The Iranian Threat in a Tumultuous Middle East
Israel Policy Forum
August 16, 2012
2:00 PM ET
David Halperin: Hello, everyone, thank you for joining us this afternoon or this late morning or wherever you may be. This call is hosted by the Israel PolicyForum. IPF is an American nonpartisan organization, provides resources and advocacy for a strong, secure Jewish and democratic state at peace with its neighbors. And of course, of great concern as of late is a variety of regional developments.
Most certainly of concern are continued reports of the Iranian nuclear threat and developments and tough rhetoric regarding that issue. And of course, increasing concern over developments in Egypt, Syria, and throughout the region.
And today we have a guest with us who is uniquely suited to help us navigate really the entire region and make sense of how it is and is not interconnected and to make sense of it all. Our guest today is Professor Asher Susser. He is the Stanley and Irene Gold Senior Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University. He was the director of the center for 12 years and has taught for some 30 years at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Middle Eastern History.
He has been a Fulbright Fellow, a visiting professor at Cornell, University of Chicago, Brandeis, and the University of Arizona. He has also been a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute and has written many books. He’s someone that we have regularly called upon -- again, to make sense of a very dynamic set of developments as of late in the region, and we thank Professor Susser for being with us.
I will now turn over the call to today’s moderator, IPF’s National Scholar and Professor of Political Science at UCLA, Stephen Spiegel. Steve, thank you very much and Professor Susser, thank you.
Steven Spiegel: Thank you, David. David Halperin, of course, is the Executive Director of IPF; I’m very grateful to him for his assistance today. I also just want to mention Asher Susser’s latest book, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative, from University Press of New England, published a few months ago. I had an opportunity to read that book a few weeks ago and I can tell you it’s a marvelous read, quite enjoyable, and the most incisive analysis of this problem that I have seen anywhere; I highly recommend it to all of you.
And so Asher Susser, welcome aboard.
Asher Susser: Thank you, Steve, for that promo.
Steven Spiegel: Sure. But I’m going to ask you -- you’re not going to be so grateful to me in a second -- is Israel going to attack Iran in the near future?
Asher Susser: Of course it might, but I think it’s really the very, very last resort and nothing that most people in Israel, including the security establishment, are particularly enthusiastic about.
I think that much of the rhetoric that has been ramped up over the last few days really has to do with a message that Israel is sending directly, i.e., to the Obama Administration to come out forcefully in the name of the United States to express its forceful opposition to the idea of a nuclear Iran.
If the United States were to make such a statement, I think that would allow the Israelis to relax somewhat. But if the Israelis are convinced that the United States will not take action against Iran, then I think that Netanyahu and Barak have come to the conclusion that they would have to.
Steven Spiegel: Well, wait a minute. It seems to me that both Obama and Romney may agree on this more than anything else. I mean, they’ve both very strong statements over the last several months. Jon Stewart had a piece a few weeks ago in which he quoted them and showed videos of both of them and said, what’s the difference here? What are they arguing about?
So how many different ways does the United States have to say -- how does the United States say it differently than it has in the past to be more convincing? We’ve never had a president or presidential candidate make the kind of strong statements that both of these men have made, and one of them is going to be president next year. So what’s the problem?
Asher Susser: I think the problem that the Israelis have is with the two words, containment versus prevention. A poll was published in Israel yesterday that showed when asked whether they believed that the United States would take action against Iran, 70% of Israelis said they didn’t believe it. And only 20% said that they did.
Shimon Peres came out today with a statement that Obama should be trusted and believed and that the United States is a firm ally of Israel and Israel should not take action against Iran on its own without the backing and cooperation of the United States. So some people in Israel are very convinced, some others need a little bit more convincing. And I think that the rhetoric that is coming out of Israel seems to be directed towards the US administration. It may be that great things have been said, but the Israelis need a little bit more convincing.
Steven Spiegel: Well, the president did say in March, I believe to AIPAC, that his policy was not containment; his policy was to prevent Israel -- I’m sorry, to prevent Iran -- from having a nuclear weapon. He said it very clearly and very strongly. And of course this president, in addition to he’s ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons generally, he knows that if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, so will several other states in the region, it’s very likely.
So what does a president have to say besides, my policy is not containment; I will prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon by whatever means are necessary? I’m paraphrasing there but I’m not paraphrasing when he said, it isn’t containment.
Asher Susser: I think that what is necessary here is for the Israelis to hear a very firm commitment from the United States that it will use force and that it is willingto use force. And nothing, I think, less than a very clear statement in that direction; not that all options are on the table or that it will take any measures necessary, but that the United States will make a very firm commitment to use force when the time comes.
And I think the Israelis feel -- otherwise, if the Israelis were convinced of that already, I don’t think we would be going through the motions of the present rhetoric that we’re hearing presently.
Steven Spiegel: There’s a rumor that the two administrations, in Israel and the United States, are discussing an agreement whereby the United States would attack by June 2013 if there was no agreement with Iran. Do you think that has credulity, particularly since we don’t know who’ll be the president in June 2013?
And secondly, if such a report is accurate and if such an agreement were possible, do you think that would assuage Israeli concerns?
Asher Susser: I think so. I think if there was really an agreement and an understanding with a time line that this suggests, I think that would make a difference. I think it would make a huge difference.
