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Under the Umbrella

Dec 2, 2017
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Haaretz reports that President-elect Barack Obama will offer Israel additional protection against an Iranian nuclear attack, A source close to the incoming administration says Mr. Obama will propose placing Israel under our nuclear umbrella, meaning that any Iranian nuclear strike would bring a “devastating response” from the United States.

The Obama team is not the first to suggest such a policy. Earlier this year, columnist Charles Krauthammer urged the Bush Administration to issue a “Holocaust Declaration,” fashioned after President Kennedy’s famous words during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran.”

The statement, he continued, should be accompanied by a simple explanation:

“As a beacon of tolerance and as a leader of the free world, the United States will not permit a second Holocaust to be perpetuated upon the Jewish people.”

Former Democratic Presidential candidate (and Secretary of State designee) Hillary Clinton offered a similar proposal during this year’s campaign. During a debate with Mr. Obama in April, Mrs. Clinton suggested that the American nuclear umbrella be extended to Israel and friendly Arab states in the Middle East, as a hedge against Iran.

Dr. Krauthammer, Senator Clinton and Mr. Obama’s national security advisers believe that such a declaration offers the best hope for deterring Iran. And, at first blush, it’s hard to disagree. Negotiations efforts aimed at curtailing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have been a dismal failure. The same holds true for economic and political sanctions.

In terms of U.S. military options, those were essentially derailed by last year’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which declared that Iran suspended its nuclear weaponization program, while accelerating other efforts that will eventually lead to a bomb. It was an amazing bit of analytical gymnastics that proved–once again–that key elements of our intelligence community view the current administration as more of a threat than Tehran.

But would such a guarantee actually deter Iran? Scott Johnson at Powerline reminds us of a particularly astute observation by Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who observed:

“Iran’s leadership comprises a group of extreme fanatical Muslims who believe that their messianic times have arrived.” {For the Iranian regime] “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement” because the regime’s authorities believes it “can hasten the final messianic process. This is an extremely dangerous situation of which it is important to be aware.”

It’s also worth noting that placing Israel under our nuclear umbrella carries other risks, as we outlined in this April post. For starters, it could limit Israel’s ability to defend itself. With the largest nuclear arsenal in the Middle East–and multiple delivery platforms–the Jewish State is more than capable of meeting the Iranian threat:

For argument’s sake, let’s say an Iranian attack achieves operational surprise, and the initial strike eliminates one-third of Israel’s nuclear arsenal (highly unlikely). That still leaves Tel Aviv with almost 150 warheads for a retaliatory attack. We should also note that Israeli weapons are much more powerful than those initially available to Iran. In other words, Israel’s nukes carry a far bigger punch and they would inflict far more damage and casualties–against more targets–than Iran’s first strike.

Additionally, Tehran faces the daunting challenge of pinpointing and accurately hitting Israel’s nuclear arsenal. True, Iranian intelligence knows the location of Israeli fighter bases and its primary missile installation, but their ability to track dispersed aircraft and missiles is severely limited. That task is further complicated by the IDF’s extraordinary skills at military denial and deception. Virtually every successful campaign waged by Israeli forces has been accompanied by a detailed deception campaign, giving the IDF strategic or tactical surprise. Given that history, it’s quite possible that Israel would beat Iran to the punch (with its own preemptive strike) or inflict a devastating counter-strike, utilizing aircraft and missiles that survived Tehran’s initial onslaught.

So far, Israeli officials haven’t exactly embraced the Obama proposal, for obvious reasons. Not only could it limit Israel’s strike options, the security pledge also suggests that the U.S. is willing to come to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran. From the Israeli perspective, security guarantees against an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons are simply unacceptable:

“What is the significance of such guarantee when it comes from those who hesitated to deal with a non-nuclear Iran?” asked a senior Israeli security source. “What kind of credibility would this [guarantee have] when Iran is nuclear-capable?”

The same source noted that the fact that there is talk about the possibility of a nuclear Iran undermines efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring such arms.

Earlier this week, Mr. Obama said he would offer Iran economic incentives for abandoning its nuclear program. If that fails, he promised to intensify sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Readers will note that the president-elect and his advisers still haven’t said what will happen when Tehran rejects those incentives and the sanctions don’t work. Or (alternatively), they take a page from the North Korean playbook and accept the economic carrots, while taking their nuclear program underground. What happens then?
It’s quite a jump from failed sanctions to a U.S. nuclear counter-strike. Caution–and common sense–dictate that Washington have some sort of intermediate steps, or at least allow Israel to defend itself. In its current form, the Obama’s proposed policy for dealing with Iran–and ensuring Israel’s security–has some rather gaping holes. No wonder Tel Aviv reacted with such skepticism.

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