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Will Israel betray the Pax Americana by striking Iran without permission?

March 15, 2023 at 11:01 am

People stage a rally in Tehran to ‘support the administration and security forces’ on September 25, 2022 in Tehran, Iran [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

The days of war between the Arab world and Israel are long gone. Even enmity toward the occupation state has largely faded away, leaving in its trail the infamous Abraham Accords, despite the “normalisation” deals being generally accepted only by Arab or Muslim-majority nations which were never actually at war with the settler-colonial state of Israel.

Now, it seems, the only state with open enmity towards Israel is Iran, along with its regional proxies. Tehran is well aware of this reality, and has worked hard to present itself as the greatest threat to the occupation state.

Not only are Israel and its patron the United States concerned about Iran’s regional influence, but also its alleged intention to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran is reported to be close to doing so through its extremely high-level uranium enrichment in recent weeks. As of the beginning of March, Iran could apparently produce a nuclear bomb within 12 days.

It is in such a context that Israel has openly started to discuss the possibility of striking Iran’s nuclear sites and facilities, as it did with Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear programmes in previous decades. As the Israeli military is reported to be preparing for such action under the orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, open conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv has never been closer.

If Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government does take such bold action, the popular narrative centres on the question of whether Israeli air strikes will result in an open war between Israel and Iran. Perhaps the more important question, though, is whether Tel Aviv will attempt to carry out the operation with or without express permission from Washington.

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In all of its many major military operations, whether against Palestinians, Lebanon or Iranian sites in Syria, Israel has generally sought or been given the green light from the US. It has been an unwritten rule for decades, not only for Israel, but also other US allies in the region such as Turkiye and its incursions into north-east Syria, Saudi Arabia with its military campaign in Yemen, and certain NATO members assisting Ukraine with military supplies in the war against Russia.

We should not assume that foregoing Washington’s green light will result in an invasion or air strikes against the country acting on its own accord; such consequences, if any at all, often consist simply of condemnation, diplomatic tension or, at worst, economic sanctions. However, when such measures are imposed by what is still the world’s predominant superpower they are effective, and serve as a warning for any country which dares to act without US permission.

Even Washington’s favourite ally, Israel — which can apparently do no wrong — is subject to that unwritten rule. That does not mean there aren’t different standards for different allies, of course. While Turkiye has been slapped with sanctions and arms restrictions, and Saudi Arabia has been hit by some restrictions on arms sales and Saudi intelligence officials have been sanctioned, Israel has never had any such measures imposed upon it. It is allowed to act with impunity.

Despite Israel’s countless offensives on the Gaza Strip, regular armed campaigns against Palestinians — every Ramadan, for example — and the continued construction and expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the transgressions in the sale and spread of its pervasive spyware, the occupation state has never been held to account by the US or other Western nations. It is allowed, quite literally, to get away with murder.

So why should anyone expect it to be any different in the event of Israeli air strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme, even if carried out without America’s permission? Israeli officials have for years claimed that Tel Aviv is able and willing to take its own decisions for action against enemies like Iran citing self-defence and countering Tehran’s insistence that Israel would need the green light from the US before doing anything.

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The US is not without its concerns, however. It fears that Israel could catch it unawares by striking Iran without even notifying Washington in advance. That was reportedly a key reason for the visit to Israel earlier this month by the Pentagon’s two most senior figures, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General, Mark Milley, and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. They were said to have gone for clarification on the issue and for coordination talks with Israeli defence and political leaders.

Nevertheless, Tel Aviv’s bold posturing has drawn no actual warnings from Washington, so it would be fair to assume that the most severe consequences of an attack on Iran would be a slap on the wrist if Israel steps too far out of line, possibly in the form of threats to reduce US military aid and funding to the occupation state. If that happens, a concerted campaign by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington would soon restore the status quo.

An Israeli attack on Iran without US permission, though, or at least advance notice given to Washington, does have the potential to be a major issue for the allies’ seemingly indestructible relationship. Israel would, in effect, be exposing to the world its perception that the US is no longer the power it once was, and would join the growing number of nations which believe that the end of the Pax Americana is in sight.

If, however, Israel refrains from conducting air strikes against Iran without US permission, and America tries to rein-in the occupation state, then Tel Aviv would take a major blow to its national security concerns. It would also promote the perception that the occupation state is still largely reliant on its long-time patron for military backing and its continued existence.

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As in most international dealings, nothing is definite at the moment. Will Israel risk a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities with or without US permission? Will the US actually give such an attack the green light given its other concerns, over Ukraine, for example? Does Israel have the strength to handle the consequences of such an attack, green light or no green light? We know that the US refused to back Israeli plans to strike Iran’s nuclear sites back in 2008, but it may be years before declassified material can answer such questions.

Israel and the US will continue to coordinate and cooperate with each other, but the fact remains that the Israelis are growing increasingly frustrated with Western efforts to come to a negotiated settlement with Tehran, and ever more impatient with the Biden administration’s apparent lack of clarity on the issue. Meanwhile, the US has no interest in being dragged into yet another regional conflict, even if it is at the hands of its favourite state, Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.