The problem that we have at present is that -- this is the debate in Israel -- can the United States be taken seriously when it comes to the commitment to use force? You hear Barak saying, publicly and otherwise, that Israel can only rely on itself. When Israelis say such a thing, it suggests a certain lack of confidence in whatever it is that others, including the United States, have said thus far.
And it would need something more than that, and I think that is -- by reading the Israeli press in the last few days, that’s the message that’s coming out of Israel. Something has to be said by the United States in the most clearest of ways that gets the Israelis convinced that they can sit back and cooperate with the United States and won’t be left holding the baby themselves.
Steven Spiegel: Where are the Iranians in all this? I mean, they haven’t caved, they haven’t moved. Are they affected? Do they share Israel’s doubts about the United States? Certainly Israel could attack. What do they want? Are sanctions working?
Asher Susser: The Iranians, I think -- there are three realities that they see. One is that sanctions are working, but only in a limited fashion. They have their ways and means of circumventing the sanctions and therefore the sanctions have an effect, no doubt, but not a crippling effect.
Secondly, they hear the talk of Israel’s limited capabilities coming also from some Israeli spokesmen and coming from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States just the other day. That Israel can do damage, maybe, to the Iranian project but it cannot destroy it.
And the third thing they hear, is Israel’s, let’s say, lack of certainty about the US conviction.
And therefore, I think if the Iranians take all these three together, they feel that they can wing it -- that they can get through this. And I think that that is the position they are in at present, and therefore I say another reason why the Israelis are expressing their present determination to go ahead on their own if they have to and if they have no choice. It’s not a choice that they relish and they would much rather cooperate with the United States in a move that the United States leads itself. But Israel is uncertain about that and it needs certainly.
Steven Spiegel: Where is the side chatter in all of this and how is it affecting the calculations in Israel and in Iran in terms of what’s going on elsewhere in the region, especially Egypt and Syria? What does all this mean?
Asher Susser: Well, I think that a lot of the Iranian determination to continue with their project is reinforced by changes that are taking place all over the region and that are having a variety of unsettling effects. And the unsettling effects also relate to Iran, specifically.
The axis of evil, as people called it in the past, between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, has been greatly weakened by the troubles of the Assad regime. As a result, the Shiite crescent that people spoke of some years back as suffered a serious setback. Iran is becoming more isolated than it has been for a long time and a major ally of Iran, Syria, is suffering. Iran, therefore, is even more, I would say, claustrophobic than it is usually; and therefore I would say even more determined to proceed with their nuclear project, considering the Sunni ascendance which is taking place in the region. And that is, I think, affecting Iranian thinking considerably.
It also affects the other Sunni states, who would probably want Israel or the United States or both of them to deal with Iran because they certainly are not going to. The Saudis and their Gulf allies may be as anxious as Israel is about Iran but won’t do anything about it.
But there are other things that are being affected here, and I would say one of the most important -- and this doesn’t directly relate to Iran, but it certainly does directly relate to Israel and Israel’s problems with Iran -- and that is the weakening of the Arab state system around Israel. Israel used to be quite concerned, if not to say almost terrified, by the great fear of Arab power. That the Arab state in the 1950s and the 1960s would build a huge military coalition which would threaten Israel’s existence.
Israel now suffers, not from Arab power but from Arab weakness, the weakness of the Arab states. The weakness of Egypt, the weakness of Syria, the creation of situations of great uncertainty around Israel because of the weakness of these states.
Egypt does not have full control over its territory anymore and we now have this serious problems and aggravating problem of the Sinai Peninsula, which Egypt does not fully control anymore. That creates a whole series of non-state actors who are moving into Sinai and that threaten Israel from the southern front, where we haven’t had trouble for the last 30 years. That’s one serious problem.
Another is the potential weakening of Syria, if not to say even the disintegration of the Syrian state. What kind of mess will emerge from the undoing of the Assad regime? Will Syria remain a unified state? Will the Kurds separate? Will the Alawites build a little statelet of their own?
Iraq has already fallen apart into essentially two states, a Kurdish independent state and the rest of Iraq.
There is a kind of challenge to the state system and a weakening of the Arab state system around Israel which creates unprecedented uncertainty which is very difficult for Israel to manage, to gauge, and to defeat these non-state actors that may emerge along its borders in a rather uncontrolled reality.
When you think of a nuclear Iran in those circumstances, you can begin to understand how concerned Israel is. It’s not only that the Iranians may drop a bomb on Telev Ridge (ph), which they probably wouldn’t do. But the idea that Israel is going to have to deal with a whole group of non-state actors on its borders who may be emboldened by the support of a nuclear Iran which may constrain Israel’s capability to deal conventionally with these non-state actors in this rather volcanic neighborhood is very, very troubling for Israeli strategic thinkers.
And therefore, Israel really does have a problem with Iran and it is a serious threat, the kind of which Israel has not encountered before. Where you have on the one hand some conventional threats in the immediate neighborhood with the potential for a nonconventional umbrella coming from Iran, which creates a kind of military challenge to Israel for which one cannot conceive of great solutions. No Six-Day War victories in this kind of conflict. And therefore it is very unsettling and one should see Israel’s concern about Iran in this broader circumstance that emerges from the so-called Arab Spring.
