Archive for August, 2012

Why sanctions fail; and the consequences of attacking Iran (or not)

Monday, August 6th, 2012
Excess gas flares off at an Iranian oil installation

Excess gas flares off at an Iranian oil installation

Here’s one cute example of why sanctions against Iran aren’t working:

U.K. investment bank Standard Chartered could be suspended from operating in New York after state finance regulators found hundreds of billions of dollars worth of transactions with Iran…

The state regulator alleges the bank colluded on tens of thousands of transactions totaling more than $250 billion, earning Standard Chartered millions in fees…

SCB’s obvious contempt for U.S. banking regulations was succinctly and unambiguously communicated by SCB’s Group Executive Director in response [to an inquiry by SCB’s CEO for the Americas]. As quoted by an SCB New York branch officer, the Group Director caustically replied: “You f—ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians.” — Eric Platt and Linette Lopez, Business Insider

This is is in addition to legal exemptions to sanctions. The three largest importers of Iranian oil, China, Japan and India have been granted exemptions in return for reducing their Iranian oil imports, but not ending them. South Korea, the fourth largest, has temporarily stopped, but intends to resume shortly. Overall, 20 nations have such waivers, and the Iranians claim that 80% of their oil economy is unaffected (probably an exaggeration).

There is no question that the Iranian economy is being hurt by sanctions. But, from the point of view of the regime, it’s a small price to pay to (in their view) make it possible for them to kick the Big Satan out of the Middle East, destroy the Little Satan and ultimately spread the Shiite Islamic revolution throughout the region. If there ever was a game changer, an Iranian nuclear weapon would be one.

Imagine if, in early 1945, the US had faced economic sanctions aimed at the Manhattan Project. Would we have pulled back with success a few months away?

Here is another, related topic:

Uzi Baram is a former Labor Party MK and minister in the Rabin government. In an op-ed today he wrote,

Let every citizen know that things are never going to be the same again [if Israel attacks Iran]. I am not talking about the weapon systems Israelis will have to face. Rather, I am talking about the more mundane aspects of our lives — an end to Israel being a leading economy that is inundated with foreign investment; an end to inbound tourism.

This would also spell the end of Israel as we know it now, the Israel that despite the effect [sic] of the social justice protests, still has a few bright spots…

It’s all very clear: If we attack, the Iranians would react in kind. The Arab and Muslim world, both the Iran-sympathizers and its haters, would tighten the noose around Israel…

But the way things are right now, the decision-making apparatus’ conduct is worrisome. My goal is to shed light on the elephant in the room; namely, that Israel will be a different country altogether after an attack. Its economy, its socio-economic landscape and its society will all look utterly different. Thus I call on the government and the people to engage in a dialogue that would do away with Churchillian speeches before we go on the attack.

He may be right that a preemptive strike would have far-reaching consequences. In fact, I’m sure he is, although it’s hard to predict what they will be. What he fails to mention is that not preempting will also have consequences, even if a nuclear weapon is never used against Israel.

Not preempting means violating the principle that has served Israel well in its darkest days, that of not depending on other nations to protect it. At best, the US would attack Iran and destroy its nuclear capability. In that case, Israel would still suffer strikes from Iranian and Hizballah missiles, as well as needing to go to war against Hizballah. How would this be significantly different from Baram’s scenario? And what would be the consequences for Israel of becoming a protectorate of the US?

Of course there is also the case in which the US, for whatever reason, changes its stated policy and chooses to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Even apart from the direct security consequences stemming from an Iranian nuclear umbrella, wouldn’t Israel be a “different country forever” in this new world? Wouldn’t foreign investment and tourism be severely punished?

Baram thinks that the Israeli government needs to involve its citizens in a national dialogue about what to do. Unfortunately, the question of what to do and when to do it depends on a great deal of information that simply can’t be public. Although there are many issues about which public debate is indicated, even essential, this isn’t one of them.

What a silly op-ed!

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When will Israel attack Iran?

Sunday, August 5th, 2012
Israeli F15I warplanes practice midair refueling maneuver

Israeli F15I warplanes practice midair refueling maneuver

Today I’m going to engage in the popular sport of predicting when Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Not ‘if’ — when. It is now clear that sanctions and diplomacy as they can be implemented in the real world will not — cannot — stop Iran. The attainment of nuclear weapons is a national goal of top priority, and the regime can tolerate a great amount of unhappiness on the part of its people in order to achieve it.

Although it is not impossible that the US will do the job, our red lines are farther away than those of Israel. Administration officials have alluded to a ‘decision to build a weapon’ as a trigger for action, while Israel considers the ‘capability’ as unacceptable.

It is also an Israeli strategic principle — well borne out by history — that it cannot depend on others when national survival is at stake. It considers nuclear capability of a state like Iran a danger to its existence. So even if the US makes convincing arguments that it will take action in the future, this is not a bet that Netanyahu can afford to take.

