America’s military exercise with Israel betrays its true plans

Tony Badran
Tony Badran
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What are we to make of Juniper Oak, the latest and largest-ever joint military exercise held by the US and Israeli militaries in late January, as part of the longstanding Juniper series? Based on the headlines, the point of the exercise is self-evident. “US, Israel Send Message to Iran With Biggest-Ever Military Exercises,” a typical headline read. While the slick videos from the exercises are certainly impressive, the consensus view missed the mark, both on the US intention and on Israel’s calculation.

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For one, US officials dismissed the idea that Iran was the target of Juniper Oak from the get go, even as its surrogates were selling the proposition that the Biden administration was seriously considering a military alternative against the Islamic Republic. In other words, the administration was pursuing its usual policy, while its outside flacks and PR people were spinning yarn. While saying one thing and doing another is hardly a strategy invented by Obama-Biden staffers, it is hard to recall another US administration for which misdirection was such a constant instrument of policy.

It’s not difficult to see why misdirection is needed, given the administration’s absolute and unbreakable commitment to reviving the Iran deal. The administration’s point man, Robert Malley, is said to be meeting and exchanging messages still with the Iranians, even as their government has repeatedly jilted the Americans and struggles with the challenges of daily street demonstrations at home. Malley is further rumored to have pressed the Europeans not to designate the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.

The problem with the framing of the Juniper Oak exercise, then, should be obvious. How is the “message” supposed to work if nobody believes it—not the Americans, not the Israelis, not the Iranians, and not the ostensible secondary audience in the Gulf?

The question encapsulates Israel’s dilemma. On the one hand, it behooves the Israelis to showcase airtight closeness with the Americans and to foster the perception that they are working day and night to jointly develop military options with Pentagon war-planners. On the other hand, if nobody believes that the US is in fact onboard, the display would paradoxically underscore not only the idea that Israel’s faith in its American big brother is misplaced, but perhaps also that Israel may not have the ability to act independently.

The latter point, in fact, appears to be precisely the message Team Obama-Biden wanted to drive home. It delivered it through a preferred messenger, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. The depth of cooperation required by the massive exercise, said Obama’s emissary, can “perhaps make it less likely that one acts independently without close coordination with the other.” That is, the intent is to constrain Israeli independence of action as the Biden administration’s focus remains “an eventual return to diplomacy,” which, the former ambassador added, this exercise “could facilitate.”

The perception that their hands were being tied was not one the Israelis could afford to let linger. A clarifying moment immediately followed.

A mere two days after Juniper Oak concluded, a reported Israeli drone attack targeted a military plant in the Iranian city of Isfahan. The timing of the attack certainly encouraged the impression that it was the fruit of US-Israeli coordination—a follow-up to the joint military exercise. News reports generally made the connection.

But the Biden administration quickly dispelled any such notion. US officials speaking on background immediately distanced the US from the strike and, recalling the practice of the Obama administration, pointed the finger at Israel as having acted alone.

Moreover, there was some speculation that the Israeli strike in Isfahan may have been related to Iran’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine. The Biden administration had been hyping a demonstrably false talking point about how its current focus was supposedly not on reviving the nuclear deal, but rather on addressing Iranian cooperation with Russia. The American play is to trip Israel up with the Russians, who remain ensconced in Syria, courtesy of the Obama administration. A strike against Iranian weapons production capabilities indirectly helps the Ukrainians without directly antagonizing the Russians.

The Biden administration was not about to let Israel neutralize this pressure lever so easily, though. The same anonymous administration officials who outed the Israelis were quick to deny Israel any credit on the Ukraine issue, stating instead that “they believed this strike was prompted by Israel’s concerns about its own security.” On top of that, Secretary of State Antony Blinken kept up the administration’s public pressure on Israel over Ukraine during his visit at the end of January, making a public point of remarking to the press that he “raised with Israel the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs.”

The administration’s messaging and the Isfahan strike both make it clear that, all spin aside, the administration is not working with Israel to develop military options against Iran’s nuclear program. Team Obama-Biden remains wedded to its deal with the Islamic Republic. Importantly, the strike also showed that Israel is capable of mounting major operations inside Iran without the US necessarily having advance knowledge of them, and, therefore, the ability to expose or sabotage them.

Read this way, the Israeli strike in Isfahan primarily was not meant to show coordination with the US. On the contrary, its point was to underscore that Israel would not be constrained by the administration. It retains the ability to act irrespective of Washington’s preferences, and notwithstanding Team Obama-Biden signaling the opposite to Iran.

The administration is dead set on reaching some sort of arrangement with Iran. If some version of the old JCPOA is not on the menu, then Washington seems willing to consider recognition of threshold status with no deal. Nothing stands in the way of America’s willingness to accommodate Iran’s nuclear desires, not the protests in Iran, not Ukraine, not the plots to assassinate American officials at home.

Waiting on the US to see the light on the Iran deal and shift toward military options is an exercise in futility; a fantasy that neither Israel nor the spectators in the Gulf have the luxury to entertain.

Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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