Steven Spiegel: One last question before we open all this up. Asher, isn’t what you’re saying basically and fundamentally contradictory? On the one hand, you begin by saying that Iran is weaker, there’s a Sunni crescent now, not a Shiite crescent. And then you etch out all of these very serious problems and one might almost expect you to say, therefore Israel would be less likely to attack Iran. And instead you say it’s more likely to attack Iran. Well, if Iran is weaker, why is the nuclear question so profound at the moment?
Asher Susser: Iran is only weaker in one sense. Iran is weaker in the sense that it doesn’t have this arm sitting in Syria; and Hezbollah, as a result of the Syrian weakness, is also weaker. But that makes Iran all the more paranoid. That makes Iran all the more determined to go ahead with its nuclear project.
And the fact that there can be all sorts of neighbors around Israel that may seek the Iranian umbrella -- like Hamas, for example, which is not a Shiite player.
Steven Spiegel: But Hamas has been having trouble with Iran lately.
Steven Spiegel: Correct, and indeed has moved away from Iran. But not entirely. Hamas has been very ambivalent about Iran and very, very cautious not to disconnect itself from Iran entirely.
So there is the fear that the forces of the future may be supported by Iran in one way or another. That Hezbollah or Hamas, and who knows who else in Sinai and elsewhere, may take action against Israel on the assumption that a nuclear Iran will provide them with some kind of umbrella. The nuclear umbrella that Iran may provide to non-state actors is a concern in Israel, as important if not more important than the fear that Iran would actually drop a bomb on Tel Aviv. The fact that a kind of military constraint would be imposed on Israel in dealing with conventional challenges from its immediate surroundings is very, very troubling for Israelis.
Steven Spiegel: All right. I have lots more questions; I’m sure many of you do, too, so operator, let’s open it up.
Operator: Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question at this time, please press the * key and then the 1 key on your touch-tone telephone. If your question has been answered or you wish to remove yourself from the queue, please press the # key. Again, to ask a question, please press *, 1.
Steven Spiegel: And I will ask everyone to identify themselves. So operator, do we have a first question?
Operator: One moment for the first question. I’ll remind everyone to please state your affiliation when your line is opened. Our first question comes from Ann Garant.
Anne Gearan: Hi, this is Ann Gearan with the Washington Post. Could I ask you whether -- going back to the very first response you gave about that Israel wouldn’t want to but might sort of find itself forced into an attack. Do you think the United States is correctly hearing and understanding Israel’s messages on this point? Or has the administration sort of concluded that the Israeli political leaders, at least, are bluffing.
Asher Susser: No, I don’t think so. That is, I do think that the United States understands the message. The question is, is the response that they provide the one that the Israelis want to hear, exactly? And I’m sure we will find that out quite soon.
Steven Spiegel: Okay. Operator, next question.
Operator: The next question comes from Sanford Laycroft.
Sanford Lakoff: I wonder why you think that the --
AH: Sandy, could you identify yourself, please?
Sanford Lakoff: Sandy Lakoff, University of California, San Diego. I wonder why you think that the possession of the nuclear weapon by Iran would act as a constraint on Israel’s response to unconventional actors, inasmuch as it’s often understood that nuclear weapons are only useful as a deterrent? and of course, we assume that Israel has nuclear weapons that could threaten Iran. Why would that not be enough to nullify the threat that Iran poses?
Asher Susser: First of the all, in the balance between Iran and Israel, there is no symmetry. And therefore, the Iranians may be of the opinion that their nuclear threat to Israel is more damaging to Israel, potentially, than Israel’s threat to Iran is. They may be right or wrong about that, but there is plenty of reason to believe that the Iranians feel that they have an advantage over Israel in this concern.
Israel and Iran are dissimilar to the mutually assured destruction that governed the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, and Israel is extremely vulnerable in this particular case. And the Israelis feel that if Iran has a nuclear capability, Israel may be constrained, let’s say, carrying out a three-week war against Hezbollah. Israel may feel that it should not do so, or could not do so, or that it should constrain or limit the manner in which it responds to Hezbollah or to Hamas, for that matter.
And this is, whether rightly or wrongly -- and one can come up with some kind of argument that this is perhaps not the way the Israelis ought to think -- it is the way they think.
Sanford Lakoff: Well, it’s not the way they all think because the majority of the national security community, certainly the retired community, seems to be opposed to the action in the first place.
Asher Susser: There’s a difference between Israel launching an action of its own against Iran and -- I would say the consensus in Israel that Iran is a very serious threat. There is a consensus in Israel that Iran is a very serious threat, both in terms of the direct nuclear problem and in terms of constraining Israel’s ability to react conventionally. There is no difference between different factions, let’s say, within the Israeli defense establishment about the Iranian threat.
There is a huge difference about what it is that Israel ought to do about it and there is severe disagreement between those who think that Israel can carry out an operation on its own and those who don’t think so. And I would say most seem to be of the opinion that Israel ought not to carry out an operation of its own but to do so in coordination with the United States, with actually the US leading in such an operation.
But there is no difference, among the Israelis who count on these issues, on the nature of the Iranian threat. There is a great difference about what to do about it and these are two totally different things.
Sanford Lakoff: Okay, thank you.
Steven Spiegel: Operator, next question.
Operator: Again, ladies and gentlemen, to ask a question, please press *, 1 and please state your affiliation once your line has been opened. The next question comes from Ron Kampeas.
