David Ignatius writes: Now that the Obama administration has won its breakthrough first-step nuclear deal with Iran, officials are planning strategy for the decisive second round that, over the next six months, will seek a broader and tougher comprehensive agreement.
This “end state” negotiation, as officials describe it, promises to be more difficult because the United States and its negotiating partners will seek to dismantle parts of the Iranian program, rather than simply freeze them. Another complication is that negotiators will be fending off even more brickbats from hard-liners in Israel, Congress and Tehran.
If the interim deal was reached largely in secret, through a back channel provided by Oman, this one will have to be negotiated in the diplomatic equivalent of a circus ring, with hoots and catcalls from bystanders.
As administration strategists seek a comprehensive deal, they have several priorities. All will be harder to negotiate than was the limited six-month freeze on the Iranian program agreed to last weekend. Given the arduous bargaining ahead, the United States will need the leverage of the sanctions still in place after the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets — and the threat of more sanctions if negotiations break down.
The negotiators’ agenda: [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Five days after Iran struck a landmark accord with world powers on its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Thursday that Tehran had invited its inspectors to visit a heavy water production plant linked to the deal — the first tangible step since the agreement was concluded.
In a speech in Vienna, the director general of the agency, Yukiya Amano, said the invitation was for inspectors to travel to the plant in Arak, in central Iran, on Dec. 8. Mr. Amano told reporters that it was “for sure” that inspectors would accept the offer.
The invitation was limited to the heavy water production facility on the same site as a reactor under construction to which international inspectors have had some access, Mr. Amano said. The facility producing heavy water, used in some types of reactors to control nuclear activity, has been off limits to inspectors for more than two years.
Part of the deal in Geneva specifically provided for Iran not to produce fuel for the Arak plant, install additional reactor components there or put the plant into operation. If it became fully operational, the reactor would produce plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
In return for that and other curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program, the powers promised a limited easing of the international economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
The speed with which Tehran offered access to Arak was taken by some analysts as a sign that Iran’s leaders wanted to press ahead with the deal, which is intended as an interim accord lasting six months during which negotiators are to discuss a comprehensive settlement. [Continue reading...]
Rajan Menon writes: The much-anticipated breakthrough in the negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons has yet to materialize. But Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who believes that a wily Iran is outwitting its gullible interlocutors, isn’t breathing any easier; instead, he’s breathing fire. The statements from those involved in the talks (Iran and the P5+1) indicating that the obstacles to an interim accord are being overcome have incensed Netanyahu. And he has made his displeasure known — publicly and without pulling punches — even though the first-step agreement with Iran couldn’t be reached in the end.
As the upbeat reports streamed in last week, Netanyahu declared that a compromise with Iran would be a betrayal of Israel as well as a strategic blunder that would eventually bring grief to other states as well. He continues to insist that Israel will neither be bound by any deal, short of one that ensures denuclearization, that the P5+1 reaches with Iran nor rule out any response (read: a military strike) it deems necessary to defend its interests.
What are those Israeli interests? While Iranian leadership remains adamant about retaining an independent nuclear fuel cycle, which it regards as its right under the terms of the NPT, Israel has made it just as plain that Iran’s acquisition of that capability is unacceptable — period. That’s because the Israeli leadership is convinced that any accord that permits Iran to enrich uranium to a level needed for generating electricity, even under strict verification, enables it to gain, and pretty quickly, the capacity to dash across the nuclear threshold when it wishes to do so.
While this perspective explains Netanyahu’s scorn for the negotiations, he risks becoming isolated should the dealmakers eventually start viewing him as an obstreperous maximalist who is heedless of the risk of war. Moreover, he doesn’t have sure-fire options for dismantling Iran nuclear complex, which consists of many facilities, widely dispersed and well protected. [Continue reading...]
Barbara Slavin reports: Although Iran and the international community failed to achieve a breakthrough in Geneva last week, Iran has slowed its nuclear program in what could be a goodwill gesture intended to show that it will abide by a nuclear agreement.
According to the latest quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has added only four rudimentary centrifuges to its main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz since August, for a total of 15,240 — of which about 10,000 are operating. In the previous reporting period of May to August, Iran put more than 1,800 new centrifuges into Natanz.
