By Gopal Ratnam on July 28, 2012
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta heads today to the Middle East where tensions are rising over the democratic transition in Egypt, turmoil in Syria and Iran’s suspected advances toward nuclear weapons.
His trip to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan has a security agenda, including new concerns about Syrian chemical weapons, along with election-season political stakes. Panetta is scheduled to arrive in Israel on the heels of a visit by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has appealed to Jewish voters by attacking President Barack Obama as lacking sufficient commitment to Israel’s security.
One public source of tension between the Obama administration and Israeli leaders involves the urgency of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. While the U.S. and Israel both say they suspect Iran is covertly seeking nuclear-weapons capabilities through uranium enrichment and other activities, the two allies have disagreed openly about how much time to give economic sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran to give up much its nuclear program.
With a lack of progress in the negotiations, “the clocks in Washington and Tel Aviv are out of sync” on the timing for military action, said David Makovsky, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Obama administration’s strategy is to see if Iran backs down as international sanctions increasingly hurt its economy, saying there is time for military action as a last alternative.
In February, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the Jewish state would need to act militarily within months, before Iran reaches a “zone of immunity” where its underground enrichment facilities would be invulnerable to Israeli air strikes. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, for generating electricity and medical purposes.
One of Panetta’s goals in Israel may be seeking to ensure that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t mount a military strike before the U.S. presidential election, Makovsky said. Israelis believe “if they don’t hit before November they would lose the window” for their capabilities, leaving any decision about military action after that point entirely in U.S. hands, he said in an interview.
Panetta, 74, may have to “reassure Israel that the U.S. will take care of the Iran situation, especially if Obama is elected to a second term,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a principal research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Panetta’s visit to Israel follows trips there this month by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. Panetta will meet with his Israeli defense counterpart, Barak, for the ninth time in a year, a U.S. defense official said. He will meet Netanyahu for the third time since becoming defense secretary in July 2011, according to the official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The meetings are “all part of keeping Israel on our side” and ensuring that its leaders don’t “come to a different conclusion about the Iranian nuclear program,” said Richard Armitage, a U.S. deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush and currently president of Armitage International, an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm.
In advance of Romney’s arrival in Israel, Obama sought to counter Republican criticism as he signed legislation July 27 to bolster U.S. military cooperation. Obama highlighted the release of $70 million for the Iron Dome missile-defense system, which protects Israeli from short-range rockets.
“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues, intelligence, military, technology,” he said at the White House.
Panetta will discuss further U.S. efforts to bolster Israel’s military capabilities, the U.S. defense official said, withholding details in advance of the defense secretary’s visit.
Israel’s preoccupation with stopping Iran’s nuclear program is now rivaled by a second security peril — that the chaos in Syria may enable Islamic militants from Lebanon’s Hezbollah or other groups to obtain Syrian chemical weapons for use against the Jewish state.
The U.S., Israel and Jordan have been coordinating efforts to monitor those stockpiles of sarin and VX nerve gas and to plan actions if there is a security breach. Netanyahu said July 22 that he doesn’t rule out Israeli action to prevent such weapons from being acquired by militants amid a collapse of the Assad regime.
The U.S. and Israel “have a joint interest in making sure that the Syrian stock of chemical weapons is not unleashed,” Meir said in an interview.
Still, the U.S. lacks a coherent policy on handling the revolt in Syria, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Since fighting began in March 2011 at least 19,000 people have died, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“It would be nice if Panetta went to the Middle East with a Syria policy but we don’t have one,” Hamid said in a phone interview from Qatar. The Obama administration should offer more assistance to the rebel groups, including increasing U.S. influence by supplying arms, if it is reluctant to take direct military action, Hamid said.
The U.S. is providing non-lethal assistance, such as radios and medical supplies, while Arab nations are supplying weapons. The U.S. says providing weapons would only further fuel the violence, even as U.S. efforts to find a diplomatic solution have shown no results in forcing Assad to quit.
Panetta’s travels will give him the opportunity to assess the effects of the so-called Arab Spring. His first stop is Tunisia, where a December 2010 uprising ignited the popular revolutions in the region. Tunisians toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after more than two decades in power, electing an Islamist-led government.
The defense secretary will sketch out a future for U.S.- Tunisia military ties, the U.S. defense official said. The two countries meet annually through the U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission to discuss cooperation, Tunisia’s defense modernization and training, according to the State Department. More than 3,000 Tunisian military officers and technicians have received training in U.S. military schools in the past two decades, according to the Defense Department.
In Egypt, Panetta will meet with Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s military chief, and newly elected President Mohamed Mursi, the U.S. defense official said.
During the revolt that led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak last year, Panetta was in regular contact with Tantawi as the U.S. pressured the military not to crush the pro-democracy protests. Panetta will encourage the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which Tantawi leads, to support transition to civilian rule, the official said.
Tensions between Egypt’s new president, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, and its senior generals, who took interim power after Mubarak’s departure, have mounted since Tantawi’s council stripped Mursi of some of his powers and granted itself legislative authority after the court-ordered disbanding of the parliament.
The U.S. provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, which reached a peace accord with neighboring Israel in 1978. The Obama administration lost some of its leverage over Egypt’s military leaders when it considered and backed away from withholding military assistance after Egypt in February brought criminal charges against 19 Americans and others for accepting foreign support for their nonprofit pro-democracy groups.
“That sent a message to Egyptians that if they stood up to the U.S., the U.S. would back down,” Hamid said.