tells Israelis it won't join their
war By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff (JCS) General Martin Dempsey told Israeli
leaders on January 20 that the United States would
not participate in a war against Iran begun by
Israel without prior agreement from Washington,
according to accounts from well-placed senior
conveyed to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak,
represents the strongest move yet by President
Barack Obama to deter an Israeli attack and ensure
that the US is not caught up in a regional
conflagration with Iran.
But the Israeli
government remains defiant about maintaining its
freedom of action to make war on Iran, and it is
counting on the influence of right-wing extremist
views in US politics to bring pressure to bear on
Obama to fall into line with a possible Israeli
attack during the
election campaign this autumn.
appears reluctant to break publicly and explicitly
with Israel over its threat of military aggression
against Iran, even in the absence of evidence Iran
has decided to build a nuclear weapon.
Dempsey's trip was highly unusual, in that
there was neither a press conference by the
chairman nor any public statement by either side
about the substance of his meetings with Israeli
leaders. Even more remarkable, no leak about what
he said to the Israelis has appeared in either US
or Israeli news media, indicating that both sides
have regarded what Dempsey said as extremely
The substance of Dempsey's
warning to the Israelis has become known, however,
to active and retired senior flag officers with
connections to the JCS, according to a military
source who got it from those officers.
spokesman for the JCS, Commander Patrick McNally,
offered no comment on Wednesday when Inter Press
Service (IPS) asked him about the above account of
Dempsey's warning to the Israelis.
message carried by Dempsey was the first explicit
statement to the Netanyahu government that the
United States would not defend Israel if it
attacked Iran unilaterally. But Defense Secretary
Leon Panetta had given a clear hint in an
interview on "Face the Nation" on January 8 that
the Obama administration would not help defend
Israel in a war against Iran that Israel had
Asked how the United States
would react if Israel were to launch a unilateral
attack on Iran, Panetta first emphasized the need
for a coordinated policy toward Iran with Israel.
But when host Bob Schieffer repeated the question,
Panetta said, "If the Israelis made that decision,
we would have to be prepared to protect our forces
in that situation. And that's what we'd be
concerned about." Defense Minister Barak had
sought to dampen media speculation before
Dempsey's arrival that the chairman was coming to
put pressure on Israel over its threat to attack
Iran, but then proceeded to reiterate the
Netanyahu-Barak position that they cannot give up
their responsibility for the security of Israel
"for anyone, including our American friends".
There has been no evidence since the
Dempsey visit of any change in the Netanyahu
government's insistence on maintaining its freedom
of action to attack Iran.
meetings with Netanyahu and Barak also failed to
resolve the issue of the joint US-Israeli military
exercise geared to simulate a missile attack,
"Austere Challenge '12", which had been scheduled
for April 2012 but had been postponed abruptly a
few days before his arrival in Israel.
More than two weeks after Dempsey's
meeting with Barak, the spokesman for the
Pentagon, John Kirby, told IPS, "All I can say is
that the exercise will be held later this year."
That indicated that there has been no major change
in the status of US-Israeli discussions of the
issue since the postponement of the exercise was
leaked on January 15.
The postponement has
been the subject of conflicting and unconvincing
explanations from the Israeli side, suggesting
disarray in the Netanyahu government over how to
handle the issue.
To add to the confusion,
Israeli and US statements left it unclear whether
the decision had been unilateral or joint as well
as the reasons for the decision.
asserted in a news conference on January 18 that
Barak himself had asked him to postpone the
It now clear that both sides had
an interest in postponing the exercise and very
possibly letting it expire by failing to reach a
decision on it.
The Israelis appear to
have two distinct reasons for putting the exercise
off, which reflect differences between the
interests of Netanyahu and his defense minister.
Netanyahu's primary interest in relation
to the exercise was evidently to give the
Republican candidate ammunition to fire at Obama
during the fall campaign by insinuating that the
postponement was decided at the behest of Obama to
reduce tensions with Iran.
Regev, Netanyahu's spokesman, explained it as a
"joint" decision with the United States, adding,
"The thinking was it was not the right timing now
to conduct such an exercise."
however, had an entirely different concern, which
was related to the Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF's)
readiness to carry out an operation that would
involve both attacking Iran's nuclear facilities
and minimizing the Iranian retaliatory response.
A former US intelligence analyst who
followed the Israeli military closely told IPS he
strongly suspects that the IDF has pressed Barak
to insist that the Israeli force be at the peak of
readiness if and when they are asked to attack
The analyst, who insisted on
anonymity because of his continuing contacts with
US military and intelligence personnel, said the
2006 Lebanon war debacle continues to haunt the
thinking of IDF leaders.
In that war, it
became clear that the IDF had not been ready to
handle Hezbollah rocket attacks adequately, and
the prestige of the Israeli military suffered a
The insistence of IDF
leaders that they never go to war before being
fully prepared is a primary consideration for
Barak, according to the analyst. "Austere
Challenge '12" would inevitably involve a major
consumption of military resources, he observes,
which would reduce Israeli readiness for war in
the short run.
The concern about a major
military exercise actually reducing the IDF's
readiness for war against Iran would explain why
senior Israeli military officials were reported to
have suggested that the reasons for the
postponement were mostly "technical and
The Israeli military concern
about expending scarce resources on the exercise
would apply, of course, regardless of whether the
exercise was planned for April or late 2012. That
fact would help explain why the exercise has not
been rescheduled, despite statements from the US
side that it will be.
The US military,
however, has its own reasons for being
unenthusiastic about the exercise. IPS has learned
from a knowledgeable source that, well before the
Obama administration began distancing itself from
Israel's Iran policy, US Central Command chief
James N Mattis had expressed concern about the
implications of an exercise so obviously based on
a scenario involving Iranian retaliation for an
United States officials
have been quoted as suspecting that the Israeli
request for a postponement of the exercise
indicated that Israel wanted to leave its options
open for conducting a strike on Iran's nuclear
facilities in the spring. But a postponement to
the fall would not change that problem.
For that reason, the former US
intelligence analyst told IPS he doubted that
"Austere Challenge '12" will ever be carried out.
But the White House has an obvious
political interest in using the military exercise
to demonstrate that the Obama administration had
increased military cooperation with Israel to an
Department wants the exercise to be held in
October, according to the military source in touch
with senior flag officers connected to the Joint
Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.