Trusting America's New Mideast 'Defense Umbrella'

This week, President Obama’s top security team will be in Jerusalem to coax the Jewish state to abandon plans to attack Iran’s atomic sites and put their trust in an American “defense umbrella.”  This deal marks a radical change in Obama’s Mideast strategy.

Obama promised to look for diplomatic opportunities to work with Iran. That effort has failed because, while Obama waited for a call from Tehran, the regime accelerated its atomic program, stepped up oppression of its people, transferred more power to the radical Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and became more bellicose.

Israel is soberly watching these developments — including the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. “Wipe Israel off the map” — and understandably perceives an existential threat. That’s why the Jewish state is moving to a war footing, and Obama is alarmed.

In May, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Obama to discuss the Iranian threat and declared Israel’s clock for action is measured in months, not years.  Apparently, Obama promised Netanyahu that America would help defend Israel and Netanyahu promised to give Obama’s diplomatic strategy a few more months.  

The U.S. is helping Israel prepare for war. Recently, the partners conducted early warning exercises using the American-provided and operated X-Band radar system now located at Israel’s Nevatim Air Force Base. The radar is linked to Israel’s population warning system which enables the Israeli Defense Forces’ Front Command to issue an alert about incoming missiles between five and seven minutes before impact.

The nations are also working jointly to make their anti-ballistic missile systems interoperable, which suggests the possibility these systems will be networked in the future. Specifically, last week the U.S. hosted an Israeli Arrow-3 test at its Pacific missile range. While the test was reportedly a failure, the precedent has been set for serious cooperation. This fall the U.S. will host interoperability tests that lash-up the Arrow-3 system with America’s Aegis guided missile cruiser, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 systems.  

Israel is practicing offensive operations that could be preparation for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Last year, Israel conducted a massive aerial test of its long-range bomber force and the Israeli Defense Forces continues to sustain those skills. Recently, Jerusalem purchased 1,000 U.S. made satellite-guided GBU-39, bunker buster bombs and has rehearsed their potential employment against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Jerusalem has two other means of attacking Iranian atomic facilities.  It has a large inventory of Jericho ballistic missiles, which are capable of ranging all of Iran with both conventional and nuclear warheads.  

Israel also has a credible naval force.  Recently, it deployed Sa’ar 5-class missile cruisers to the Gulf of Aden, not far from the mouth of the Persian Gulf and Iranian waters. There was widespread speculation these naval maneuvers were intended to be a warning to Iran because they crossed through the Suez Canal to quickly reinforce Israel’s navy near Eilat.

It’s noteworthy that one of Israel’s three Dolphin-class submarines passed through the Suez Canal for the first time on its way to these maneuvers. The Dolphin is thought to be armed with nuclear-capable Popeye cruise missiles with a 900 mile range. It’s important to understand that use of this strategic system against Iranian targets would require at least tacit cooperation from the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which closely monitors the waters around the Persian Gulf.

Israel’s accelerating war preparations and Iran’s troubling and provocative activities compelled Obama to shift his Mideast strategy and rushed his security advisors to Jerusalem this week.  He wants to contain these problems before they produce unacceptable consequences.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the administration’s new although unofficial strategy when she raised eyebrows by suggesting the U.S. could extend a “defense umbrella” in the Middle East if Iran succeeds in obtaining nuclear capability. Then she conceded that Obama’s old Iran strategy is a failure by stating Tehran is not prepared to respond to America’s diplomatic overturns and warned “The nuclear clock is ticking.”

Obama hopes his “defense umbrella” strategy will persuade Israel to stand down its attack plans.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who visits Jerusalem July 27, said he wants to prevent Israel from striking Iran because an attack could destabilize the region.   “If some action is taken to prevent [Iran] from getting [an atomic weapon], the consequences of that are completely unpredictable, and likely very bad,” Gates warned.

Obama hopes his strategy will also discourage Iran from acquiring atomic weapons.  Israeli and U.S. officials agree that Tehran is getting dangerously close to being able to produce an atomic weapon and that event, warns Gates, could lead to “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East…”  Sparking an arms race “… should affect the calculation of what Iran intends to do, and what it believes is in its national security interest,” Clinton explained.

Desperation over both outcomes — a destabilizing Israeli attack and a nuclear Iran that sparks a Mideast arms race — forced the Obama administration to abandon its diplomacy-only strategy for the “defense umbrella” proposal. Although, the administration will continue to pursue a diplomatic solution for mostly domestic political reasons, it now realizes there must be another way.  

What does Obama’s Mideast “defense umbrella” strategy mean?

The details of the proposal will be announced in time but likely it is intended to extend America’s anti-ballistic missile coverage to the Mideast linking more sensor and missile systems. This will require Mideast-based radar and missile launch sites such as those proposed for the Czech Republic and Poland. This arrangement won’t just be for Israel’s protection but also for the Arab nations that fear Tehran’s atomic emergence.

The strategy could produce a regional alliance that pits a loose association of Israel, Arab states, the U.S. and possibly European countries against the radical and hegemonic Iran.  A Mideast-West alliance specifically designed to provide an atomic tipped ballistic missile “defense umbrella” over the Mideast might facilitate other positive regional outcomes and could give Washington greater leverage over regional defense decisions.

The “defense umbrella” alliance must also create mechanisms to respond to any Iranian attack. The U.S. and/or European partners would position themselves as the security guarantor by stationing nuclear forces in the region to demonstrate their commitment to respond if necessary to an Iranian attack. This would be a radical policy reminiscent of the Cold War when we ringed the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.  

Will the plan work? It depends on the collective perception of the Iranian threat and whether the alliance countries feel they can trust the other members.  Building that trust is Obama’s major task.

Obama’s diplomacy-focused Iran strategy failed because Tehran accelerated its atomic program while refusing to negotiate.  That makes an Israeli strike almost certain unless Jerusalem accepts an American-sponsored “defense umbrella.” In any case, given the mixed messages coming from the White House and Israel’s need for a long-term solution, there is no reason for Israel to trust Obama’s policies.