Steven Perlin, Co-Managing Editor
The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations is an annual philanthropic event held to bring together many of North America’s most prominent Jewish community leaders. This year, the conference was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended by about 3000 Jews. In addition to the general public, a few notable people spoke at the event. The list of speakers included the famous Soviet Refusenik Natan Sharansky, Vice-President Joe Biden, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
As a student journalist participating in Do The Write Thing, an event sponsored by the World Zionist Organization’s USD Hagshama, I came to the General Assembly as an advocate for Israel. At the General Assembly, I heard some very important things said in a very nuanced way. Usually, one of the most interesting things about a speech is the word choice of the speaker. Most of the time, politicians have a very indirect way of saying what they mean and leave much room for interpretation of their statement. As expected, all of the main political leaders spoke in regard to Iran and the threat of it becoming a nuclear regime. At the conference, I was surprised to hear that Vice-President Biden said the most provocative statement. He discussed how the United States has $400 million worth of military equipment in Israel as a part of the US deterrence effort aimed at Iran. Biden actually called the military equipment a “tripwire.”
Vice President Biden’s statement about US military equipment in Israel acting as a “tripwire” shows some very intriguing things about US foreign policy that were not known before. First, the use of the word tripwire is powerful in itself, as the definition of a tripwire stirs the feelings of entangling alliances. The idea behind a tripwire is to get a third party involved in a conflict because an actor activated the tripwire, thus forcing the third party act. To be put more simply, if Israel was to be attacked and American military equipment was destroyed (or the threat to destroy the equipment was clear), this would be the “tripwire” to force the United States to intervene on behalf of Israel (and the US equipment there).
Other than the definition of the word tripwire, the use of the word has a huge implication on US foreign policy. One implication for this word choice is based on the timing of its use. Having never heard Biden or any other US government official make reference to a tripwire before, it leads me to believe that Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu must have been very influential on Biden’s choice of words. While it is very possible that Vice President Biden was trying to make up for his last meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu at which Biden found out about Israel’s building in the North Jerusalem city of Ramat Shlomo, it is also very possible that Netanyahu convinced the United States to come forth about the real purpose of its equipment in Israel.
The strategic situation now presented to the Middle East is quite different than it was prior to Biden’s speech. Israel is proud to boast that the United States has never intervened on behalf of Israel in a war. Most people have grown accustomed to hearing that the United States has developed a strategy to stop Iran with sanctions, but all the while cautioning that “all options are on the table.” The US has struggled with making its threat of force (as a part of the all options clause) credible to Iran. Sure, the United States can talk all it wants about planning a military operation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran, but what it really comes down to is whether Iran believes these threats. The United States has to prove its commitment to Iran’s signing of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by showing Iran that the American government is not afraid to act. The United States has a few options for showing a credible commitment that includes but is not limited to sanctions and military action.
The United States is currently involved in sanctions against Iran, but many people feel that the sanctions might not suffice. The United States has to have a plan for military action in case the sanctions fail. But before simply using military action, the United States would prefer to coerce Iran into giving up their nuclear weapons program by deterrence. It is less costly to deter an enemy with threats than it is to actually using force. One way to deter Iran is by mobilizing troops. One could argue that a US military presence in the surrounding countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) is not a deterrent threat because the military is too busy carrying out a non-Iran related function and could not disengage from their efforts in the other countries. The US could also try deterring Iran by stepping up military exercises in the region or by running mock bombing runs to simulate an attack on Iran’s nuclear structure. These options are expensive, and the US is in an economic crunch. Since talk is cheap, and the US needs military equipment in the Middle East anyway, the government decided to send Vice President Biden to speak in front of about 3000 Jews and refer to the military equipment in Israel as a “tripwire.”
Sure, actions speak louder than words, and maybe Vice President Biden used the wrong word. Most often the American military goods in Israel are referred to as supplies for American troops in the region to be used in combat rather than as a tripwire for war with Iran. But let’s assume that Vice President Biden chose his words very carefully (as any politician should) and read his speech off a piece of paper (as he did). This means that the United States is now willing to intervene against Iran if they choose to attack Israel. The United States is so committed to the security of Israel and to the security of the Middle East that it is now willing to engage in a third war in one region.
But what does this mean for Iran? Iran has two options in which to choose: escalate or capitulate. If Iran escalates, it will continue to enrich Uranium for its nuclear program. If Iran capitulates, it will in some way stop enriching Uranium in Iran and may come back to the nuclear fuel-swap deal. It seems clear that the preferred option for Iran’s claimed interest in nuclear power and easing the burden of sanctions would be to capitulate to the new American threat. But maybe the Iranian regime is willing to continue proliferation and is willing to push the limit.
In the end, whatever Iran decides, it will be interesting to see how the US threat of a tripwire is received and if policy is changed based upon that threat.