Avoiding an Iran-Israel war

By Barrie Dunsmore 

Israeli aircraft

The White House: 3:10 a.m. (April/May/ June 2012? )
The telephone in President Barack Obama’s bedroom rings. He is told that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the line. “Mr. President,” says Netanyahu, “I wish to inform you that the Israeli Defense Forces have begun their attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” So begins Obama’s nightmare scenario.

To head off such a nightmare, in January the president dispatched Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to Israel with a strong message. Although that message has not been officially been made public, based on high level leaks from both sides it has been widely reported that Dempsey warned the Israelis that if they attacked Iran without prior agreement from Washington, the United States would not join the ensuing conflict. Given the potentially huge negative consequences, if America is going to go to war with Iran, apparently it wants to do so on its own terms and not be dragged in by the Israelis. Yet while that may not be an unreasonable position, it may not be a credible one either, for the following reasons:

•No matter how a military attack on Iran actually begins, most of the world and certainly the Iranians, will firmly believe that the U.S. and the Israelis were in cahoots — so trying to remain neutral in such a fight will not really be an option.

•Regardless of how reluctant Obama and his top military advisers are to go to war with yet another Muslim country — especially one of the size and power of Iran – all of the Republicans running for president, nearly all of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress and most of the mainstream news media will demand that Obama go to Israel’s rescue. That means American public opinion will overwhelmingly support an aggressive interventionist policy – that is, until the price of oil doubles, the American economic recovery fizzles and the body bags start coming home.


It is ironic that while few American public opinion makers question the premise that a nuclear armed Iran is a threat to Israel’s existence which demands military intervention, in Israel itself more than half of the people have recently told pollsters they do not believe Iran is an existential threat. And some of the strongest critics of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities include several recently retired top Israel intelligence and defense officials.

For the most part, there has been little debate in this country over the need and/or the wisdom of bombing Iran to prevent it from going nuclear. But mine is not the only voice crying out in the wilderness against military action. There are some knowledgeable people in America, raising questions about the inevitability of war — three of whom I knew and reported on during my years in Washington.

Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He held senior government positions in the Pentagon and the State Department and worked as diplomatic correspondent and columnist for The New York Times. In February in an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Gelb wrote, “Bibi, Israel, curb your over-the-top war rhetoric toward Iran. I urge this as one who cherishes Israel and values military power. But you’ve got to understand that your constant threats are not working. Unending military threats unite Iranians and fire up their resistance.” Gelb went on to warn, “Even if Israel attacks by itself, Tehran can be expected to strike at America, Europe and elsewhere. And Tehran likely will unleash terrorists world wide, possibly with chemical and biological weapons, plus hits on oil pipelines. So the decision to go to war cannot be Israel’s alone.”


Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and remains recognized as a first-class foreign policy analyst, albeit one sometimes critical of Israel. Last month on CBS News, Brzezinski addressed the question of what would happen if Iran became a nuclear power. His response: “First of all, we deterred the Soviet Union, which was much more threatening than Iran ever will be. We deterred China. We are deterring North Korea. We can deter Iran.

“Second, we the United States will proclaim that any threat from Iran involving nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons against any country in the Middle East — Arab or Israel — will be viewed by the United States as a threat against the United States and respond accordingly. … I think the guarantee from the United States of complete protection, which has satisfied the Japanese and the Koreans, which has protected Europeans under much more threatened conditions, can work in the Middle East.”

Dennis Ross served as Middle East specialist and negotiator for several presidents. Until last year he worked as Obama’s special assistant on Iran. Over many years Ross developed a reputation for being very sympathetic to Israel — to a fault according to his numerous critics. But deserved or not, that reputation gives special significance to his op-ed in The New York Times this past week which sets out his reasons for optimism that diplomacy rather than war could still resolve this crisis.

Ross begins by noting that while all the current speculation is about an Israeli strike, “there has been little discussion about whether diplomacy can still succeed, precluding the need for military action.” He goes on to explain how the current “crippling” international sanctions have seriously weakened Iran’s economy and deflated its currency while its political influence in the region has plunged because of its support for the murderous Syrian regime. As for the spate of recent Iranian threats, Ross says, “Notwithstanding all their bluster, there are now signs that Iran is looking for a way out.”

In fact, last month Iran announced its willingness to resume nuclear negotiations with the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany. This may only be a ruse. But if Ross is correct it could be a glimmer of hope that war might yet be avoided.

Editor’s note: This op-ed by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in Vermont’s The Sunday Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

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