‘Libyan Scenario’ in Iran: The US ‘Goes Alone’

Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the US regarding Iran reflects the assumption that the two states are fully coordinated. However, Israeli and US interests regarding Iran are not identical in essence and intensity. Hence, a scenario exists in which the US will seek a 'Grand Bargain' with Iran.

Essence of the Warning

Israel's conduct vis-à-vis the US regarding the Iranian issue reflects the assumption that the two states are fully coordinated and have a mutual understanding of the Iranian challenge. According to this mindset, the US will choose between one of the following scenarios in the near future:

  • The Bush administration will stop the Iranian nuclear project during the current term: In this scenario, an effort will be made to exhaust diplomatic and political means via increasing economic, political and international pressure, condemnation of Iran in the UN, and setting clear deadlines. If this attempt fails, the US will lead a military campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities;

  • The Iranian nuclear issue will be left for the next administration to deal with: In this scenario, the current US administration will decide not to exhaust the tools at its disposal in order to stop the Iranian nuclear project. The current Israeli mindset is that even a decision such as this will be coordinated with Israel and leave Israel with the alternative whether to accept US priorities and schedules or to act against Iran independently.

However, Israeli and US interests regarding Iran are not identical in essence and intensity. Among the main differences is the fact that in Israel, Iran is perceived as an existential threat, while in the US, an organized withdrawal from Iraq and obligations to other actors in the region dominate its agenda.

Hence, the Reut institute contends that a third scenario exists whose probability will increase in the coming months, according to which:

  • The US will seek a 'Grand Bargain' with Iran: In this scenario, the US will form a deal with Iran, resulting in Iran keeping its ability to enrich uranium. In this scenario, Israel is liable to be perceived as obstructing such a bargain and hence may be excluded from the whole process. If this scenario occurs, Israel will be forced to accept the bargain as it is.

Existing Perception: US-Israel Coordination on the Iranian Issue

Israel's current policy regarding the Iranian threat is based on the following basic assumptions:

The Iranian Nuclear threat is an existential threat to Israel and stands at the head of its National Security priorities.1

An integrated plan to halt the Iranian nuclear project includes:

  1. International Pressure - Israel is trying to increase international pressure on Iran in order to cause it to halt its nuclear project, based on the message that Iran is a challenge to the international community and world order, and not just to Israel.2

  2. Preference for an American military response - If international pressure on Iran does not bear fruit, Israel would prefer an American-led military operation against the Iranian nuclear project.3

  3. Fostering an image of a viable Israeli military option - Israel is building a viable military option as a last resort, or at least to foster an image of the existence of such an option.4 However, many voices in Israel, US and the international community argue that Israel does not have and will not have a military option against Iran that could effectively stop the nuclear project, even if Israel does have the capacity to strike specific sites of the Iranian nuclear project.

The US understands the Iranian threat to Israel - President Bush and the US Presidential candidates recognize the great severity of Iran's rising power and its nuclear project, as well as their influence on its status in the Middle East.5 A special understanding of the significance of the Iranian threat for Israel exists in America.6

The probability that President Bush will act against Iran is higher than the probability that whoever succeeds him would. This assumption relies on the fact that most of the supporters of an operation against Iran come from within the Bush Administration.7

Israel and US are coordinated on the Iranian issue - Between Israel and the US there is a tradition of military and political coordination around central issues (such as Israel's nuclear policy or Israel's policy towards the Palestinians).8

Therefore, a change in US policy vis-à-vis Iran will be coordinated with Israel. Even if a US policy change vis-à-vis Iran occurs, it will be coordinated with Israel. Israel's freedom of action will be preserved, if the US decides not to exhaust its military or political option within the current term of office.9

Nonetheless, there is some incongruence between Israeli and US interests on the Iranian issue - The Iraqi issue is America's top priority. Moreover, the US has strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, Kurdistan, Turkey, Central Asia and Afghanistan.10

Changing Reality: Likelihood of US Military Operation Decreasing

In practice, emerging trends undermine the aforementioned basic assumptions and render them irrelevant.

Iraq dominates the American agenda -

  1. Among the American public, political system and US army, pressure is increasing to withdraw from Iraq and avoid further military confrontation with Iran.11

  2. The war in Iraq limits America's operational capability against Iran. The US is exposed to a difficult Iranian response in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.12

  3. Already, the resources of the US are overstretched and the American army is fighting both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Resistance in Washington to a military operation against Iran is growing due to various reasons, including debate about the chances for success, the level of exposure of the US army in the Persian Gulf,13 the belief that economic sanctions are working as well as criticism of the Bush administration.14

Even those who support a military operation agree that the political option must be exhausted first in order to build legitimacy for a military campaign. Exhaustion of the political process may thus be perceived as requiring direct US-Iran discussions.

