At the Gatestone Institute, a group of journalists with diverse backgrounds and outlooks reviews world events with a view to American security, with special emphasis on the Middle East. Our focus this week: What does Israel do in the context of a debacle in U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration? Our conclusion is that Israel’s reasons to strike Iran have multiplied with the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood threat on its southern border and the possibility of an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement.
Here is the summary of events we began with. Our roundtable discussion can be found at The Gate blog at the Gatestone website.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, supported by a substantial section of Israeli opinion, insists that Israel cannot strike Iran’s nuclear program without the support of the United States. President Obama, as Ha’aretz defense analyst Amos Harel observes, has done everything to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran short of appearing in person before the Knesset. Senior American officials, most recently Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, have been trotted out to assert that Israel can’t stop Iran’s nuclear program single-handed.
The problem is that American foreign policy faces catastrophic failure, or rather a comprehensive set of failures, bearing directly on Israeli security. Not only have sanctions failed to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but the Islamic Republic has broken out of diplomatic isolation. Turkey, supposedly America’s partner in regional diplomacy, has reached out to Russia and China. And Egypt has reached out to Iran while threatening Israel in the Sinai. China is hosting a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement at which Iran will assume the organization’s three-year rotating chairmanship. Egyptian President Morsi will visit Tehran on Aug. 25 on his way back from the summit.
In our April 12 summary, we concluded that
…the fluid and chaotic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the rapidly dwindling pre-Islamist-takeover interregnum in Egypt both argued in favor of the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran. The current lack of real equilibrium is favorable for — and even invites — radical game-changing actions. Whatever equilibrium is established in the future (whenever that is) is likely to be much less favorable for Israel and more favorable for Iran, insofar as both Israel and the US will be in weaker positions and their Sunni rivals will be both weaker and poorer.
The shift towards a new equilibrium “much less favorable for Israel and more favorable for Iran” was already in progress as we wrote, with the purge of the Egyptian military’s old guard and its replacement by officers allied to the Muslim Brotherhood. If Israel does nothing, it is likely to confront
1) A major Egyptian military presence in the Sinai in contravention of the Camp David treaty. An Egyptian build-up is already in progress.
2) An open alliance between Cairo and the Hamas government in Gaza, allowing Hamas to acquire new offensive capacities. As Amos Harel observed in yesterday’s roundtable of Gatestone analysts, Israel already faces rocket attacks in parts of the country previously considered immune.
3) An alliance between Sunni Muslim Brotherhood elements in Syria and Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite irregulars, and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Threats to Israel from the Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syrian borders are likely to worsen as the Egyptian rapprochement with Iran proceeds. Iran’s capacity to retaliate against any prospective Israeli strike will be enhanced and may include threats from Egypt.
The dilemma facing Jerusalem is that Israel can’t live without the United States, but it also can’t live with it. That may compel Israel to maneuver independently of Washington. As Rotem Sella reported on The Gate Aug. 17, there is speculation that Israel may concede the European natural gas market to Russia in return for Russia’s forbearance in delivering anti-aircraft systems to Iran.
Blowback in Egypt
Egyptian President Morsi’s announcement that he will visit Tehran on Aug. 30 occurs a week after Morsi purged the military leadership. Qatar’s $2 billion loan to Egypt announced the morning of Aug. 12 preceded Morsi’s purge by hours. The Obama administration sought to portray Morsi’s new army chief, General el-Sissi, as an “an ideal compromise between the secular-minded military old guard and Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood ,” as the Wall Street Journal wrote.
People with knowledge of the Egyptian military said Gen. Sissi has a broad reputation within military circles as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, a rare trait in a military culture inured against Islamism. “Sissi is known inside the military for being a Muslim Brother in the closet,” said Zeinab Abul Magd, a professor at the American University in Cairo and an expert on Egypt’s military.
The notion of an “ideal compromise” is turning out to be absurd. The younger officers can’t reproduce the career path of their elders, who will be retiring to yachts in Monaco, because the Egyptian economy is sucked dry and there’s nothing more to loot. The old regime said in effect, Après moi le deluge. I can only imagine the apocalyptic stirrings among the younger officers. This has been brewing for some time; as the New York Times reported Aug. 16,
The chief of staff of Egypt’s armed forces argued in a paper that the American military presence in the Middle East and its “one sided” support of Israel were fueling hatred toward the United States and miring it in an unwinnable global war with Islamist militants. The paper, written seven years ago by the new chief of staff, Gen. Sedky Sobhi, offers an early and expansive look into the thinking of one member of the new generation of military officers stepping into power as part of a leadership shake-up under Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Ha’aretz, Avi Issacharoff adds:
The fears in Israel of a deterioration in relations with Egypt, following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal from office of the head of the Supreme Military Council, Hussein Tantawi, and armed forces chief Sami Anan, are both premature and exaggerated. ..[but] there there are some causes for concern.