Ron Kampeas: Hi, it’s Ron from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. I’m curious first of all as to what kind of pronouncement -- what specific pronouncement -- would satisfy the Israelis? I mean, would it have to be, as we discussed with the time line, a deadline or otherwise the United States will strike? Will it make it explicit that it will strike? Will it have to be some kind of another military action like a blockade?
And just to follow up on what Steven was saying right now, what’s motoring -- what’s the engine behind the people who are really pronouncing against an Israeli strike quite strongly, like Shimon Peres and Sha’uma Paz (ph) today?
Asher Susser: First of all, coming back to what motivates the Israelis, I think there is a very strong body of opinion in Israel, and perhaps that is there the majority opinion, I would say, in the defense and the political establishment, that Israel should not take Iran upon itself. That is, Israel should not be the sole operator when it comes to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. And this is precisely what Peres said. And others in Israel have been saying pretty much the same over the last few months.
And I think that is maybe the conventional wisdom, and that is why it is so critical for the United States to convince the Israeli leadership and the Israeli public that the United States would, indeed, take military action when the time came.
I don’t expect the United States -- I don’t think too many people in Israel would expect the United States -- to pronounce a time line publicly. But I think that the Israeli and the US leaderships would have to come to a very firm understanding on what it is that the United States would be expected to do, and more or less when it would be expected to do so.
I don’t think anything less firm than that would convince the Israelis to hold back. And I think this is the message that the Israelis are trying to make, and I don’t think the Israelis -- going back to a previous question -- that the Israelis are bluffing. I think they’re absolutely serious, seriousness to take this action knowing all the limitation of it as a very last resort if there is no firm word coming from the US.
Steven Spiegel: All right. Operator, next question?
Operator: The next question comes from Sheldon Elsen.
Sheldon Elsen: You cut me off before I asked the question. I take it that people in Israel --
Steven Spiegel: I’m sorry -- can you identify yourself again? I apologize.
Sheldon Elsen: This is Sheldon Elsen (ph) in New York.
Steven Spiegel: I apologize.
Sheldon Elsen: Okay. I take it the people in Israel understand that the chances of the Obama Administration starting any type of military action or severe action against Iran before the election are essentially zero. The president cannot get the United States into a third war in the Middle East and not pay the price at the polls.
Asher Susser: I don’t think anyone in Israel expects the United States to do anything of that nature before the elections. I don’t think even one person in Israel expects that to happen. What we are talking about is not the Americans taking action before the elections; it’s the Americans making it clear to the Israelis what it is that they would do when the time comes in the not-too-distant future. It is Israel that may take action before the elections and there is no expectation that the Americans ought to do so.
There is an effort by Israel to obtain a United States commitment as clear as possible that the United States would take action some time in the future and that would make an Israeli action unnecessary. But no one expects the Obama Administration to take any action whatsoever in reference to Iran militarily before the election.
Steven Spiegel: Okay?
Sheldon Elsen: Okay, thanks.
Steven Spiegel: Sure. Operator, next questions?
Operator: The next question comes from Laura Rozen.
Laura Rozen: Hi, thanks for doing this. I’m trying to get more clarity from you, sir, on the timing of the commitment of the US action Obama would have to give Israel to ward off an Israeli strike. It would seem, from the decision-maker interview that Ehud Barak gave to Ari Shavit last week that he’s saying, look, Obama can’t commit to act in March because we don’t know if he’s going to be president in March. So it would seem that they’re saying he has to commit before the election to strike Iran before the end of the year. So is that your understanding and that’s what Israel’s demanding of the US if they’re not going to do it themselves?
Asher Susser: Well first of all, I think we have to get the powers in order here. I don’t think there is the slightest possibility that Israel can dictate to the United States what date the United States has to choose in order to take action by the US military. I think the Israelis would be way out of line if they were to think that they could possibly do such a thing. So I don’t think that could possibly be the nature of the discussion. The nature of the discussion --
Laura Rozen: There was a very clear statement from the decision-maker that essentially a commitment of something that Obama would do in six months is neither here or there. That would not be enough for him. (inaudible)
Asher Susser: I think it’s very clear to the Israelis that if the United States takes upon itself to act militarily against Iran, it has much more time than Israel has. There is a gap in the time line that Israelis feel is essential to them if they act on their own; or, alternatively, a time line that is governed by the United States leading the action. Because Israel has much less of a military capability. Because Israel has an air power which is far inferior to that of the United States. Israel doesn’t have that much time to act because every day it waits, it gets harder and more difficult.
Laura Rozen: No, I understand that. All I’m saying is what I’ve been hearing from people translating what Israel privately is telling they would need from the US to do it -- that the US would have to commit to act before the end of the year. And Obama’s not going to do it.
Asher Susser: I wouldn’t claim that I know exactly what it is that Barak has in mind. Secondly, I’m not sure whether it is that the United States would have to make a commitment before the end of the year or whether the United States would have to do something before the end of the year. I cannot imagine that the Israelis really believe that the United States would take military action before the next president is in the White House. I do not think that that is a realistic expectation from the Israeli side.
Steven Spiegel: Well, is Barak saying that he wants a commitment from both Obama and Romney -- that that would work? Is that the implication of his statement, do you think? Which would be quite unprecedented of the United States, but not totally impossible.
