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Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely.

- February 7, 2012

This is a guest post from political scientist Jeremy Pressman:


While President Barack Obama said on Sunday that the United States would make sure to  “work in lockstep” with Israel to solve the Iranian nuclear question, a difference of opinion apparently has emerged between Israel and the United States. The Obama administration is leaning against the idea of an attack while Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, remains open to the idea of attacking Iran this year. Will Obama’s private stance stop Bibi?

The answer, thus far, is no. Because although the United States has privately expressed its opposition to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, there is no evidence that the United States has threatened Israel with any penalties should it defy U.S. wishes. My research on past cases, including US-Israeli ones, suggests persuasion is insufficient to restrain an ally bent on military action. For the United States to stop Israel, especially when Israel believes existential questions are at stake, it would have to either threaten to sanction and abandon Israel and/or offer substantial inducements.

In 1973, the United States did not want Israel to launch a pre-emptive attack against Egypt and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger threatened that Washington would not provide Israel with support if it moved first, claiming “you won’t have a dogcatcher in this country supporting you. You won’t have presidential support….We wouldn’t be able to help you.” Israel stayed its hand, absorbing a costly first blow from the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces.

Four years later, in September 1977, Israel moved some military forces into southern Lebanon, and the Carter administration strongly objected. But Carter’s response went beyond mere disagreement, indicating to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that further arms deliveries “will have to be terminated” if Israel did not pull back immediately. Israel pulled back.

During the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, Israel famously refrained from counter-attacking against Iraq after Iraqi SCUD missiles fell on Israel. To get Israeli restraint, the Bush (41) administration used a mix of carrots (e.g. moving Patriot missile batteries to Israel) and sticks (e.g. refusing to share IFF codes with Israeli pilots).

In contrast, when the United States has relied only on rhetorical opposition without stating actual consequences, the Israelis have usually gone ahead with the contested military policy. Israel, for example, did so in Lebanon in 1982.

The 1967 war also fit this pattern, and recent revelations tighten the evidence even further. Israel had stayed its hands for days and weeks, most notably in late May when Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, came to Washington and learned the United States was working hard to break the Egyptian blockade. He went home and the Israeli cabinet decided not to launch a preemptive strike for the moment. The ministers wanted to give the United States time to act.

By early June, however, the Johnson administration had dropped the idea of either organizing an international flotilla to break the Egyptian maritime blockade or launching a unilateral show of American force. On June 5, Israel attacked first.

Yet we now know, thanks to Ronen Bergman’s much-discussed NY Times Magazine story, that in parallel to the proposed inducements, U.S. officials also threatened Israel…and then backed off. Bergman reports that the CIA station chief, John Hadden, met with the head of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Amit, on May 25, 1967 in Tel Aviv. Hadden told Amit: “If you attack, the United States will land forces to help the attacked state protect itself.” The cabinet, as noted above, did not authorize an attack.

But days later, Amit appealed to a higher authority, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the U.S. threats dissipated. McNamara expressed no such threats. So U.S. inducements and penalties appeared, Israel stalled in late May, said inducements and penalties disappeared, and Israel attacked in early June.

Today, the United States may not be willing to use carrots or sticks. Whether Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, is capturing U.S. sentiment, trying to shape it, or both, he described a different reality in U.S.-Israeli relations: “There are no threats, no recriminations, only cooperation and mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty.” If that is an accurate description, and Israel wants to attack Iran, it will not be the United States that stops Israeli aircraft.