EDITORIAL: Why the nuclear story isn’t nuclear

Why the nuclear story isn’t nuclear

“Israelis seized nuclear material in Syrian raid,” blares the headline in The Sunday Times. After two weeks of furious speculation about the purpose and significance of Israel’s September 6 attack on a target in eastern Syria, we finally know that this really was something really big that went down: it was nuclear! The Syrians had “nuclear materials” that have been traced to North Korea. Except… “nuclear materials” turns out to be a headline (and first paragraph) paraphrase. “Nuclear materials” turns out to be short for “nuclear-related” material — almost certainly no fissile material, nor even anything radioactive. And no one has forgotten that the most famous example of nuclear-related material turned out to be no such thing.

At this point, what do we really know about the Israeli attack? One thing is clear. As Newsweek reports, “When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the raid on Syria earlier this month, his approval rating was in the teens. Since then, it has jumped to nearly 30 percent.” And now that we also know that the operation was personally directed by Ehud Barak, Israeli’s new defence minister, no doubt his approval rating is on an upswing too — well above that of his predecessor, Amir Peretz.

Conducting a military operation and then running a hard-driving publicity campaign that has been sustained, rather than diminished, by its lack of content — all of this counts as a great success a year after Israel’s failure in Lebanon. But beyond this, there seems to be a much larger story in play — a story in which the axis of conflict centers on Israel, the US, and Iran.

The headline catcher in the Newsweek report is that “Cheney had been mulling the idea of pushing for limited Israeli missile strikes against the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz — and perhaps other sites — in order to provoke Tehran into lashing out. The Iranian reaction would then give Washington a pretext to launch strikes against military and nuclear targets in Iran.” This ties in with the widely-held view that Cheney is itching to start another war. At the same time, Newsweek also reports:

One U.S. official who preferred not to be identified discussing sensitive policy matters said he took part in a meeting several months ago where intelligence officials discussed a “public diplomacy” strategy to accompany sanctions. The idea was to periodically float the possibility of war in public comments in order to keep Iran off balance. In truth, the official said, no war preparations are underway.

If such a strategy has been employed, the head of CentCom, Adm. William Fallon, is intent on sending out the opposite message. In an interview with Al Jazeera he says, “This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful… I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for.”

U.S. intelligence estimates that are near completion apparently forecast that Iran is three to eight years away from developing nuclear weapons, but the Israeli view is that the clock on diplomacy runs out in just three months. After that, military action will be presented as unavoidable. As Newsweek says, “The question may not be whether America is ready to attack, but whether Israel is.” If it is, is America ready to become Israel’s proxy?

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