The Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius, often serves as an unofficial mouthpiece for the White House, CIA, State Department, or Pentagon. His column today should probably be read in this way.
While funneling the chatter that with increasing volume in recent weeks has suggested that an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent, Ignatius adds some important details on the way the Obama administration is responding.
The Obama administration is conducting intense discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the United States: whether Iran would target U.S. ships in the region or try to close the Strait of Hormuz, and what effect the conflict and a likely spike in oil prices would have on the fragile global economy.
The administration appears to favor a policy of staying out of the conflict, unless Iran hits U.S. assets, which would trigger a strong U.S. response.
This U.S. policy — signaling that Israel is acting on its own — might open a breach like the one in 1956, when President Eisenhower condemned an Israeli-European attack on the Suez Canal. Complicating matters is the 2012 presidential campaign, which has Republicans candidates clamoring for stronger U.S. support of Israel.
Administration officials caution that Tehran shouldn’t misunderstand: The United States has a 60-year commitment to Israeli security, and if Israel’s population centers were hit, the United States could feel obligated to come to Israel’s defense.
Israelis are said to believe that a military strike could be limited and contained. They would bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and other targets; an attack on the buried enrichment facility at Qom would be harder from the air. Iranians would retaliate, but Israelis doubt the action would be an overwhelming barrage, with rockets from Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. One Israeli estimate is that the Jewish state might have to absorb 500 casualties.
Israelis point to Syria’s lack of response to an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor there in 2007. Iranians might show similar restraint, because of fear the regime would be endangered by all-out war. Some Israelis have also likened a strike on Iran to the 1976 hostage-rescue raid on Entebbe, Uganda, which was followed by a change of regime in that country.
Israeli leaders are said to accept, and even welcome, the prospect of going it alone and demonstrating their resolve at a time when their security is undermined by the “Arab Spring.”
Assuming that Ignatius has not misconstrued the messaging from the administration, there are several ways in which it can be read:
- That this is in effect, yet a further escalation in the war-making rhetoric — that Iran is being told that if the U.S ever had the capacity to restrain Israel, that capacity has been relinquished. Mad dog Israel is now being let off the leash;
- or, that Israel is being warned that it may suffer the consequences of its own bravado and won’t get bailed out by the U.S. in the event that Iran strikes back in a proportionate and appropriate way — perhaps through missile attacks on the Dimona nuclear facility;
- and that Washington wants Tehran to understand that the United States draws a clear distinction between its own interests and those of Israel and that the Iranians should keep this in mind when making their own strategic calculations.