Asher Susser: Well, I think that what Barak has in mind at the moment is a commitment from the United States president, not from the candidate for the presidency who may or may not be--
Steven Spiegel: Yes, but as Laura Rozen is pointing out, as Barak himself has said, Obama can’t necessarily commit for after next January 20 because nobody knows, including Obama, whether he’ll be president.
Asher Susser: That’s correct, but only thing --
Steven Spiegel: If you get both Romney and Obama, then you have one of the individuals who will be president.
Asher Susser: Yes, but I think you can only accept one of two things. Either that Barak is absolutely convinced that Israel is going to strike on its own because all of what you just said is correct or that Israel is trying, by the present rhetoric, to get the United States to make a more clear commitment.
Now, I cannot be 100% sure which of these assessments is correct. Only Barak would know that and I’m not even sure that he’s convinced exactly what it is that he’s after. If the intention is -- and Barak and Netanyahu have already made up their minds that they intend to attack because Obama cannot make such a commitment, then that is how we should understand the rhetoric that they are producing in the last few days.
However, there is an alternative explanation to that, which in Israel at present seems to be the dominant explanation. And that is that this rhetoric is directed at the US administration in order to obtain a more clear-cut commitment. If it is to do that, I don’t think they can possibly expect that a US administration in the present circumstances would take action before the elections and before there is a new president in the White House.
Laura Rozen: Let me just ask, though -- because so much of the signaling is happening in the Israeli media in Hebrew. People here see it but it’s not being made to Washington. It’s to Israelis who are getting gas masks and stuff. So are you sure that the intended audience is really Obama and Panetta?
Asher Susser: I think that there are a number of intended audiences here, which is very often the case. It’s clearly also the Israeli public, getting the Israeli public ready. And I think the people in Israel are getting the message. And as I say, the government and Netanyahu and Barak are not bluffing. But their rhetoric is directed partly, as you suggest, to the Israeli public.
But what he said in the Israeli media and what is leaked into the Israeli media -- and what, by the way, gets into the New York Times by people through spoke to Barak yesterday or the day before -- there’s an interview with Uzi Dayan in the New York Times today which more or less explains the line that the final decision has not been taken. That there is a willingness to take this final decision but there is an effort, too, to obtain a very firm commitment from the United States. And I tend to believe that that is where this is directed.
If that commitment does not come from the United States, then I think the Israelis are very serious to take the action by themselves and achieve the limited objectives that they know that they can only achieve, and that is some postponement of the project but not its destruction.
Steven Spiegel: Let me try to probe this a little bit more. Let’s say -- obviously, the best kind of commitment would be secret, and then it gets into this problem that Obama has only a limited amount of time that he can make a commitment at this point before the election. But let’s say Obama did make the kind of stronger statement that you asked for at the very outset.
Reporters would undoubtedly immediately ask Romney, do you agree or not? If Romney then said yes, would that be enough for the Israeli decision-makers, so you think?
Asher Susser: Well first of all, it’s a hard call. I think it would, primarily because the Israeli decision-makers that we’re talking about, particularly Netanyahu and Barak, seem to be having an uphill battle in Israel itself to convince both the other decision-makers and the elites, including the defense elite and the defense establishment, and the general Israeli public, of the absolute necessity of doing the things the way they think they ought to be done.
This is not an easy decision for Netanyahu and Barak to make in the domestic circumstances that have emerged, where they seem to be in the minority. So I think that a statement coming from the United States that would be convincing would be a relief both to Netanyahu and Barak. But one that they felt was wishy-washy or not quite determined enough would leave them in their own mind -- both Netanyahu and Barak -- with the only option but for Israel to take action of its own.
But there is another facet to an Israeli independent action, which would also require a measure of international agreement and understanding, which I think part of what Israel is saying now is also directed there -- it’s not only the United States and the Israeli public, but the general international community.
If Israel does take action on its own, there has to be a follow-up thereafter. There has to be international support for Israel. There has to be international support for stronger sanctions that will keep the Iranian project from being rehabilitated. There would have to be international support for perhaps further Israeli action at a later stage if the Iranians begin to rebuild. This the Israelis have to cultivate even if they operate on their own.
So what Israel is saying is also, I think, let’s say second best, trying to obtain this kind of international support and sanction for what it is that Israel would be doing if it were pushed into that corner, which I say it would only go into reluctantly. But the most important part, I think, is still, as I was saying all along, what it is that the US administration could commit itself to do.
Steven Spiegel: All right. Operator, next question?
Operator: Once again ladies and gentlemen, to ask a question, please press *, 1. When your line is open, please state your affiliation. The next question comes from Joe Lauria.
Joe Lauria: Hi; it’s Joe Lauria from the Wall Street Journal. Can you hear me?
Steven Spiegel: Yes.
Joe Lauria: Okay. You’ve said repeatedly that there’s no way the United States could act before the election. But what about the scenario where Israel acts unilaterally a couple of weeks before the election and Iran responds and attacks Israel, and Obama is faced with looking like -- and being portrayed by Romney -- as abandoning Israel? And he could be forced into joining the operation. Otherwise, as I say, Romney would say he’s abandoning Israel, and that would cost him the election -- Obama.
Asher Susser: That’s guesswork over really -- even more extreme than the guesswork we’ve engaged in until now. It depends on the extent of the Iranian retaliation. And here, if you see what Israeli military analysts say, the expectation of an Iranian retaliation against Israel and not only from Iran but from Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah is not expected, in Israel, to cause such huge devastation.
