continue to spread terrorism and make incremental gains in influence throughout the world.

I don’t envy the jobs of Israel’s Prime Minister and other officials, who are faced with this dilemma. They know that war with Hizballah is inevitable, as is some degree of armed conflict with Iran. They know that the longer they wait, the stronger the enemy will become. They see the strategic steps that Iran is taking to encircle us and limit our possible actions. And they know it is always better to fight at a time of one’s own choosing.

On the other hand, they know that the US under Barack Obama is supporting the Iranian side in the intra-Muslim conflict that is raging today. They know, also, that Obama is highly unsympathetic to Israel, and his definition of what is acceptable as self-defense for Israel is so narrow as to endanger our survival. America is not America anymore, but Israel is still highly dependent on it for supplies and diplomatic cover.

I’ve left out some of the complicating factors, like Hamas and its competitors for control of Gaza, the PLO and its 80-year old leader, the increasingly anxious Saudis, the Jordanian monarchy that could easily become unstable, the radical opposition to al-Sisi, and of course the Turks and Russians — all of whom have interests and a desire to influence the outcome of the present free-for-all.

So what’s my prediction? I don’t see an immediate danger of war, although low-intensity conflict will continue and probably get worse. But then, the same could have been said in early 1914!

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2 Responses to We’re not on the verge of war — yet

  1. Keefe Goldfisher says:

    One could point to their operations undermining governments using their proxies in Yemen and other proxies shoring up Assad’s regime (what’s left of it) in Syria, and the necessity of managing the Kurds in northern Iran and the more independent Shiite militias in Iraq…, as signs of Iran stretched thin, and therefore unable to undertake adventures further afield without a period of consolidation. But I think the number one factor dictating imminent war is the loss of a sponsor in Washington.

    There are a few things to measure Iranian strategic patience by that impress me… hopefully, I’m wrong about these, and they are in the realm of conjecture anyway: 1) Assad’s Syria is secured three ways as a source of worry for Iran; the Russians need the Alawite redoubt secured to project power in the Mediterranean via the port at Tartus, and, as others have commented, the they have been actively warning various aspirants for the bits and pieces of Syria to tread lightly or risk engagement with Russia. Unlike our President, when Putin says these things, people and countries believe him. The US is in the tank for an Iran deal, and is going out of its way to minimize efforts against ISIS, both to maximize the threat of this roving caliphate versus the undermining of American interests that the Iran deal represents, and to lay off Syria to ease Tehran’s acceptance of the deal (no sure thing, despite our rolling over on every aspect of the avowed purpose of the deal). Finally, besides Russia and the US making Assad’s survival a sure thing, Iran’s proxies act as an insurance policy for a true battlefield cost on the ground right now of going after Assad. The Syria that is Assad is secure for Iran. 2) Iraqi militias may not be the fifth column of Iranian influence in Iraq that they are often painted to be, but the knowledge that they are likely non-hostile to IRGC elements, is one giant deterrent for Sunnis opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq and a reason to leave the scene when you see them coming, unmolested by Shiite militias; and the Sunni towns do move away as these groups come in. Iraq is not a threat vector for Iran. 3) The Kurds have been the cats-paw of Turkish and Iranian foreign policy versus each other, and are permanently getting squeezed between the two and Russia, and their own regional cliques. They represent a faction that wants to withdraw and defend, not spark an encounter. 4) Yemen is a bleeding campaign that only requires egging on the local proxies. If Saudi Arabia cannot vanquish the Houthis, then there is virtually no cost to Iran from continually transfusing the rebellion there with arms and intelligence.

    All 4 of these reasons seem to me to counter the notion that Iran does not have the resources for more confrontation.

    Now add this: If the US removes sanctions and frees up funds as a result of cutting the Iran deal, then Iran will have the money to undertake new operations. The big problem is losing their American patron. If a Republican wins in 2016, the Iranians are on the outs. Obama has set the table for them:

    1) Assad stays;
    2) Israel put under pressure again for more peace talks;
    3) Israel under an ICC cloud that the US does little to alleviate;
    4) A Palestinian state is realized–Samantha Power does not veto the motion;
    5) Any war involving Hamas’ or the PA’s forces must bring unbearable pressure from the White House on Israel to desist.

    These are the ‘nuisances’ that give strategic advantage to Iran for an attack on Israel.

    A country that would plan, via a proxy, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in Café Milano with large collateral casualties a certainty, and also bomb the Israeli Embassy the same day, in broad daylight, within the country of their chief sponsor, does not have a sufficient brake on its ambitions, and will want to cash in its chips before the game is shut down.

    My guess is big war soon, before Obama leaves office.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    The major point is correct. Israel would not be supported fully by the Obama Administration in any military conflict with its worst enemies. It must wait for another U.S. President.
    At the same time the time is not right for Hizbollah to initiate hostilities.
    So it seems for now this particular war is not about to break out.
    As for the Sunni terrorist groups the recent terror attack in Sinai indicates that they are closer to us than we would like to believe.
    Logic and reason are one thing- historical reality is another.

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