The development that, more than any other, should set off warning bells in Jerusalem, is the unilateral action taken by the Egyptians in Sinai during the past few days. Israel had prior knowledge about, and consented to, the use of some of the military reinforcements that were sent into the peninsula as well as the warplanes that were employed. But Egypt took action above and beyond what both sides agreed the Egyptian military needed to do in order to operate throughout Sinai. It turns out that additional forces were sent in, almost without anyone noticing, and without Jerusalem’s agreement.
The Times account commented, “American officials said their confidence in Egypt was unshaken, while analysts argued that despite the changes in the nation’s military and civilian leadership, any realignment in relations with Washington could be slow — in part because of Egypt’s urgent need for assistance from the United States and the West.” That is an egregious error, because the most that Egypt can expect is enough assistance to allow the poorer half of its population to keep body and soul together (and with the rise in food prices, perhaps not even that). Cozying up to Iran does not suggest that Morsi will go hat in hand to the Saudis, but rather that he will try to blackmail them. It is a high-risk strategy, but the Egyptians really don’t have a lot to lose.
Severe economic distress benefits the Muslim Brotherhood. I wrote in the Asia Times April 11 under the headline “Muslim Brotherhood Chooses Chaos,” that the Brotherhood would use shortages of food and fuel to consolidate its power in the street:
As Egypt headed towards chaotic breakdown, Western observers asked how its economy might be stabilized. This appears to have been the wrong question to begin with, for the Muslim Brotherhood will not allow the West to stabilize Egypt’s financial position. The right question is: who will benefit from the chaos?
At this writing, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be the winner by default, for no other actor has the courage and cold blood to exploit the emerging crisis. America, by contrast, is locked into the defense of a deteriorating fixed position. And Egypt’s military leaders are more concerned with feathering their nests in exile, like the Iranian generals in 1979.
The Brotherhood believes that widespread hunger will strengthen its political position, and is probably correct to believe this. As the central government’s corrupt and rickety system of subsidies collapses, local Islamist organizations will take control of food distribution and establish a virtual dictatorship on the streets. American analysts mistook the protestors of Tahrir Square for revolutionaries. The Muslim Brotherhood now reveals itself to be a revolutionary organization on the Leninist or Nazi model.
Wishful thinking blinded American analysts to the Muslim Brotherhood’s intent and methods. As late as Aug. 2, Fox News commentator Fouad Ajami still argued that “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia’s rulers bury their differences to fight the Shiite enemy,” adding, “An Egyptian alliance with Saudi Arabia is the beginning of wisdom — a necessary, though hardly sufficient, condition for Egypt finding a way out of its crippling past.”
On the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to believe that there is no way out of Egypt’s “crippling past” (45% illiteracy, 90% rate of female genital mutilation, 30% rate of consanguineous marriages, 50% dependency on imported food). Half of Egyptians live at the verge of starvation on $2 or less a day, dependent on the government bread subsidy, and the Brotherhood exploits their privation and fear to maintain political control in Orwellian fashion.
Washington, in sum, has helped to create a monster in the form of the Morsi government. The Israelis have to assume that Camp David is dead and that sooner rather than later, a new front will open against them in the South.
Iran’s Threats to Saudi Arabia
Morsi came back from his July visit to Saudi Arabia empty handed. The Saudis evidently did not want to fund a movement committed to the overthrow of the House of Saud. Morsi appears to have chosen to ally with Iran to threaten the Saudis. A report by the Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi suggests the thrust of Iranian policy: Threaten the Saudis with subversion in Eastern Province, perhaps via adjacent Bahrain, as well as assassination. Writes Naqvi:
To please some in the West, a possible result may already have been achieved in West Asia: quarreling Muslim Societies, too self-absorbed to worry about Israel or Palestine. But a prolonged sectarian strife may not be entirely to Saudi Arabia’s liking. It has its own oil rich Eastern province to worry about. Dammam, the centre of this province, is directly linked by a 37 km causeway to the troubled Kingdom of Bahrain with its 80 percent Shia population in revolt against the Sunni King. Bahrain is home to the United States 5th fleet and a holiday resort for the Saudis tired of their own institutionalized austerities.
Since the death of successive Crown Princes Sultan bin Abdel Aziz in October 2011 and Naef bin Abdel Aziz in June 2012, intimations of mortality are knocking at the doors of a series of prospective successors. King Abdullah himself was in hospital in Europe when the Arab Spring disturbed his convalescence. In February 2011 he returned and took charge. He faces dissensions at home. There have been unconfirmed reports that Saudi Spy Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been assassinated. In the absence of any official Saudi confirmation or denial, speculation and innuendo are rife. Former Chief of India’s External intelligence Agency and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Vikram Sood says: “What must have stunned the Saudi government into silence was not just that Bandar was killed but that the Syrians had the reach to strike deep in Saudi Arabia.”
Sanctions against Iran, meanwhile, are held in open contempt by a great deal of the world. Reuters Aug. 10:
Asia’s major crude buyers are finding ways around tough U.S. and EU sanctions to maintain imports from Iran, suggesting that, for now, the worst may be over for the OPEC producer that is losing more than $100 million a day in oil export revenues. China, India, Japan and South Korea buy most of the one million barrels per day of crude Iran is able to export despite financial, shipping and insurance sanctions aimed at curbing funds for its controversial nuclear programme. After a lull in imports in the middle of the year caused by Asian refineries reducing purchases as sanctions kicked in, analysts expect shipments to rise in August and September. But on average, imports are likely to remain steady until the end of the year, unless the United States and the European Union come up with fresh sanctions to curb Iran’s earnings.
