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Obama Can Stop Israel from Attacking Iran

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Israel’s highest officials tell American journalists their air force may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities this spring, although Israeli and American intelligence agencies say the Islamic republic has no plan to build a bomb.

The officials might be bluffing, but the threats pose a problem for the Obama administration. In recent weeks there has been much in-person contact between the governments. U.S. officials have reportedly asked Israel to give harsh economic sanctions (and perhaps covert warfare) a chance to take effect.

The problem is that an attack could bring Iranian retaliation against American military forces in the region, including Afghanistan, wreak havoc with the U.S. economy if Iran closes or mines the Strait of Hormuz (through which much oil passes daily), and create pressure for U.S. intervention if Iran strikes Israel.

The Obama administration appears unenthusiastic about a war with Iran in this election year. An oil disruption would shake the fragile economy and jeopardize President Obama’s reelection. The administration seems to be betting that the American people are war-weary, which explains its announcement of an ahead-of-schedule mid-2013 combat troop drawdown from Afghanistan. Obama is taking flak from Republicans for declaring that deadline, but his political strategists surely have calculated that more voters will be relieved than concerned.

Seen in that light, war with Iran is the last thing Obama would want this year.

But there is a complication: Israel and its powerful American lobby. Israel’s political leaders, though apparently not its military and intelligence chiefs, want to bomb Iran, not because they fear an attack should it acquire a nuke — which would be suicidal for Iran, since Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons — but rather because Iran, now close to Iraq thanks to the U.S. regime change there, could inhibit Israel’s ability to have its way with its neighbors and the long-suffering, occupied Palestinians, especially in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Obama’s political problem is that it would be ill-advised, particularly in an election year, for an American president to be at odds with the Israeli government and its lobby here, which is pushing Congress to adopt the harshest measures against Iran’s economy.

Thus Obama can’t openly tell the Israelis not to strike Iran, though his subordinates are doing this behind the scenes. Reporter Gareth Porter has disclosed that

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Israeli leaders Jan. 20 that the United States would not participate in a war against Iran begun by Israel without prior agreement from Washington. …

But the Israeli government remains defiant about maintaining its freedom of action to make war on Iran, and it is counting on the influence of right-wing extremist views in U.S. politics to bring pressure to bear on Obama to fall into line with a possible Israeli attack during the election campaign this fall.

The big questions are (1) Does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu think this warning is a bluff? and (2) What would Obama do if the prime minister calls it? In other words, if Israel strikes Iran in April or May and Iran retaliates against Israel, would Obama stick to his word and stay out? Or would he try avoid the Israel lobby’s and Republicans’ inevitable charges of “appeasement” by intervening?

It would take courage hitherto uncharacteristic of this president to withstand that pressure and stay out.

An important consideration in all this is the widely held assessment that Israel alone couldn’t do enough damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities, major parts of which are deep underground. As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports, “The Israelis are said to recognize that damage to the nuclear program might be modest, requiring another strike in a few years.”

So while Israel insists on its freedom of action, it realizes it would need America’s help. This means that the Obama administration holds the upper hand: it is in a position to stop Israel from igniting a catastrophic war in the Middle East simply by declaring publicly that it will not back Netanyahu if he orders an attack — or covertly provokes Iran into firing the first shot.

Americans who oppose war with Iran can best serve peace by demanding that Obama make such a declaration.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.