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Despite the sabre-rattling, an attack on Iran is now unlikely

World View: If the Israelis wanted to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, they have probably left it too late

The Independent


Patrick Cockburn

No sooner was Israel's bombardment of Gaza over than Israeli and US officials started to ratchet up the prospects of an Israeli air attack on Iran in the next few months.

This is scarcely surprising. The threat has served Tel Aviv and Washington well in the past because it enabled them to persuade the rest of the world to impose swingeing sanctions on Iran as the only alternative to war. Even so, claims that a final confrontation with Iran is only months away are looking a bit dog-eared, given that this must be one of the most frequently postponed wars in history.

Within hours of the ceasefire being announced, anonymous Israeli and American sources were claiming that the air strikes on Gaza were a dry run for an assault on Iran. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, compared what happened in Gaza this month to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He said that "in the Cuban missile crisis, the US was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union. In Operation Pillar of Defence [Israel's name for its Gaza operation] Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran."

This flatters the Iranians who, at best, are only a regional power and nowhere near a superpower like the old Soviet Union. And even as a regional power it is in retreat as its main ally in the Arab world, Syria, collapses into civil war. The backers of Hamas in Gaza these days are not Iran and Syria but a powerful array of Sunni states including Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Tunisia and others.

Gaza itself is a defenceless slum jam-packed with 1.7 million people living in an area 25 miles long and six miles wide that is exactly the same size as Rutland, the smallest English county. For all the talk of its deadly missile arsenal, the ability of Hamas to hit anything with a rocket is very limited as is shown by the disparity between Palestinian and Israeli casualties.

Iran would be very different. It is almost 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv to Tehran. If the Israelis wanted to destroy Iranian nuclear or missile manufacturing facilities they have probably left it too late, even if such an operation was ever feasible. The Iranians have had a long time to hide whatever they want to conceal, or bury it in deep bunkers.

The Israelis could only do serious damage to Iran if the US air force joined it in a prolonged and wide-ranging assault similar to that the Americans carried out in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But this is unlikely to happen because the one thing American voters do not want is another war in the Middle East.

This is significant because the support of the US is all important to Israeli security. For all the talk of Israel acting unilaterally against Iran, this is not going to happen. Israel's resources are too small and its dependence on the US too great. Israeli voters do not like prime ministers who are on permanently bad terms with Washington, as Netanyahu found to his cost when he lost the general election in 1999.

In reality, the lessons of the latest Gaza conflict are the opposite of what the US and Israel claim. It was a more than usually cautious re-run of previous Israeli bombardments of Gaza and Lebanon over the last 20 years, usually at four-yearly intervals.

The political difficulties Israel had in carrying out even a quite minor operation like "Operation Pillar of Defence" against a puny enemy underlines the problems the country would face if it confronted Iran. There is another lesson to be learned from what has just happened in Gaza: for all his bellicose and defiant rhetoric, Netanyahu is a cautious political leader. He ended the latest crisis much more quickly than his predecessors as Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in 2006 and 2008, or Shimon Peres in 1996. He is not a gambler. This makes it unlikely that he would launch a risky venture such as attacking Iran.

Moreover, by showing that he is prepared to use military force on a small scale in Gaza, Netanyahu has made it easier to back away from his threats against Iran without being accused of weakness.

Another hopeful sign of the latest bombardment of Gaza is that Israel was a little more careful about who and what it blew up. Israeli reporters say that, although the Israeli army claimed publicly that "Cast Lead", the operation in 2008 when 1,400 people were killed, was a success, its generals recognised privately that it was a disaster. Israel was portrayed as a butcher, Hamas emerged the stronger.

Had Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, launched a ground offensive inflicting heavier civilian casualties, the bad publicity would have been even worse this time round. One difference between the bombardments of Gaza in 2008 and 2012 was that in the first there were very few foreign journalists there and the Israelis deliberately excluded them. This time round there was scarcely a foreign newspaper or television station that did not have a correspondent present.

Netanyahu has always been a master of threat inflation when it comes to frightening the Israeli voter or the rest of the world. Almost any opponent, however weak, can be demonised as a threat to Israel. It might be Iran, but for some of his ministers it might also be desperate and impoverished African immigrants trying to stay in Israel.

It is never been entirely clear to me whether the Israeli leadership takes the Iranian threat as seriously as it claims. Official Israeli hostility to Iran does not date from the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 but from about 1992. Israel's understandable priority has always been to remain a close ally of the US. For decades this relationship was cemented by Israel being America's ally against Arab states permanently friendly to the Soviet Union. But with the fall of Communism a new foe was needed against which Israel and the US could unite. Suddenly Iran was being denounced by Israelis as an existential threat to themselves and everybody else.

Israel's threat of war against Iran has worked well in isolating Iran and winning support for effective sanctions. Actually going to war would be to abandon this leverage in return for uncertain gains in an open-ended conflict against, unlike Gaza, a serious enemy.