Why Netanyahu is bickering with the Obama Administration over Iran and Why Israel won’t attack Iran

I’ve been asked a lot lately about why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arguing with the Obama Administration over its policy towards Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel is likely to carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, so here’s my brief analysis:

The Netanyahu government believes that diplomatic negotiations and economic sanctions have failed to halt or slow down Iran’s nuclear program and that time is rapidly running out to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, which it sees as an existential threat to Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is therefore losing patience with the Obama Administration’s diplomatic approach, which he never really thought would succeed in the first place.  Now he is trying to use the run-up to the US election to pressure President Obama to make an explicit commitment to take future military action against Iran if it crosses a certain “red line” (Netanyahu has not publicly specified what the “red line” should be, but Israel basically wants to prevent Iran from producing large amounts of highly enriched uranium in a location invulnerable to a military strike).  In doing so, Netanyahu wants to box Obama in if he is reelected by getting him to make a public promise that he will have to keep.  The Obama administration, on the other hand, is refusing to set a “red line” because it wants to keep all its options open and give more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work.  It is very reluctant to carry out a military attack against Iran and doesn’t want to be pressured by Israel into promising to do this.

The coming US presidential election means that the Obama Administration desperately wants to prevent Israel from striking Iran before November since such an attack would probably lead to a sharp spike in oil prices severely affecting the American economy and produce major turmoil in the Middle East and beyond, risking American lives.  These negative consequences of an Israeli strike could easily jeopardize Obama’s prospects to win re-election.  The Obama Administration is also well aware of the fact that most Americans currently oppose a US or Israeli military strike against Iran.  American public opinion is primarily concerned with the US economy, especially continued high unemployment, and the last thing Americans want right now is to get involved in another war in the Middle East.  The Obama Administration’s approach to Iran is basically in line with US public opinion, so it would be politically foolish to change this approach in the run-up to an election.

American opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike is probably the biggest factor preventing Israel from attacking Iran, but it is not the only one. Israeli public opinion is also opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike and so is most of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.  Even Netanyahu’s own government ministers, particularly the members of his security cabinet—which is responsible for authorizing any Israeli military action—are divided on the wisdom of Israel attacking Iran against the wishes of the United States.  Thus, although it is certainly not out of the question that Israel will eventually choose to go-it-alone and carry out a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expressed fears about Iran’s nuclear program, my assessment is that it is unlikely to happen because Netanyahu simply does not have the necessary domestic and international support for this.  Despite all his bombastic rhetoric, Netanyahu is ultimately very constrained in what he can do vis-à-vis Iran.  Indeed, that may well be why he has become so frustrated about the Obama Administration’s ‘wait-and-see’ policy on Iran and its refusal to support an Israeli military strike or pledge to take military action itself.

In sum, therefore, Netanyahu is trying to push Obama to commit to taking military action against Iran in the future, and Obama is pushing back against this.  So far, Obama appears to be winning this latest tug-of-war. 

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About Dov Waxman

Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, and his B.A. from Oxford University. He has previously taught at the City University of New York, Bowdoin College, and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. He has been a visiting fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and St. John’s College at Oxford University. He is the author of "The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation" (2006), and the co-author of "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" (2011).

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