“The drop in Iranian oil exports has leveled out over the past couple months at roughly 1 million barrels per day below 2011 levels,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at the New York-based Rhodium Group and a former State Department adviser.
The Saudi Gazette notes that with oil prices rising, “Tehran seems to be enjoying the unexpected windfall- despite the odds.”
Iraq is also helping Iran skirt financial sanctions, and continuing to do so in open contempt of American actions. President Obama personally announced in June that the U.S. was “cutting off” the Elaf Islamic Bank, “but the treatment the bank has received in Baghdad since it was named by Mr. Obama suggests that the Iraqi government is not only allowing companies and individuals to circumvent the sanctions but also not enforcing penalties for noncompliance” (New York Times). Iran is also trading currency and gold through Afghanistan. Again, the New York Times: “On its own, the rush of Iranian money to Afghanistan is unlikely to be enough to undercut the sanctions, which are the cornerstone of Western efforts to coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. But it is clear that American officials are worried. … The Iranians are ‘in essence using our own money, and they’re getting around what we’re trying to enforce,’ one American official said.”
With inflation in the mid-20s, Iranians are buying local real estate, al-Arabiya reports:
With increased sanctions, the demand went up for gold, foreign currency and anything independent of the rial. In fact, the real estate market in Tehran has been growing over the last six months. It had slowed in previous years due to a housing crash just like everywhere else. People are even putting money into real estate in poorer neighborhoods, which means people are continuing to take money out of the banks and invest it in housing.
Iran’s economy is hurting but in no danger of collapse in the near future.
Regarding Turkey, I wrote in The Gate on July 31:
Turkey’s application to join the Sino-Russian Shanghai Cooperation Organization following Prime Minister Erdogan’s July 19 pilgrimage to Russia is a diplomatic humiliation for the United States, and of the first order. Just when Washington is demanding that Russia withdraw support for the Assad regime in Syria, and when Turkey is the linch-pin for American logistics in support of the Syrian opposition, Erdogan has proposed in effect to joint the Russian-Chinese club (without being compelled to hand in his NATO credentials).
What Would be the Consequences of an Israeli Strike Against Iran?
Israeli (and Western) views are sharply polarized. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, reflecting briefings from the Israeli left, concluded:
But a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran today would be disastrous. It unites Iran in fury; locks in the Islamic Republic for a generation; gives a substantial boost to the wobbling Assad regime in Syria; radicalizes the Arab world at a moment of delicate transition; ignites Hezbollah on the Lebanese border; boosts Hamas; endangers U.S. troops in the region; sparks terrorism; propels oil skyward; rocks a vulnerable global economy; triggers a possible regional war; offers a lifeline to Iran just as sanctions are biting; adds a never-to-be-forgotten Persian vendetta to the Arab vendetta against Israel; and may at best set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions a couple of years or at worst accelerate its program by prompting it to rush for a bomb and throw out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
The counterargument is that all of these things, and worse, are happening in any case. Yoram Ettinger, a former senior Israeli diplomat, argued in Israel HaYom Aug. 17 that an Israeli initiative to strike Iran would benefit America’s world standing, even if the present administration opposed such a strike. He wrote:
On June 3, 1967, U.S. President Johnson pressured Prime Minister Eshkol against pre-empting the pro-Soviet Egypt-Syria-Jordan military axis, which threatened the survival of moderate Arab regimes (e.g., Saudi Arabia) and Israel’s existence. Johnson advised that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that [Israel] will make this decision.”
Johnson warned that a unilateral Israeli military pre-emptive strike could trigger severe regional turmoil, transform Israel into a belligerent state, and preclude assistance by the U.S. Johnson refrained from implementing the 1957 unilateral and multilateral guarantees issued to Israel by Eisenhower. He insisted that Israel should rely on the diplomatic-multilateral option.
Eshkol defied Johnson. He pre-empted the anti-U.S., Arab axis; devastated a clear and present danger to vital Western interests; rescued the House of Saud from the wrath of Nasser; expedited the end of the pro-Soviet Nasser regime and the rise of the pro-U.S. Sadat regime in Egypt; dealt a major setback to Soviet interests; and demonstrated Israel’s capability to snatch the hottest chestnuts out of the fire, without a single U.S. boot on the ground. He transformed the image of Israel from a national security consumer (a client state) to a national security producer (a strategic ally).
Eshkol realized that a defiant national security policy — in defense of the Jewish state — yielded a short-term political and diplomatic spat with the U.S., but resulted in a long-term national security upgrade and dramatically enhanced strategic respect.
The Israeli government will make the difficult choice on its own, independent of what outside analysts might say. But the events of the past week surely strengthen the case that there is far less to lose by attacking Iran than the Obama administration believes.