The Iranians continued to enrich uranium and now have a stockpile of more than 7,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5% U-235. But its stockpile of 20% uranium — perilously close to weapons grade — remains largely in a form difficult to further enrich, according to the IAEA. Iran added only 10 kilograms to its stockpile of greatest concern, for a total of 196 kilograms – still below the Israeli “red line” of 240 kilograms sufficient, if further processed, to make a nuclear weapon.
The report comes at an extremely sensitive time, with negotiations due to resume in Geneva next week between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) on an agreement that would pause much of the Iranian program and roll back some of it in return for moderate sanctions relief. The Barack Obama administration is trying to convince the US Senate not to approve more sanctions while the negotiations continue; this IAEA report could help its case. [Continue reading...]
UPI reports: Iran says it will permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to start inspecting a heavy-water reactor in Arak and a uranium mine, officials said.
An agreement to inspect the facilities was signed in Tehran Monday by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, and Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.
Iranian officials said the agreement opened the way for inspections at the reactor and the Gachin uranium mine. It was described as “the Iranian government’s new approach” on the nuclear issue, the report said.
In an op-ed for the New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie writes: Attempts to derail a country’s nuclear programme by killing its scientists “are products of desperation”, says [William] Tobey [of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University] – citing a US effort to kill legendary physicist Werner Heisenberg during the second world war, abandoned at the last minute only when the would-be assassin decided Heisenberg was not involved in a Nazi nuclear effort after all.
“Nuclear scientists are not terrorists,” says Tobey in the BAS this week. Killing them at best delays bomb development, by removing key people and perhaps deterring young scientists from careers in nuclear science. But it will not stop bomb development.
These slim advantages are far outweighed, Tobey says, by the downsides: possible retaliation, reduced chances for diplomacy, tighter security around nuclear installations and a pretext for Iran to hamper IAEA monitoring.
Iran has already accused the IAEA of abetting the assassinations by publicising confidential Iranian lists of key nuclear scientists and engineers.
The IAEA needs such information, as talks with nuclear personnel are considered essential for verifying safeguards against diverting uranium to bombs, says Tobey. Making this process harder only makes sense if the people behind the assassinations think it is too late for safeguards and that slowing bomb R&D by killing scientists is therefore more expedient.
The Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes: The most curious question in the face of these incidents is why Iran, which does not shy away from threatening the world with closure of the Hormuz Straits, has failed to retaliate for the painful blows to its nuclear and missile program? After all, the Revolutionary Guards have a special arm, Quds, whose aim (among others) is to carry out terror attacks and secret assassinations against enemies of the regime overseas.
Moreover, if the Iranians do not wish to directly target Western or Israeli interests, they can prompt their agents, that is, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other groups, to do the job. In the past, Iran did not shy away from carrying out terror attacks in Europe (in Paris and Berlin) and in South America (in Buenos Aires,) so why is it showing restraint now?
The reason is apparently Iran’s fear of Western retaliation. Any terror attack against Israel or another Western target – whether it is carried out directly by the Quds force or by Hezbollah – may prompt a Western response. Under such circumstances, Israel or a Western coalition (or both) will have an excellent pretext to strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear and missile sites.
This sounds like a confirmation that Israel is indeed wanting to provoke Iran in order to start a war.
But here’s the paradox: if Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons then it has ever incentive to continue keeping its powder dry. Why should it jeopardize its nuclear program by succumbing to provocation?
On the other hand if Israel’s covert war does indeed succeed in triggering a full-scale war, this may be an indication that Iran never intended to go further than develop a nuclear break-out capacity.
At the same time, the idea that Iran can only strike back through some form of violence, ignores the economic and psychological levers that it can pull much more easily.
The question may not be how much provocation Iran can withstand but rather how high can the price for oil rise before the global economy buckles?
Reza Marashi writes: Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi made headlines recently when he said the Islamic Republic would like to have friendly relations with the United States—but not under the current conditions. He added that while U.S. officials express a desire for discussions, U.S. actions don’t always conform to that expression. In the meantime, “negotiations will certainly not have any meaning.”
For their part, American officials accuse the Iranians of a similar inconsistency. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently to BBC Persian, “We are prepared to engage, if there is willingness on the other side, and we use sanctions—and the international community supports the use of sanctions—to try to create enough pressure on the regime that they do have to think differently about what they are doing.”
