Israel came dangerously close to conducting a unilateral strike against regional foe Iran, a new expose has revealed, in an extensive report which details almost a decade of Israeli and US policy towards the Islamic Republic.
Published yesterday, the New York Times (NYT) report draws on interviews with dozens of current and former US, Israeli and European officials, even speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his role in the protracted Iran saga.
The article sees the US-Israel relationship as being at the heart of US decision-making on Iran, with tensions between Netanyahu and then US President, Barack Obama, playing out in policy terms.
“Obama took the possibility of a sudden Israeli strike [on Iran] seriously,” the report claims, pointing to the US’ use of spy satellites to watch Israeli drones taking off from bases in Azerbaijan and flying over the Iranian border as evidence of this.
“Military planners ran war games to forecast how Tehran might respond to an Israeli strike and how America should respond in return,” with Obama even building up the US’ presence in the region in case Israel triggered a war.
The report also discusses the relationship between Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, at that time Israel’s defence minister and the prime minister’s right-hand man. From 2011 onwards, Netanyahu and Barak were actively planning an attack on Iran, meeting with senior Israeli defence establishment officials to discuss the possibility of a strike.
When many of these officials expressed their reservations and cautioned against an attack, they found themselves relieved from their roles.
Barak recalls explaining to President Obama that, though these doubting Israeli officials “[had] the right to think otherwise,” it was not for them to make the final call. “If they look up, they see us,” Barak said, meaning himself and Netanyahu. “When we look up, we see just the sky.”
“Behind the scenes, Israel was indeed preparing for a strike,” NYT explains. “Its military and intelligence services had cut the time needed for the final preparations — for the attack and for the war that might ensue.”
By 2012, the US was sending a senior official to Israel every few weeks to “Bibisit”, as a former Obama-administration official described the need to watch Netanyahu’s every move and monitor preparations for a strike.
“In the summer of 2012, American spy satellites detected clusters of Israeli aircraft making what seemed to be early preparations for an attack,” the NYT writes. “One former senior Israeli security official, looking back at that time, said that it wasn’t until then that he believed the prime minister was serious about striking Iran.”
The US daily also claims that such an attack “came far closer to happening than has previously been reported,” conceding that it “would have been a significant breach of Israel’s relationship with the United States — or at least with the Obama administration,” if it had gone ahead.
Officials interviewed for the expose even went so far as to say that Netanyahu was pushing for a strike on Iran to coincide with the latter stages of the US 2012 election campaign, in order to hamper Obama’s re-election bid.
Speaking to NYT – itself a rare move by the Israeli prime minister – Netanyahu insists that the threat of an Israeli strike on Iran “was not a bluff — it was real. And only because it was real were the Americans truly worried about it.”
The prime minister claims he only pulled back from the brink of war because he could not get a majority of his cabinet back in Israel to support him. “If I’d had a majority, I would have done it,” he says. “Unequivocally.”
Obama’s re-election in 2012 was a blow to Netanyahu, but paled in comparison to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, negotiated in secret and behind Israel’s back.
NYT believes the deal was an unintended consequence of Netanyahu’s hard-line attitude, acknowledging that though “Obama had long believed that there might be a sliver of hope for a nuclear deal,” some former administration officials said the prospect of an Israeli military operation “gave energy to the diplomatic push”.
“Unless we could do something that changed the equation, the Israelis were going to act militarily,” Ilan Goldenberg, the former US Pentagon official handling Iran issues, told the daily: “We felt we were running out of time.”
Jumping forward to the present, after US President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Obama-era nuclear deal, tensions with Iran have ratcheted up amidst multiple tanker crises, and Israel has repeatedly struck Iranian targets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, New York Times added.
“Trump’s withdrawal from the [nuclear] deal, compounded by the events of recent months, has revived fears not just that the United States could take military action against Iran or quietly bless an Israeli strike but also that all the parties could stumble into a conflict out of hubris, miscalculation or ignorance,” the US daily wrote.
“Everything is in aid of what the [US] president’s advisers see as the larger goal, one embraced not only by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel but also by the Arab states in the Persian Gulf: a realignment of the Middle East, with Israel and select Sunni nations gaining supremacy over Iran and containing the world’s largest Shiite-majority state.”
Though Netanyahu acknowledged the possibility that President Trump might yet “try to avoid a war and instead attempt to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program” – as Israel fears will come of Trump’s recently-expressed willingness to speak with the Iranian leadership – “this time,” Netanyahu vowed, “we will have far greater ability to exert influence.”