Rumors are flying that the recent Israeli swap of over a 1000 Palestinians in exchange for one Israeli soldier is a prelude to an Israeli attack on Iran. The hypothesis states that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to ensure the safety of the captive soldier before taking aggressive steps against Hamas’s sponsor, Iran.
What we can probably be certain of is that Israel wants to attack Iran’s growing nuclear facilities. After all, Israel already destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Interestingly, Syria didn’t protest the destruction, most probably because doing so would have been an acknowledgement of nuclear ambitions. But there are a couple of key differences between the problem with Iran, and the growing Syrian problem in 2007.
First, America has a different president in the White House who has made it clear that he does not want Israel to preemptively strike Iran without an international mandate. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is reportedly frosty. What would Obama do should Israel strike Iran? Suppose America actually withdrew its diplomats in protest, or significantly reduced aid. This could encourage Israel’s enemies to attack, sensing a weakening relationship between Israel and her American protectorate. Egypt presents a worrisome problem. Things are getting so bad there that some Egyptians are demanding the military hand over power to civilian leadership. The Egyptian military may feel that war with Israel would serve as a distraction from growing internal unrest. The Egyptian government could use an attack on Iran as an excuse for Egyptian aggression. This is a truly frightening thought as the future of much of the Arab world remains liquid after the Arab spring, and war against Israel could serve to unify a fractured Arabia.
Secondly, Iran, obviously, is not Syria. Iran’s tendrils run distant and deep through the Middle East and Central Asia. Iran has meddled in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Bahrain, among other places. They have promoted terrorism throughout the world, and even planned the assassination of the Saudi diplomat to the US, most likely in response to the Saudi’s helping crush unrest in Bahrain. Iran has oil and lots of it. They have the ability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, at least temporarily, which would skyrocket oil prices all over the world. The announcement that America will withdraw all of its troops from Shia dominated Iraq will give Iran even more leverage in that country; US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta even warned Iran against meddling in Iraq, though his warning seemed to carry the assumption that America would have a long-term presence in the country. This turned out not to be true.
In other words, Iran has real power and Syria does not and did not in 2007.
Israel finds itself in a very difficult position. No one really knows the American position on Iran’s nuclear research. Would President Obama really endorse a cooperative military strike on Iran should Iran reach the zero-hour of nuclear weapons’ development? Or is he merely using populist rhetoric in demanding Israel wait for a coalition of the willing? Since Israel cannot know Obama’s true intentions, it has no way of forming a deterministic model. Perhaps Netanyahu wants to wait until the results of the 2012 American presidential elections are in, hoping that a president more sympathetic to Israeli interests sits in the White House. An attack on Iran would be a huge gamble, but so would allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons.