This piece in Foreign Policy is getting a lot of attention — Israel’s Secret Staging Ground. The story describes Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, and reports on speculation that Israel has secured rights to use Soviet-era Azeri air bases. The benefit is that:
Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as “a significant asset” to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel’s warplanes to their limits. “Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they’d be running on fumes,” Isenberg told me, “so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial.”
Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel’s calculations: “They save themselves 800 miles of fuel,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. “That doesn’t guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable.”
This is a major issue both because it limits the need for aerial refueling and also would allow Israeli strike platforms to carry more ordinance.
The story may be part simply the result of good reporting on Mark Perry’s part. Or, as it may reflect some sort of information campaign. But, if so, to what end? What is the goal of what has become a veritable drumbeat of Iran war talk?
The issue is paradoxical in a sense because if you believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and if you believe it is doing so having learned the lesson by comparing Iraq to North Korea that nuclear weapons are a state’s only guarantee against external intervention, then inducing additional insecurity in Iran is likely to be counter-productive. If Iran’s program is primarily a step toward reliable deterrence, then the best way to prevent it from coming to fruition is by providing assurances, not threats.
On the other hand, if the assumption is that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons because it is a controlled by a millennialist cult hell-bent on the physical destruction of Israel, then what is the point of the pressure? Certainly a committed genocidal regime would not be deterred or coerced by a bunch of newspaper articles and public statements. I mean, look at Nazi Germany in 1944. Even pressed in on all sides by the allies, they continued to divert significant resources to their genocidal project. If you see Iran as this sort of state, you have to accept the notion that its behavior is likely unchangeable, and as a result, this slow ratcheting of pressure merely gives Iran more time and warning to prepare for a strike.
So, regardless of whether one sees Iran as defensively-motivated or genocidal in orientation, the war talk makes little strategic sense. But clearly there is a concerted Israeli effort to raise the temperature, it is almost certainly purposeful.
So what is going on? Three possibilities come to mind:
(1) Israel wants military action against Iran, but doesn’t want to do it either because of lack of capacity or concern over the consequences, and instead wants to pressure the United States to attack Iran instead.
(2) Israel is trying to build leverage. Worried about U.S. pressure regarding the Palestinian issue, the Israelis are looking to transform the debate. And indeed, this has occurred. Instead of the United States pressuring Israel on settlements, much of the interaction over the past year has involved the United States offering reassurances and concessions to Israel on Iran. If the centerpiece of U.S.-Israeli relations is Palestine, then the Israel is in the position of fending off U.S. demands. When the issue is Iran, it is the U.S. on the defensive.
(3) Domestic politics. Either there or here. I don’t know. But look, I don’t think it is any huge secret that Natanyahu would love to see Obama lose this year. At a minimum, I think the Israelis are using the threat of war and disorder as a way to extract concessions when Obama is vulnerable. But, obviously, as we get into the fall campaign, I can almost guarantee that Romney is going to claim Obama was weak on Iran, and the Israelis are essentially building a foundation for that argument whether wittingly or unwittingly.
The only way this war talk makes strategic sense is if you believe Iran is primarily pursuing nukes for prestige reasons, in which case raising the costs and risks of this course my deter them from this path. But, as a general rule, this does not seem to be the main argument people make.