In an increasingly dangerous region where adversaries repeatedly provoke one another, it is important to dig beyond the rhetoric of this increasingly intense confrontation to better understand how the Iranian government views its own geopolitical standing. The thirty-two year absence of direct communication channels between America and Iran has fostered a dangerous cycle of miscalculation, misunderstanding and escalation. Salehi’s remarks reflect an Iranian view—based largely on these misperceptions and miscalculations—that time is on Tehran’s side.
Contrary to popular assumptions in Washington, the Iranian government’s skepticism regarding negotiations is not rooted in an ideological opposition to improving relations with the United States. Rather, Tehran perceives political constraints—both foreign and domestic—that limit Washington’s ability to engage in substantive diplomacy. Therefore, Iranian decision makers appear willing to wait and try again when events seem more propitious.
It is important to understand that Iran does not see itself as weakened by bilateral tensions and regional flux. Thus, hard-liners in Tehran grow more confident from perceived U.S. missteps and strongly oppose any relations with America that would require Iranian acquiescence to the status quo regional order and undermine Tehran’s perceived independence.
Iran’s long-term security calculation sees no downside in rejecting any engagement with Washington that places Iran in the role of compliant U.S. ally. Iranian decision makers see no example in the Middle East of relations with the U.S. based on equal footing. Patron-client relations are the norm, a norm Iran rejects for itself.
Zvi Bar’el reports: It appears that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can rest easy for now, as voices coming from the European Union suggest a military operation is not in the offing. Not only do Syria and China reject such an attack, but on Monday, Germany, France and Turkey added their voices to those objecting to a military option. The United States also does not seem thrilled at the prospect of launching another war in the region.
The European and American plan to impose another dose of sanctions on Iran may be worrisome, but it likely isn’t threatening as long as China, Russia and several of the Gulf states continue regular trade relations with Iran.
The effort to impose restrictions on the export of gasoline to Iran, which can only supply 60 percent of its own demand, is unlikely to come to fruition, as some fear the restrictions would only harm the citizenry and not the regime. Furthermore, the efficacy of such a plan remains doubtful. Iran recently declared that it is capable of producing more gasoline; with a strict rationing program it might well be able to overcome the entire shortage. This would not necessarily mean that Iran could successfully supply its demand for gasoline over the long term, but it would certainly be able to significantly reduce its dependence on foreign imports.
The more ambitious aim of obtaining a UN Security Council resolution to impose international sanctions will have to wait, especially given Russia’s efforts to promote – together with Iran – a new diplomatic plan that is being dubbed “Step by Step.” Under the plan, Iran will begin to respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands. In exchange for every satisfactory response, the international community would gradually roll back the existing sanctions on Iran.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister visited Moscow last week to discuss this idea with his Russian counterpart, and on Sunday the Russian deputy foreign minister for Middle Eastern affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, went to Tehran to discuss the joint diplomatic effort with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Meanwhile, Iran is adopting a new line of public diplomacy aimed both at Europe and the United States. Yesterday Salehi declared, “Strengthening the ties between Europe and Iran will be very helpful to Europe, since if Turkey joins the European Union, Iran will be a close neighbor of Europe’s.”
Over the weekend Ahmadinejad also said that “The Iranians are a nation of culture and logic, and are not warmongers.” The remarks, made at an event marking the unveiling of ancient artifacts returned by Britain to Iran, received big headlines in the Iranian press.
It is not clear what Ahmadinejad meant by “logic,” yet it notably was Ahmadinejad who initiated the 2010 agreement to deposit Iranian uranium in Turkey. Ahmadinejad is also believed to lead a certain school of thought that maintains it is better to come to an agreement with the West now, as opposed to the views of much of the radical religious leadership, which objects to any agreement.
In the end, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will be the one to decide whether to promote any new diplomatic options. But the assessment that he still hasn’t given the green light for the production of nuclear weapons seemingly leaves the window of diplomatic opportunity open.
Ahmadinejad also can rest easy about his domestic situation. Yesterday he got some unexpected support from Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, who is considered the leader of the Iranian opposition, and who until now never failed to criticize his rival. Khatami declared that if there were an attack on Iran, all groups – those that want reform and those that don’t – would unite to rebuff the attack.
