Playing Good Cop, Bad Cop on Iran

By Meir Javedanfar

Before the recent controversial election in Iran, the U.S. seemed very worried about an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. In fact, Vice President Joe Biden warned Israel and called such a decision "ill advised." Even threats made by Israel against Iran's nuclear program were frowned upon by the Obama administration.

But it seems that after the recent Iranian presidential election, the Obama administration is changing its strategy. Whereas before the most visible "stick" against Iran was tougher sanctions, these days, Washington seems to feel more comfortable in delegating its other stick (i.e. the military option) to Israel. This was shown recently when Vice President Biden stated that "Israel is free to do whatever it deems necessary to remove the Iranian nuclear threat."

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Worryingly for Iran, such words seemed to be backed by visible U.S. sanctioning of Israeli muscle flexing.

First we saw the recent approval of advanced US F-35 jets to Israel. The Israeli Air Force already has more than enough jets to counter any threat posed by Syria or any of its immediate neighbors. The most distinctive advantage that such planes would offer Israel would be to allow stealth attacks against Iran, whose defenses could be boosted by advanced Russian S-300 anti aircraft missiles.

This was followed by the recent "leak" that Israeli Saar class missile boats crossed the Suez Canal, in cooperation with Egypt. What makes this interesting is that these Saar boats themselves don't pose the greatest threat to Iran. What does pose a serious threat however is the fact that Egypt allowed them to pass and that the news was leaked. As far as Tehran should be concerned, if Egypt has allowed such boats to pass today, tomorrow it could allow Israeli dolphin submarines to go through. These are far more difficult to detect, and more importantly, according to foreign press they are equipped with nuclear missiles. Although it is extremely unlikely that Israel would use such missiles in a first strike, nevertheless, they are important elements in Israel's second strike capability. They make it almost impossible for any Iranian nuclear strike against Israel to go unpunished. This is in addition to their conventional missiles which would be useful in a first strike, against Iran's nuclear and economic interests. Although Israeli boats have passed through the Canal previously, in the past they had been kept under wraps. It is extremely unlikely that the recent leak was done without Washington's consent.

Last, but certainly not least, is the recent news that the U.S. is going to allow Israel to test its latest Arrow anti-missile system in the Pacific Ocean. For the first time, Israel will be able to test its arrow system against missiles being launched 1000 kilometers away. This is almost the exact distance from Iran. Until now, Israel has not been able to carry out such a test, as U.S. bases in the Mediterranean, or its own bases wouldn't allow the range. The U.S. cooperation afforded to Israel will also include American missile systems which will be used to test the effectiveness of Israel's arrow. So in addition to distance, Israel will be permitted the advantages offered by its own advanced weaponry.

Such a move will greatly enhance Israel's defenses against Iran's missiles, which are considered to be Tehran's most potent weapon. What should concern Ayatollah Khamenei is that the enhanced Arrow system would allow Israel the luxury of a sophisticated defense against first or second strike assault.

It may seem odd that while Washington and Jerusalem seem to be at loggerheads over Israel's settlement policy, they seem to grow ever closer over the Iran issue.

In this case, Obama appears to be using Netanyahu's hawkish image to his advantage. The U.S. President is aware of Netanyahu's obsession with Iran, and that he, more than any other Israeli Prime Minister, would love to go down in history as the man who stopped Iran's nuclear program. Obama is also aware of how much the Iranians are aware of this, and the fact that what stands between Netanyahu and his ambitions is Obama himself. So for now, instead of threatening Iran directly, it is much more feasible for America to let Israel to do the job.

Obama's intent may be to force Khamenei into a compromise at the negotiation table. Or, should that fail, try to contain Iran's foreign policy, which after the victory of the ultra conservatives could become much more difficult.

Whether Obama succeeds depends on a number of factors, an important one being the economic pressure and isolation being applied against Iran. What Obama, and perhaps even Israel have come to realize is that it may be too late to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Therefore, a containment strategy needs to be put in place, with America in charge of the "carrots," and Israel swinging the "stick."

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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