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Petraeus v. Obama (Part 158): Israel and Iran

There was a bit of a media rumble this week over an interview that the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Netanyahu made it quite clear that he held open the option of an airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilties.

This is not dramatic news. Tel Aviv has been shaking an aerial fist at Tehran for years, but a unilateral Israeli operation, even if technically possible, risks an Iranian political and military response --- and reaction from other countries and groups --- throughout and beyond the Middle East.

So, at the least, Israel needs the US to cover its back. And the Bush Administration, despite all its pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian sympathies, refused such support in summer 2008.

This is where America's other President, General David Petraeus, enters the scene. Even as the Obama Administration has been pursuing engagement with Iran, Petraeus --- both directly and through acolytes --- has been loudly talking about Iranian support for insurgent operations against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the General went a step further. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”

This may not be an outright endorsement of a Tel Aviv strike, but it is comfortably close to acceptance of an operation. Petraeus didn't risk the usual (unsupported) pretext that Iran is close to a Bomb; instead, he stretched justification to “Iranian officials have consistently failed to provide the assurances and transparency necessary for international acceptance and verification”.

You could try out the explanation that the Obama Administration is playing "good cop, bad cop" with Tehran; on Tuesday, envoy Richard Holbrooke signals co-operation at The Hague conference on Afghanistan, 24 hours later Petraeus warns of consequences if Iran doesn't accept the extended hand.

That, however, is a fool's approach. The most casual observer could tell you that Iran does not react kindly to blatant pressure. And the consequences of Tehran walking away from talks in the face of Petraeus' threats, given the American position in Afghanistan, are far greater than they were in 2003 when the Bush Administration pulled a similar stunt.

No, the latest Petraeus intervention is as much a response to his President as it is to Tehran.

The General has a previous record on this issue. In 2007, he was serving under the then head of Central Command, William Fallon. The two men didn't see eye-to-eye: a year later, Fallon was gone with Petraeus on his way to succeeding him.

The standard narrative, for those who noted the battle, was that Petraeus had to get his Iraq "surge" past a resistant Fallon. That is certainly true, but more broadly, to deal with regional issues, Fallon advocated a strategy of engaging Iran rather than isolating it. That was also opposed by Petraeus.

Move forward two years. After the muddle in US policy, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clumsily trying to press Iran via the spectre of conflict with Arab states, Washington settles on the possibilities of a step-by-step engagement.

Who doesn't like that?

Israel. And President Obama's most prominent military commander.

Reader Comments (1)

"Even as the Obama Administration has been pursuing engagement with Iran, Petraeus — both directly and through acolytes — has been loudly talking about Iranian support for insurgent operations against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."

OK, now I think I see where you're going with this. I've been a bit bewildered by these Iran-insurgency accusations coming from the Pentagon, especially since they always seemed to be dripping with normality, as opposed to a planted military response to diplomatic overtures from politicians.

I'm still not entirely convinced this is a specifically Petraeus v Obama dynamic, but there is definitely some sort of faction in the military who may be seeking to discredit the command of President Obama.

75% chance it's conservative political elements (similar under Clinton)
50% chance it's Israeli-backed (Iran, Iran, Iran)
25% chance it's Saudi-backed (Sunni v Shiite, see Abdullah v Maliki at Arab League)
5% chance Petraeus is considering a political run in 2012-2016 (Eisenhower Redux)

Either way, this type of bureaucratic squabbling could be very dangerous for the United States, not to mention the rest of the world forced to live with American consequences.

April 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Mull

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