Khatami defined the Israeli threat as “psychological warfare and a bluff,” but expressed concern that such psychological warfare could persuade the international community that an attack on Iran was possible.
Iranian opposition sources say that the debate over a possible attack on Iran plays directly into Ahmadinejad’s hands, since it boosts his political position not only vis a vis the opposition, but also vis a vis the supreme leader, Khamenei, whose confidants see Ahmadinejad as a political threat.
Tony Karon writes: Game changer? Hardly. As the dust settles on this week’s release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran, it’s become clear that pre-release hype from Western officials that it would produce a dramatic shift in the international standoff over that country’s nuclear program appears to be wishful thinking. There’s nothing about the report’s contents — all of which had been known to the key players for the past five years — or the fact of its publication that appears likely to shift any of their positions. Instead, it appears to be triggering another round of business as usual: The U.S. and its key Western allies are pressing for new sanctions, unilateral and via the U.N.; Israel is rattling its saber; Russia and China are telling everyone to calm down and resisting any new sanctions; and Iran is keeping its uranium enrichment centrifuges spinning.
Experts parsing with the material say the IAEA’s finding don’t differ substantially with those of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded, to the chagrin of the Israelis and other Iran hawks, that Tehran had halted most of its research into weaponization of nuclear material in 2003. The new report does assert — on the basis of a narrower set of sources — that some lower-level apparent weapons research work did, in fact, continue after 2003. But what it calls a “structured program” of weapons research appears to have been mostly halted in 2003.
Still, there’s little question that Iran has used its nuclear program to bring the capability to build nuclear weapons within closer reach. The IAEA has now formally rejected Tehran’s insistence that all of its nuclear work has been for civilian energy production, and has demanded that it account for research work that appears to have no purpose outside of warhead design. But it has hardly confirmed the notion that Iran is racing hell for leather to build nuclear weapons.
A senior Administration official conceded Tuesday that “the IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full-scale nuclear weapons program”, nor does it spell out how much progress has been made in the research effort.
Karim Sadjadpour writes: The International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report [PDF] on Iran’s nuclear program asserts that Tehran “has carried out … activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that the agency sees “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israel first reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strike now?
Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling and military action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirm in private meetings that they take “very seriously” the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Think of it like this: In one way — and one way only — the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood is slim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.
Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?
To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences [PDF] that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.
I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.
Arguably, the strongest argument against an attack on Iran is a question of simple mathematics. According to Israeli estimates, a strike would, at best, set back Tehran’s nuclear clock by just two to three years — but it would likely resuscitate the fortunes of a deeply unpopular, ideologically bankrupt Iranian regime, prolonging its shelf life by another decade or generation. As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, Israel and the United States should “focus less on the gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun.” Bombing Iran, he said, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it — and only increase his desire to get the gun.
Iran’s nuclear sites are purposely built close to population centers, but in the simulation, the Israeli strike managed to cause only a small number of civilian casualties. Nonetheless, one of my immediate reactions was to order Iranian state television to show graphic images of the “hundreds of innocent martyrs” — focusing on the women and children — in order to incite outrage against Israel and attempt to convert Iranian nationalism into solidarity with the regime.
To further that goal, we then invited the symbolic leadership of the opposition — Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both of whom are now under house arrest), as well as former President Mohammad Khatami — onto state television to furiously condemn Israel and pledge allegiance to the government. Instead of widening Iran’s deep internal fractures — both between political elites and between the people and the regime — the Israeli military strike helped repair them.
I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.
And respond we did. I went into the exercise believing that the Iranian regime’s response to an Israeli military strike — despite many predictions otherwise — would be relatively subdued, given the regime’s fears of inviting massive reprisals. The opposite turned out to be true. Once our nuclear sites were effectively destroyed, we calculated that we had no choice but to escalate and retaliate in order to save face and project power to our own population and neighbors, deter future attacks, and inflict a heavy political cost on Israel.
Bloomberg reports: Concern that a new report on Iran’s nuclear program might spur an Israeli military strike ignores a central factor: Experts say the odds such an assault could succeed are slim.
“The Israelis actually have limited means of attacking Iran’s nuclear program,” said Richard Russell, a professor at the U.S. National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington and a consultant to the U.S. command for the region. “This is a very, very difficult problem for the Israelis, and it’s getting more and more acute.”