I am not sufficiently competent or informed to say when the point will be reached at which Israel feels that it must act before the Iranian facilities are hardened enough to make an attack too difficult. And of course I don’t know when the Iranians will have the “capability” that defines Israel’s red line. But there are political issues that I can discuss.

All of Israel’s wars involve the US as a silent ally or silent not-so-much-ally. The question of “what will the US allow Israel to do?” is almost as important as “what is Israel capable of doing?” And the timing of any action with regard to the upcoming election is very relevant to US behavior.

Because the majority of Americans support Israel, the administration does not want to appear unfriendly before the election (this is one reason that it has backed off the pressure to restart negotiations with the Palestinians). This will greatly restrict its freedom to act to restrain Israel or end the conflict that develops before Israel has achieved a clear-cut victory.

This is extremely important in connection with the campaign against Hizballah that will have to accompany action against Iran. Israel can not afford a conflict that ends in another toothless UN resolution like 1701, which ‘forbade’ Hizballah from rearming, and which was ignored.

After the election, the Obama administration — which is exceptionally cool toward Israel — will either be re-elected or become a lame duck. In either case, it will no longer be restrained by electoral considerations. It will no longer be afraid to be tough on Israel.

If Romney wins the election, one hopes that his administration will be more friendly. But practically speaking, it’s doubtful that there will be a major reversal of US policy. The State Department, the CIA, the various pro-Arab lobbies — none of these will go away, or change a whole lot. In that case, I think we can look forward to a return to ‘normal’ US-Israel relations, similar to what we had in the Clinton and Bush administrations. And that would be a good thing.

I don’t want to minimize the ideological distance between a Romney, who believes in American exceptionalism, and an Obama, who is the first American president to espouse “leading from behind.”

But a new administration would want to avoid an international crisis in its first days. And Israel would want to go out of its way to establish good relations with it. So the idea that a Romney victory would be a green light for Israel to attack Iran is certainly wrong. And it is highly unlikely that a new administration would want to jump into military action itself.

Regardless of who wins, then, it is advantageous for Israel to act before the election.

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A paradoxical relationship

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Commentators are fond of saying that the US-Israel relationship is ‘complicated’. Actually, it’s not.

Let’s explain what is usually considered a major paradox: the US provides billions in military aid to Israel, enabling it to keep its enemies at bay. But at the same time its diplomats claim that they don’t know what the capital is, and the major thrust of US policy since 1973 has been to force Israel to withdraw to indefensible boundaries, despite the obvious damage to its security.

Israel’s foes in the US will say that the aid is extorted by the all-powerful “Israel lobby.” But this is nonsense — AIPAC (stupidly, in my opinion) brags about how powerful it is, but it has lost more than one important battle. And there are countervailing forces, like the Saudi lobby, which has been very effective in quietly working against Israel through its academic grants and “post-emptive bribery” of government officials (“scratch our backs today and we’ll feather your nest when you retire,” to mix metaphors) like Jimmy Carter.

There are several reasons for the military aid: one is that it is spent in the US, which is helpful to our economy. And where else can we sell weapons without worrying that they might some day be turned against our own soldiers? But the main reason is that the great majority of Americans strongly support Israel, want to see it survive, and express this to their members of Congress.

Walter Russell Mead, in a perceptive discussion of Mitt Romney’s attitude toward Israel, wrote,

…the idea that Israel needs us and that it is both our moral duty and a strategic interest to support it to the hilt has sunk so deeply into the American public mind that Governor Romney can hardly go wrong in standing up for it.

It sounds odd, but it is very true: Israel is as American as apple pie. By showing how much he loves Israel, Governor Romney is telling millions of voters that he is a solid and loyal American.

Don’t think that the other side doesn’t understand this. Public support for Israel is under siege from several directions.

Probably most important is the attempt to turn Christian believers against Israel, by falsely accusing Israel of mistreatment of Palestinian Christians — every Christmas we see a flood of media items to this effect — or by pushing anti-Jewish replacement theology. They have been much more successful with the “mainstream” Protestant churches like the Presbyterians, whose General Assembly came within a couple of votes of calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel, than with the Evangelicals, although they are trying.

What about secular Americans and Jews? Here the approach is to attack the idea that Israel really is a democracy that shares American values. So we have Peter Beinart arguing that Israel is becoming an undemocratic theocracy which behaves in racist ways toward minorities. We have representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism suggesting that Israel is institutionalizing the misogyny of ultra-orthodox extremists. There are even distorted analogies drawn between the Palestinian movement and the US civil rights movement!

The really interesting question is not why average Americans support Israel, but rather why our Administration and State Department continue to implement policies that are inimical to its survival, despite the clearly expressed will of the people.

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