Israel and Iran: Countdown to War

Israel and Iran: Countdown to War

U.S. and European sanctions have staved off the threat of Israeli military action against Iran. But not for long.

Israel's strategy for the Iranian nuclear weapons program is working—but it’s unlikely to solve the problem, or solve it in time.

Europe, which for constitutional and economic reasons for years shied away from using the big stick, recently decided to impose drastic economic sanctions against Iran in an attempt to compel it to halt its nuclear-weapons program. Meeting in Brussels, the European Union's twenty-seven foreign ministers, led by Britain, France and Germany, agreed to halt all imports of Iranian oil products or to help ship them to any destination; to halt all exports to Iran of oil-production equipment and all investments in the Iranian oil industry; to freeze the assets in Europe of Iran's central bank; and to prohibit all trade in diamonds, gold and other precious metals with Iranian state agencies.

But the union added the proviso that all existing oil-purchasing contracts between Iran and the three major European importers of Iranian oil–Spain, Italy and Greece—would be honored until 1 July, substantially reducing the immediate impact of the sanctions. In 2011, Greece imported 35 percent of its oil from Iran, Italy 15 percent and Spain 13 percent. All three countries are in the throes of a major financial crisis.

The European foreign ministers agreed to compensate those of its members economically injured by the sanctions. Meanwhile, both Europe and the United States have pressed Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya to increase their oil production to compensate for the loss in Iranian exports and keep oil prices down.

The union's decision to impose sanctions was in large measure a result of Israeli threats, which have grown more strident during the past few months, to attack Iran's nuclear installations. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, in pressing for the sanctions, warned that such an attack would plunge the Middle East into "war and chaos," implying that Europe and the world economy would substantially suffer as well. The sanctions are seen by Europe as a means of neutralizing the Israeli threat, or at least deferring an Israeli attack at least until July, by which time the effectiveness of the sanctions could be gauged.

Israeli leaders were pleased with the European move, which in part was the result of months of Israeli diplomacy and lobbying, but they remain pessimistic about its outcome. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak reacted by saying that the sanctions were insufficient and were "unlikely" to force Iran to halt its nuclear program. "We are not yet there," he said. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a recent weekly cabinet meeting that as in 1942, there were still enemies out there—he was referring to the Iranian Islamist regime and, in particular, President Ahmadinejad—who want to destroy the Jewish people. But the difference is that the Jews now have the power and determination to defend themselves. Israeli officials said that had such sanctions been imposed years ago, they might have had the desired effect. Now, they won't; Iran is too far advanced in its nuclear project and too determined to bring it to completion.

And, besides, much of the international community was still standing on the sidelines or actively opposing such sanctions. Russia reacted to Europe's move by stating that "this was a mistaken approach, Iran will not agree to concessions because of pressures." Russia continues to export weapons to Iran—though it has so far held off from delivering the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system that it contracted three years ago to sell to Teheran. And China, Turkey, India, Japan and South Korea, Iran's main trading partners, continue to import vast quantities of Iranian oil—and have so far resisted American and Western European blandishments to desist and switch to Saudi or Iraqi oil. The Saudis, fearful of Iranian nuclearization, have agreed to increase their oil production and keep world oil prices stable.

China and other countries may now exploit the situation to persuade Iran to reduce its oil prices—and the Iranians may be forced to agree, which will further hurt Iranian foreign-currency reserves and Iran's own currency. The Iranian rial, which traded a year ago at 10,500 per dollar recently traded in Teheran's streets at 21,000 rial per dollar, suffering a 14 percent drop in value in one week. Inflation in Iran is running at about 20 percent, and news agencies have reported panicked buying by Iranians of U.S. dollars and gold, accompanied by scuffles and fisticuffs outside Teheran's banks.

Iran reacted by declaring that if its oil imports were "harmed," it would close the Straits of Hormuz, the exit from the Arabia (or Iranian) Sea through which much of the West's oil imports flow. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that Iran would not be hurt by the sanctions—and Ali Falahiyan, the former Iranian intelligence minister, said that Iran might impose countersanctions by immediately stopping its oil exports to Europe (meaning to Italy, Greece and Spain). Indeed, the Iranian parliament has already begun debating a bill to impose such countersanctions.

At the same time, Iran has said that it is willing to reopen negotiations with Europe, possibly with Turkish facilitation, about its nuclear program. But no one in the West or Israel is optimistic about the outcome of such talks, which in the past have only resulted in buying Iran additional time in which to press ahead with its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the European sanctions, coupled with those imposed recently by the United States, appear to have staved off the threat of military action against Iran in the coming months.

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of 1948, A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press, 2008).

Image: Israel Defense Forces