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday reported on Iran’s efforts to develop a bomb small enough to put on a missile with enough range to hit Israel. Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, outlined anew in the report, are dispersed over a broad area 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) and multiple countries to the east of Tel Aviv. Some are underground.
Iran has repeatedly asserted that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian goals, such as power generation.
“The Israeli Air Force is capable of launching an attack on Iran and causing damage,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It is far from capable of disabling the Iran nuclear program. That would take at least a month of sustained bombing. That’s not something Israel can carry out alone.”
Gareth Porter reports: The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published by a Washington think tank Tuesday repeated the sensational claim previously reported by news media all over the world that a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist had helped Iran construct a detonation system that could be used for a nuclear weapon.
But it turns out that the foreign expert, who is not named in the IAEA report but was identified in news reports as Vyacheslav Danilenko, is not a nuclear weapons scientist but one of the top specialists in the world in the production of nanodiamonds by explosives.
In fact, Danilenko, a Ukrainian, has worked solely on nanodiamonds from the beginning of his research career and is considered one of the pioneers in the development of nanodiamond technology, as published scientific papers confirm.
It now appears that the IAEA and David Albright, the director of the International Institute for Science and Security in Washington, who was the source of the news reports about Danilenko, never bothered to check the accuracy of the original claim by an unnamed “Member State” on which the IAEA based its assertion about his nuclear weapons background.
Albright gave a “private briefing” for “intelligence professionals” last week, in which he named Danilenko as the foreign expert who had been contracted by Iran’s Physics Research Centre in the mid-1990s and identified him as a “former Soviet nuclear scientist”, according to a story by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post on Nov. 5.
The Danilenko story then went worldwide.
The IAEA report says the agency has “strong indications” that Iran’s development of a “high explosions initiation system”, which it has described as an “implosion system” for a nuclear weapon, was “assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable on these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin.”
The report offers no other evidence of Danilenko’s involvement in the development of an initiation system.
The member state obviously learned that Danilenko had worked during the Soviet period at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics in Snezhinsk, Russia, which was well known for its work on development of nuclear warheads and simply assumed that he had been involved in that work.
However, further research would have revealed that Danilenko worked from the beginning of his career in a part of the Institute that specialised in the synthesis of diamonds. Danilenko wrote in an account of the early work in the field published in 2006 that he was among the scientists in the “gas dynamics group” at the Institute who were “the first to start studies on diamond synthesis in 1960″.
If you want to start a war with Iran, apparently the lesson from Iraq is not that war is a dumb idea; it’s that the war charge cannot be led by the U.S. administration or a ragtag band of expatriates.
The pretext for war needs to be presented by an international body that is perceived as independent and objective. So, if you want to start a war with Iran, who could present a more compelling justification for war than the International Atomic Energy Agency?
But can the U.S. government rely on the IAEA to fulfill its covertly designated role?
Now that the irritatingly independent Mohamed ElBaradei is out of the way, we know — thanks to Wikileaks — that Washington is much more comfortable with the agency’s new director general, Yukiya Amano, who is “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
The Obama administration, as well as being able to rely on the IAEA to align itself with U.S. goals, can of course always rely on the New York Times to fulfill its role as an informal ministry of information. Just as Izvestia functioned as the “delivered message” of the Soviet government, reporters like David Sanger gladly parrot their administration sources rather than question what they are being told.
[T]he Obama administration, acutely aware of how what happened in Iraq undercut American credibility, is deliberately taking a back seat, eager to make the conclusions entirely the I.A.E.A.’s, even as it continues to press for more international sanctions against Iran. When the director of the agency, Yukia Amano, came to the White House 11 days ago to meet top officials of the National Security Council about the coming report, the administration declined to even confirm he had ever walked into the building.
The final touches are still being put on the report and its critical annex, where some of the investigative details will be laid out, which may be released as early as Wednesday. But already Russia and China have sent a diplomatic protest to Mr. Amano, urging him to not to make details of the evidence public.
“Russia and China are of the opinion that such kind of report will only drive Iran into a corner,” they wrote in the note, which was obtained by The New York Times and is a rare instance of those countries commenting jointly.