The problem that Israel would be creating for itself would be over a long period of time of the manner in which it would have to deal with Iran over a long period of time as a major enemy and an enemy that has a huge account against Israel.
But in the weeks that follow -- that is, those critical days until the elections take place -- I mean, it can only be just that many days or a few weeks if Israel does do something, let’s say some time in late October, for this to have any kind of dramatic impact on the US elections.
I don’t think the Israelis foresee an Iranian retaliation or coming from Hezbollah and Hamas, both of them together or either one of them, as being that horrendous in terms of what it is that Israel can sustain. Quite the opposite. Barak and others have said, on various occasions, that the damage that they can cause to Israel is, while serious, sustainable. So I don’t think that Israel would look -- in terms of the retaliation that might come its way, Israel would look as if it is about to be defeated and needs to be protected by the United States -- I don’t think there would be such a reality.
Joe Lauria: Well, let me ask you a different way. Suppose Israel acts on its own before the election. How do you think Obama would react, and Romney? What would they say?
Asher Susser: That’s asking me a question about something I don’t really claim to know much about. I’m really not a great expert on American politics, don’t claim to know, and I can only imagine that as long as Israel is standing up for itself, which it probably would be, the United States would only have to express its support for Israel and there’s not much that they would have to do about it. There is not much that the United States has ever been expected to do in wars that Israel has fought, and I don’t think that this one would be particularly different.
Joe Lauria: Interesting; thank you.
Steven Spiegel: Operator, next question.
Operator: The next question comes from Sam Lewis.
Sam Lewis: Hi, Asher. It’s good to hear your voice again after a while.
Asher Susser: Hi; thank you.
Sam Lewis: Asher, I want to press you a little bit on this last series of exchanges. I take it that you don’t have any confidence in the repeated statements out of Tehran that couple the United States and Israel as co-conspirators, if you will, bound at the hip, which would imply that any response of the Iranians to an Israeli strike would certainly affect the United States directly in the Gulf or elsewhere. And the scenario that that would force the US to be involved in this war is one that a lot of American analysts take very seriously.
You don’t. I take it you don’t think anything -- that it would be easy to disaggregate the US and Israel’s responses in the case of an Israeli sole lead (ph) strike. Right?
Asher Susser: Well, I would say this. I’m not sure that it is as easy as that to disaggregate the two, as you say. But in Israel, the assessment that is most commonly held is that Iran would retaliate, definitely, against Israel. But the Iranians would think twice or more before retaliating against American targets. The last thing the Iranians need in such a confrontation as may emerge is to entice the United States to attack Iran. The assumption that many Israeli analysts have is very different.
Now, I’m not sure whether the Israeli analysts or the American analysts eventually will be proved right, but the analysis that most hold in Israel is that the Iranians will be very, very reluctant to entice the United States to attack them. Dealing with Israel is problematic enough for the Iranians. What Israel can inflict upon Iran is severe enough without the Iranians having to provoke the United States to join in. So I’m not at all sure that one should assume automatically that the Iranians will attack American targets and attract catastrophic American retaliation. That, in my mind, is far from certain and I would say somewhat less likely than the likelihood that they focus just on Israel.
Sam Lewis: So you don’t think they’d go after the Straits of Hormuz?
Asher Susser: I doubt it. I think it would be very unwise on their part and it would be a huge provocation to a lot of people that they need not provoke. Israel is more than a handful already and I think that at least in the initial phase, if I were to put myself in the shoes of the Iranians, I would limit it to dealing with Israel, which will be hard enough. Particularly in the present circumstances, where Syria looks the way it does and Hezbollah looks the way it does and the Iranian reach is somewhat less certain and less sure than itself than it was before the troubles in Syria.
Sam Lewis: If this action took place after the election but before the end of the year, as was being talked about before, and Romney were to be the next president, and there was any kind of attack on anybody, either clandestinely or publicly, there would be a wave of public support in the next administration for cleaning up this problem once and for all. Because there’s a strong sentiment in the right wing of the Republican party that this can never be solved until we get rid of that regime.
And after all, regime change was really the policy of the second Bush Administration -- at least, among a lot of its people in it. So I think the timing issue’s quite important here. It’s one thing if Obama’s reelected; I think it would be quite different if Romney’s in the White House with a Republican majority in the Congress, all of whom are talking as if Iran is just as much an enemy of the United States as it is of Israel, and therefore we are really bound at the hip.
Asher Susser: If that is so and I’m the Iranians, all the more reason not to pick a fight with America.
Sam Lewis: That’s right; but that assumes that the traditional Iranian conservatism and wariness -- and they have been that way internationally for centuries -- they don’t make rash decisions. But this regime is hard to read; they’re not the same crowd as the Shah, or even the first episodes in the Mullah regime. So I think there’s so much more doubt about the cold calculation argument with these Iranian leaders than there would have been with others.
Asher Susser: That’s probably true, although I can tell you -- at least I know one very serious Iranian scholar in Israel who did a study of Iranian foreign policy decisions since the revolution.
Sam Lewis: It’s been very careful.
Asher Susser: It has been very careful. It’s not they who picked the fight with Saddam; Saddam picked the fight with them.
Sam Lewis: Absolutely.
