Israel would inform, not ask U.S. before hitting Iran
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - When he first got word of Israel's sneak attack on the Iraqi atomic reactor in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan privately shrugged it off, telling his national security adviser: "Boys will be boys!"
Would Barack Obama be so sanguine if today's Israelis made good on years of threats and bombed Iran's nuclear facilities, yanking the United States into an unprecedented Middle East eruption that could dash his goal of easing regional tensions through revived and redoubled U.S. outreach?
For that matter, would Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu readily take on Iran alone, given his country's limited firepower and the risk of stirring up a backlash against the Jewish state among war-weary, budget-strapped Americans?
Obama is no Reagan. And many experts believe the two allies are now so enmeshed in strategic ties -- with dialogue at the highest level of government and military -- that complete Israeli autonomy on a major issue like Iran is notional only.
So while no one questions Israel's willingness to attack should it deem U.S.-led talks on curbing Iranian uranium enrichment a dead end, such strikes would almost certainly entail at least last-minute coordination with Washington.
Israel would want to ensure that its jets would not be shot down by accident if overflying U.S.-occupied Iraq, and to give Americans in the Gulf forewarning of possible Iranian reprisals.
"Whether or not Israel got the green light from Washington to attack Iran is almost immaterial, as everybody in the region would believe that the U.S. was complicit," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
One U.S. diplomat envisaged Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak telephoning Pentagon chief Robert Gates, unannounced, "to give a heads-up and explain" once the mission were under way.
Gates and the U.S. military brass have voiced distaste for pre-emptive strikes on Iran, which says its uranium enrichment is for legitimate electricity production, not weapons. But their public comments have acknowledged that Israel could break rank.
"I do not doubt that Israel will do what it thinks it needs to do, regardless of whether the U.S. approves," said Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"Israel would seek forgiveness, not permission."
A retired Israeli general who advises the government on strategic issues suggested there was a tacit synchronicity in recent messages about Iran from Israel and the United States:
"The Israeli threat adds urgency to Obama's calls for diplomatic engagement, and should Israel take things into its hands, the Americans retain wriggle room, some deniability."
Israel's bombing in 2007 of what the CIA described as a North Korean-built reactor in Syria may provide a precedent.
According to a source familiar with the operation, Israel carried out the sortie alone, but only after "letting the Americans know that something like this could happen. It's the difference between informing, and seeking consent."
It was the United States which, a year later, published the allegations about the bombed site, pitting its clout as a superpower against Syrian denials. Israel, which has never discussed the attack, was spared the burden of proving its case.
As both Obama and Netanyahu head new governments, the Israeli former general said any joint strategy would go unformed at least until the leaders held their first summit on May 18.
"There's a sense that no decision has been made on either side," he said. "My impression is that the current American statements are for the record, to convince the international community about the seriousness of the Obama administration's efforts to talk Tehran into a solution."
Regardless of Obama's eventual stance, it would be severely tested should U.S. interests be threatened -- say, with Iran answering an Israeli bombing by goading Shi'ites in Iraq to stoke the embers of their insurgency, or by choking off oil exports.
"Whatever temporary sense of solidarity with Israel that ensued would be through gritted teeth," said Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department official.
Then again, drawing in the United States, with its superior air power, could serve Israel's endgame of putting paid to Iran's nuclear facilities. Most analysts think Israel's warplanes might set back Iran's plans by a few years at best and could never erase the knowledge of Iran's atomic scientists.
After reacting to the 1981 Iraq strike by saying -- according to then-National Security Adviser Richard Allen -- "You know what, Dick? Boys will be boys!," Reagan rapped Israel by holding up a shipment of F-16 jets.
Future U.S. administrations would thank the Israelis for denting the might of Saddam Hussein -- whom the Reagan White House backed against Iran at the time.
Fitzpatrick said U.S. public opinion would swing in Israel's favor "if Iran is stopped from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, and the price is not too great in terms of attacks on American citizens and facilities."
Obama's punitive options could, in theory, include cutting the billions in U.S. defense aid and loan guarantees to Israel, though he would face opposition in an Israel-friendly Congress.
Washington could also call for a nuclear-free Middle East as part of a regional peace drive, arguing that, with Iran neutralized and the Arab world mollified, Israel's own assumed atomic arsenal should no longer go unchecked.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
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