Obtained by the New York Times — but from who?
Knowing how a piece of information enters the public domain can be as important as the information itself. If these reporters gave some indication about where the note came from, they would thereby provide a clearer indication about whose agenda is being served by its revelation.
Sources do of course often need to be concealed and over at Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis obliges “an observer” by allowing him to remain nameless. Regular readers of ACW will know, however, that this is a blog not only with stellar contributors but also a highly informed readership. This observer writes:
For some reason, everyone and his cousin are suddenly seized the idea that there must be an urgent need to (at a minimum) contemplate whether to bomb Iran. No one can quite say why now, though. As Ari Shavit writes in Ha’aretz, with an impressive combination of eloquence and lack of substance:
For the past decade it has been clear that we are facing an Iranian deadline. Time after time the deadline has been put off. But it is real and it is imminent. Unless an international miracle, or an interior-Iranian miracle takes place, we will reach the crossroads.
‘When we stand at the crossroads we will have two options – prevention or deterrence. To launch a military offensive or to emerge from nuclear ambiguity. One way or another, all chaos will break loose in the Middle East. One way or another, all chaos will break loose in Israel. What was will be no more. A new era will begin.’
But just what technical or political fact has brought the deadline to the crossroads?
Why, exactly, is there an insistence that Iran is racing up to some undefined sharply defined point where its adversaries, Israel included, must either strike preventively or accept an uneasy relationship of mutual (nuclear) deterrence? If Iran is racing, so were Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s more like tiptoeing.
Shavit is now the umpty-teenth commentator, Israeli or otherwise, who apparently cannot imagine that nuclear opacity or ambiguity could apply to states other than Israel.
The drumbeat for war against Iran suggests that not only do Iran’s enemies regard the Islamic state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as intolerable, but Tehran must be punished simply for its lack of transparency.
An editorial in The Observer says: Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is seen as a threat for reasons partly of Israel’s own making – foremost its absolute reliance on a policy of military supremacy and deterrence to underpin security. A nuclear-armed Iran would hole that policy below the waterline, making it far more difficult, for instance, to launch the kind of war it waged against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Israel’s recent posturing ahead of the IAEA meeting, which included testing a new long-range missile and launching a long-range air strike exercise, is a doubly dangerous game. For while some senior Israeli air force officers are understood to support Netanyahu’s desire to strike Iran sooner rather than later, other independent analysis is far more sceptical of Israel’s ability to cause lasting damage on Iran’s nuclear programme, suggesting that it might require up to a fifth of the country’s operational aircraft to inflict serious harm, which could still fall short of Israel’s desired outcome. Some experts have estimated that even a successful raid on Iran would buy Israel only four years at best while encouraging Iran to redouble its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
If that is the short-term analysis, then in the medium term the risks for Israel perhaps would be greater still. With its regional alliances with friendly states quickly unravelling in the fall-out from the Arab Spring, from Israel’s botched attack on the Turkish-flagged MV Mavi Marmara and from its war against Gaza, an attack on the scale required to halt Iran’s nuclear programme is unlikely to improve either its relations with its neighbours or Israel’s security environment.
All of which leads to the question – if the consequences carry such risk for so little benefit, why are Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, pushing the plan?
One possibility is that Netanyahu is determined to impose the terms of the debate about the issues raised by the IAEA report at a time when it is clear that both Russia and China are lukewarm on the prospect of further sanctions against Tehran. If that is Netanyahu’s aim – to use the threat of war to leverage diplomatic effect – it is the behaviour of a tinpot state, not the mature democracy Israel claims to be.
Far more worrying is the notion that Netanyahu, who has long chafed against President Obama’s strictures on settlement building and the peace process, and is said to be obsessed with the issue of Iran, is contemplating an attack having calculated he has sufficient friends in Congress to defy the White House.
Whatever Netanyahu is thinking, he is playing a high-risk game for even higher stakes, betting Israel’s security and international prestige against an uncertain outcome, even by allowing it to be suggested that Israel might strike. After Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, its failure to break Hamas in Gaza in 2009 – and with the international opprobrium that followed that operation – Israel risks talking itself into a corner where it appears weak if it doesn’t act and perhaps weaker if it does, a country increasingly bereft of any notion of how to manage relations with its neighbours except through the threat of aggression.