The call for direct discussions between the US and Iran is rising - Among the clearest calls for such discussions was the Baker-Hamilton Report (12/06). Although the administration officially rejected the report, direct discussions between US and Iranian representatives have been held on the topic of stabilizing Iraq. The US-Iranian communication channel also exists via Saudi Arabia.15

The dilemma in the US is intensifying. The US is approaching a moment of decision -The closer the Bush administration gets to the end of its term, the more difficult it will be for the Administration to decide on a military campaign against Iran.16 Between a dangerous and controversial military option based on international sanctions and refusal to negotiate with Iran unless it stops enriching uranium, and a decision to leave the Iranian nuclear issue for the next President, a third option might arise of exhausting a process of direct negotiations with Iran.

Israel is liable to become a burden - Israel is perceived as interested in American military action against Iran. Washington understands that Israel's interests regarding Iran do not overlap with America's interests and are liable to complicate achieving America's goals in Iraq, for example. Therefore, in the case of a direct political process between Iran and the US, Israel is liable to be perceived as burden which will cause this process to fail, and thus will be excluded from the process.17

Significance: Israel Must Prepare for a ‘Libyan Scenario' in Iran

The gap between Israel's mindset and the trends influencing US policy is liable to lead Israel to a strategic surprise:

A Two-phased American-Iranian-European deal -

  1. A deal regarding the existence of negotiations - Currently, the main obstacle to direct negotiations between the US and Iran is the American demand for Iran to cease enriching uranium as a precondition for negotiations. In order to convince other members of the Security Council to vote for increased sanctions on Iran, the US may agree to enter negotiations with Iran with no preconditions, or - under certain circumstances - may waive this demand entirely.

  2. A deal regarding the Iranian nuclear program - Negotiation with Iran may lead to a deal in which the US accepts Iran's uranium enrichment capability (at the level of a ‘pilot project'), in return for Iranian consent to halt uranium enrichment for military purposes, under international supervision.

A US-Iranian deal is not necessarily bad for Israel -

  1. Stopping the Iranian nuclear program will ‘spare' Israel from the need to perform a present or future high-risk military operation. This may be preferable to the current situation, which may lead to a confrontation with Iran or to its nuclearization.

  2. A ‘good deal' will stop the Iranian nuclear threat and contain Resistance Network activity against Israel.18

  3. A ‘bad deal' will be one that does not block the potential for ongoing Iranian nuclear development and does not limit the activity of the Resistance Network.19

    In addition, prolonging negotiations between the US and Iran over a period of several years will give Iran time under a ‘negotiation umbrella', during which it will be able to complete its nuclear development.

Policy Options

Israel's key assumption has to be that not every US-Iranian deal reached ‘behind Israel's back' is a ‘bad deal'. Nonetheless, Israel must ensure that, in the case of talks between the US and Iran, its essential interests are preserved and that the US will seek a deal that is in Israel's interest.

How can Israel turn from a liability into an asset in the negotiations between the US and Iran? - In the case that the conclusion is reached that the chance for a military action against Iran is weak or unreasonable, Israel must be perceived as a partner for the US, and not as a political burden.

Israel must consider and raise the issue of a US-Iranian deal in talks with the US - Israel needs to propose policy alternatives beyond the military option. Currently, Israel is perceived as supporting only military action against Iran, ruling out other possibilities. The more that Israel can be the one proposing creative alternatives for halting Iran's nuclear project besides military action, the more likely it is that the US will choose to include Israel in its decision-making.

Clarifying the issues which will be raised in US-Iranian negotiations - Israel needs to clarify with its American counterparts the main issues in US-Iranian negotiations which affect Israel: minimum requirements in such a deal; the significance of deadlines and length of the negotiation period, regional linkages, etc.

1 Prime Minister Olmert's Herzliya Conference speech (1/24/07): "Today, I would like to focus on a subject which I believe is the most important one ... This subject is one with significant repercussions for the State of Israel and the region in the next decade. I will present you with a report of the state of the Iranian threat" (See: Olmert's Herzliya Speech 2007).

2 Olmert's Herzliya Conference speech (1/24/07): "It is clear to everyone that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue is the preferred solution. We also prefer such an outcome. The direction which the majority of the international community leans towards is a solution which can bear fruit ... Israel is not spearheading the struggle against the Iranian threat. This threat must be dealt with seriously and responsibly, first and foremost by the major powers and by other key nations" (See: Olmert's Herzliya Speech 2007).

3 Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn, "What Will Happen If Diplomacy Fails?", Ha'aretz, 10/20/06.

4 Olmert's Herzliya Conference speech (1/24/07): "Our desire for peace should not be interpreted as weakness, but rather as a source of strength. Anyone who threatens us...must know that we have the determination and capability of defending ourselves, responding with force, discretion and with all the means at our disposal as necessary. We will not place the lives of our people, the life of our country, at risk" (See: Olmert's Herzliya Speech 2007).