Asher Susser: They have been very --
Sam Lewis: My point is, even unanticipated events in the Persian Gulf, which are not totally predictable, might be well enough taken by a right-wing Republican administration here as a justification finally to solve the Iranian problem. I don’t think you can really rule that out.
Asher Susser: No, no; I wouldn’t. And when you talk about the unintended consequences, that’s one of the problems that Israelis bring up against Israel taking action on its own.
Sam Lewis: Yes, and I think that is an important point. Because you can’t predict how they will retaliate. They will retaliate against you and they would like to get at us, too, if they can do it without provoking us.
Asher Susser: That’s possible. But also, the problem that Israelis bring up when thinking of going it alone -- what if we fail?
Sam Lewis: Exactly. Or fail to do any serious damage.
Asher Susser: The whole problem that people throw at Netanyahu and Barak when it comes to this debate in Israel is also the unintended consequences -- do we really know? Do we really know what will follow from our action? First of all, we don’t know the measure to which it will succeed. Even if it’s entirely successful, do we know exactly what the end result will be? And if it’s only partially successful -- or, God forbid, a failure -- what are the consequences of that?
And therefore the difficulty that Netanyahu and Barak have in (inaudible)
Sam Lewis: Therefore (inaudible)
Asher Susser: I beg your pardon?
Sam Lewis: Therefore there’s every good Israeli reason to hope the United States will do it for you.
Asher Susser: Exactly. And I think that is what Israel would like to see happening, but it’s not sure. And therefore it may be forced into a corner where it has no choice but to do it themselves.
Sam Lewis: You know American politics enough to understand that American presidents are not exactly like prime ministers when it comes to making commitments.
Asher Susser: We know that only too well.
Sam Lewis: This kind of commitment is one no American president would make in the terms that you’ve described without the most -- unless it was the only conceivable way to avoid an immediate crisis. Because in the first place, you’re sure -- you’ve got to have more than just the president and the secretary of defense convinced of your argument.
Asher Susser: Well, I think that that is what Netanyahu and Barak are desperately trying to do.
Sam Lewis: Well, they’re not doing it very well because I don’t think the argument’s being swallowed.
Asher Susser: Yes, maybe.
Sam Lewis: Maybe swallowed in the White House and parts of the Pentagon and the intelligence community. I don’t think you can say it’s -- even in this pre-election period it’s anywhere near public or Congressional support. And after all, we can’t fight a war very long without Congressional support.
Asher Susser: I’m sure that what you’re saying is correct, and that only increases the Israeli dilemma.
Sam Lewis: Yes, you’ve got a terrible dilemma; there’s no doubt about that.
Asher Susser: Because what will get Barak and Netanyahu completely off the idea of a unilateral act is only a belief that the Americans will do something in the future.
Sam Lewis: But you may have to live with ambiguity. What will they do then?
Asher Susser: Well, that’s when Barak and Netanyahu will eventually have to make the great decision, which they have yet to make. And it may very well be that we will have to live with ambiguity in more ways than one. And I think there are some in Israel who would actually say that that is a better alternative than what Barak and Netanyahu are suggesting.
Sam Lewis: Is that a large number of people, or not?
Asher Susser: I would say certainly -- I don’t know how large it is, but it’s very qualitative, and therefore they weigh. And these are the people in the defense establishment who are skeptical, and their voice counts a lot.
Steven Spiegel: I’m afraid we’re running out of time. Sam, this was great. I’ve got to move on because we have two more questions -- time for two more questions. So operator, let’s have them as quickly as possible.
Operator: The next question comes from Lou Pearlmutter.
Lou Pearlmutter: Thank you. Following up in part on the last interesting little dialog, ambiguity and the understandable desire of the Israelis to have more certainty. Which would imply the United States defining what its red lines are. Are you convinced that the red lines that the Obama Administration would set are the same red lines that the Israeli administration would set?
It would appear that the Obama Administration’s position is the red line is the Iranians actually trying to build a bomb. Whereas the Israeli position appears to be Iran not acquiring nuclear capability. Could you define that further?
Asher Susser: I think there is a difference between the two, precisely as you suggest, where Israel talks about preventing the capability whereas the United States talks about preventing the actual acquisition of a nuclear device. There is a difference here, but I’m not sure that this is a difference that the Israelis and the Americans couldn’t find a way of getting over. Not necessarily in the public domain but these are two administrations that can talk to each other in other ways and come to understandings about this.
The United States clearly understands what it is that the Israeli grievance is, and the Israelis understand, too, what the American limitations are. And considering the measure of trust between these two administrations, I don’t think it’s impossible for them to come to an understanding, but they haven’t come to it yet.
And the Americans have taken a position which seems to be very clearly against Israeli unilateral act by trying to convince the Israelis the Americans will do something, but the Israelis have not yet become entirely convinced, and therefore the pressure that is emerging at this juncture.
I don’t think that this is a difference they cannot overcome, particularly because the Israelis, including Barak and Netanyahu, are fully aware of the limitations of the Israeli action. Even though this is not presented quite clearly to the Israeli public, I must say. There’s a lot of talk in Israel about Israel having two choices -- that is, tolerating Iran with a bomb or without a bomb. And that is not exactly the real choice that Israel faces.