5 See, for example, President Bush's speech: "The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran, and made it clear that the world will not allow the regime in Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons." (The White House, 1/23/07). See, for example, candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination Barak Obama's essay: "The world must act in order to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons" (Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2007).

6 See for example candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination Hillary Clinton's speech: "A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbors and beyond. We cannot and should not - must not - permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons" (NY Times, 1/19/06).

7 The main supporters of a military operation against Iran come from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. See Cheney's speech: "The President has indicated he wants to do everything he can to resolve [the Iranian problem] diplomatically...But the President has also made it clear that we haven't taken any option off the table" (The White House, 2/23/07). "Members of Vice President Cheney's staff have told others that Mr. Cheney believes the diplomatic track with Iran is pointless, and is looking for ways to persuade Mr. Bush to confront Iran militarily" (NY Times, 6/1/07).

8 An additional principle of the ‘Special Relationship' between Israel and US is that policy changes are coordinated between both sides, without surprising one another. For example, regarding the nuclear issue, Israel's ‘policy of ambiguity,' as was decided between Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1969, became an agreed-upon and coordinated policy between Israel and the US. Regarding the Palestinian subject, the coordination was upheld during the Oslo Process (1993-2001) (See Gilead Sher, Within Reach, (Routledge: 2006), pp. 135-136); as well as vis-à-vis the Hamas government and US adoption of Israel's ‘Three Demands' policy (2006-07) (this coordination was enacted into various American laws). Also in the Syrian arena, cooperation was kept between both sides (See Itamar Rabinovich, Waging Peace, (Princeton: 2004), Chapter 4).

9 Olmert's Herzliya Conference speech (1/24/07): "We have a right to full freedom of action to act in defense of our vital interests...I do not suggest that anyone mistakes our restraint and responsibility, or presume that it will harm our determination and capability to act when necessary" (See: Olmert's Herzliya Speech 2007).

10 See Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' statement regarding the Iranian involvement in Afghanistan and the difficulty Iran is posing to US military forces in Afghanistan (USA Today, 6/13/07 and AFP, 6/13/07).

11 In May 2007, 63% of Americans would oppose the US government if it decides to take military action in Iran according to a poll by Opinion Research Corporation released by CNN (Angus Reid Global Monitor, 5/22/07). See also these polls indicating declining American public support for military action against Iran.

12 Iran has threatened to launch a missile blitz against Persian Gulf countries and plunge the entire Middle East into war if America attacks its nuclear facilities. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a senior defense adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that Persian Gulf countries would be key targets of a barrage of ballistic missiles (London Times, 6/11/07).

13 In his Senate confirmation hearing, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that "the consequences of a conflict, a military conflict, with Iran could be quite dramatic. And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort" (IHT, 12/6/06).

14 See, for example, the statements of former CIA official Bruce Riedel: "It will be much more difficult to convince the American people of the wisdom of another military adventure in the Middle East after Iraq. Yes, a lot of American politicians are now saying ‘we will not let Iran have nuclear weapons', but it is very hard for me to believe that this Congress would authorize a military operation against Iran in the near future barring a clear provocation by the Iranians" (Ynet, 6/8/07).

15 See Melman, "Direct Negotiations between the US and Iran on Iraq," (Ha'aretz, 5/14/07, in Hebrew). The Bush Administration supported and attended regional conferences on Iraq on March 10, 2007, and May 3-4, 2007, both attended by Iran. The Bush Administration is pursuing several avenues to attempt to contain the potential threat posed by Iran, but the US focus is now on multilateral and bilateral diplomacy (Congressional Research Service report, 5/15/2007).

16 In the US, an elected officeholder whose term of office has not yet expired but who is ineligible or has failed to be re-elected and therefore cannot garner much political support for initiatives is known as a ‘lame duck.' Although President Bush will not officially become a lame duck President until the US Presidential elections in November 2008, some analysts already describe his severely limited ability to implement his agenda as ‘lame duck' (NY Times, 6/9/07; ABC News, 6/12/07; Washington Post, 6/11/07).

17 See Ze'ev Schiff, "Washington is signaling Tehran" (Ha'aretz, 9/22/06): "If an American-Iranian dialogue ensues, Israel will not be invited to take part in such talks..."

18 There are significant differences between Israeli demands of Iran and European, Russian, Chinese or American demands of Iran. While the Israeli approach seeks cessation of the Iranian nuclear project and possibly dismantling it entirely, Europe, Russia and China would be content with freezing the program and Iran's technological capabilities and preventing its nuclear military capability.

Similarly, Israel links Iran's nuclear capacity and its sponsorship of terror. This linkage is not central to the American approach, and even less so to the European approach. In other words, restricting Iranian involvement with the Hizbullah in Lebanon or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Authority is not in these countries' high priority.

19 See, for example, the extended US-North Korean negotiations (1993-2002) which eventually led to North Korean withdrawal from the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and testing of a nuclear device.