The real choice that Israel faces is having Iran with the capability or postponing that capability but not preventing it. And it’s precisely this gray area between accepting a nuclear Iran and preventing -- or, postponing rather than preventing -- that imposes this limitation on what it is that the Israelis can actually do.
And therefore, recognizing that limitation, the Israelis would much prefer to come to an understanding with the United States. Simon Peres today essentially came out very clearly on precisely that point -- Israel should not do a unilateral mission against Iran but should seek cooperation with the United States.
That kind of understanding, I think, is possible even though, as you suggest, there is the disagreement on the gap between actually possessing a bomb and having the capability to produce one. That is something I think -- or rather I should say I hope -- the Israelis can negotiate with the United States and close that ray of light between them in order to create an Israeli-US understanding that would make an Israeli action unilaterally unnecessary.
Steven Spiegel: Okay; operator, we have time for one more question.
Operator: The final question comes from Rita Hauser.
Rita Hauser: Hi Asher, how are you?
Asher Susser: Hi Rita, how are you?
Rita Hauser: Good. Look, all of this is very hypothetical, but the question is, on what basis would any attack be made? What is it that has to change? At the present moment, the intelligence assessment across the board -- ours, Europeans’, and I believe Israeli -- is that the Iranians have not made a decision to go nuclear. How would Israel even begin to imagine it could take such a step without having some more concrete evidence of Iran’s intentions?
Asher Susser: I think irrespective of what other assessments may be, the Israelis are convinced that the Iranians are going in this direction, and there are many others who are also convinced of that.
Rita Hauser: No intelligence assessment in the world has come up with that, including our own just recently. Just in the testimony of Clapper to Congress the other day -- we’re concerned, we’re this, we’re that -- but no intelligence service anywhere in the world has concluded that they are intent on making the bomb in the sense of taking steps to do so.
Asher Susser: Well, I think --
Rita Hauser: So that poses a very large problem for Israel.
Asher Susser: That may be, but I think -- I don’t want to argue about what it is exactly that other intelligence organizations think. I think the Israelis are very convinced that that is the case, and I think that were the Israelis to decide to take action, I’m sure that following the action they would bring all the evidence that was necessary to be able to show that what they did was justified. I don’t think the Israelis are operating on a hunch.
Rita Hauser: No, no. But Asher, they share their intelligence daily with the Americans on this one, and with others in the European community.
I’m also looking at the bigger picture -- who would support Israel? I mean, you only have a duology here between US elections, Israel -- there’s a bigger world out there, including the region, including Europe. Who would back an Israeli strike in the absence of very clear evidence that Iran has done something that makes clear that decision has been made?
Asher Susser: I think that the Israelis are making the kinds of noises they are making now, and not for the first time in the last year or so, in order to convince the international community beyond just the United States that Israel is convinced that this is indeed the case. And Israel is seeking international support for it.
The last time Israel did this, it did manage to ramp up the international sanctions against Iran and the Israeli rhetoric then had a successful outcome. And I think the Israelis are possibly trying to repeat that now.
It would be very difficult -- I agree with you. It would be very difficult for Israel to do this if the whole world would come out and condemn Israel for doing so. And I think that precisely what the Israelis are trying to do at present is to create a situation where the world understands full well that, if driven to that particular point, Israel will take action.
The international response so far to the Israeli rhetoric of the last few days has not been very widespread international condemnation. The world has not come crashing down on Israel for what it has said over the last few days. And I think that there is actually a growing understanding of not only the Israeli concern but also the understanding that Israel may indeed take action.
I think that much of the international community would prefer Israel not to, but that requires of the international community and the United States above all else to give Israel reason to believe that if Israel does not take action, then somebody else will. And that is, I think, the point that we’ve been discussing all along.
Rita Hauser: Okay. Just to end it -- I don’t want to have a long dialog here -- I think the rest of the world understands that if it came to it, the US certainly would take action. But the problem is, nobody here that I know of in the intelligence world is buying this hysteria that came out the last few days in Israel. And in fact, it has largely been written off, as Sam Lewis hinted at, as part of Israeli domestic politics; that it doesn’t have anything to do with reality. That’s why it’s not getting any resonance here.
Asher Susser: Well, I think that is a wrong assessment. There is domestic politics involved here and there always is an element of domestic politics, but this is not just domestic politics. That, I think, is not the case. There is a very, very serious issue here and I don’t want to argue about what other intelligence organizations think, but I don’t think anyone in Israel really believes that the Iranians are not bent on acquiring a nuclear military capability.
Steven Spiegel: All right. I’m afraid on that note, we’re going to have to end. I understand from IPF headquarters in New York that there are a great number of additional potential questioners on line, but we’ve gone over. We’re out of time.
I want to thank those who asked questions, every one of them so distinguished. I want to thank particularly the dialogs that occurred with Rita Hauser, as you heard just a moment ago; and with Ambassador Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Israel and former of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and everyone else who participated.
Asher Susser, we’re going to have to have you back again because we hardly broached your titillating statements about how the region is changing. And of course, the Iran discussion goes on. I was very helped in my understanding of the Iran situation by your comments and I know everyone else was as well.
And on behalf of everyone on the phone, I want to thank you for participating with us. And so I say, whatever time zone you’re in, good day and good luck and goodbye.
Asher Susser: Thank you very much.
Operator: Ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude the conference for today. Again, thank you for your ` participation. You may all disconnect. Have a good day.