Editor’s notes: On Iran, watching and waiting

By David Horovitz October 9, 2009

Israel had concluded long before the Obama administration took office that it would ultimately need to rely on itself in grappling with Iran. Everything that has unfolded in the last few months has only reinforced the conviction.

Iran is bent on producing nuclear weapons. But it would much rather avoid crippling economic sanctions en route, and it certainly doesn’t want Israel, or America, initiating military action against it.

The United States wants to prevent Iran producing nuclear weapons. It is prepared to act with other international players in imposing heavy economic sanctions in the service of that goal, but it is highly reluctant to resort to the use of force.

Those are the respective bottom lines as the United States and its partners now pursue their unfolding engagement with Iran. And they create a framework in which a highly possible, and acutely problematic outcome, would see Teheran maneuvering to the brink of nuclear weapons.

From there it would be able to defy the international community and ‘break out’ to the bomb if and when it should so choose. Equipped with both the material and the know- how, that is, Iran would become a nuclear threshold state – however much the United States would wring its hands, and however dire the possible consequence for Israel.

THE POTENTIAL for miscalculation, by either side, along the complex, delicate path to that immensely problematic denouement is considerable.

For instance, the administration of President Barack Obama, once officials and advisers have spelled out the policy options, seems to be guided in its gut outlook by a determined belief that even the most acute challenges and conflicts can often be resolved without employing weapons of war, if only the key players involved can muster sufficient skill, will and wisdom.

Where Iran is concerned, the president is now engaged in an attempt at marshalling such skill, will and wisdom, brandishing carrots and hinting at sticks, highlighting ostensible shared and individual interests. As Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on CNN on Wednesday, the United States is trying to bring the Iranians ‘to the realization that they’re better off’ without nuclear weapons – better off economically, diplomatically and from a security perspective. The ‘only’ long-term solution, Gates said, remarkably, would be for Iran to come to the decision that no nukes best serve its interests.

If the path of persuasion fails, Obama is plainly prepared to move on to dissuasion – via increasingly significant sanctions.

But if neither persuasion nor dissuasion succeeds, it is certainly possible to contemplate the president telling the American people that he has tried diplomacy, and tried economic leverage, but that it has become evident that Iran cannot be thwarted without the use of military force, and that this, for him, is a step too far. It is certainly possible to contemplate him assuring the American people that the US security establishment will protect them from a nuclear Iran, but that he was not prepared to authorize the use of military force to prevent a nuclear Iran. And it is certainly possible to envisage much of the American public applauding him for such a stance.

All of which is known to the supremely savvy players in Teheran.

So while it seems relatively unlikely that Teheran will underplay its hand – having truly, but wrongly, feared six or so years ago that it was next in line after the United States had finished dealing with Saddam Hussein, and having consequently, temporarily, suspended parts of its nuclear program – a cocky Iran overplaying its hand is emphatically possible. And an Iran that derides the Obama approach, slips and slides and backtracks on commitments, and get caught lying again – as it was with its Qom enrichment facility – could generate sufficient concern in the US and among Obama’s key allies in Western Europe as to produce a harsher international response, whereby the US might be prepared to go further in concert with others than it would be prepared to go alone.

THE ISRAELI government, warily observing the diplomatic dance, and thoroughly convinced that Teheran is nobody’s partner, has taken a vow of silence on the repercussions of the dialogue in Geneva. Presumably, the ‘say nothing’ order from Jerusalem only reached Ambassador to the US Michael Oren after he had spoken to various American Jewish leaders last Friday about ‘several important and rather positive developments at the talks.’ Since then, it’s all gone quiet.

In the past, however, officials here used to indicate that Israel could not acquiesce to Iran’s becoming a threshold state. They’d note that Israel’s red lines and America’s are not drawn in the same place – that Israel dare not assume Iran wouldn’t push the nuclear button itself or supply a third party with a nuclear capability, and that even a ‘rational’ nuclear Iran would remake this region’s balance of power to Israel’s untenable disadvantage.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent Yaakov Katz on Tuesday, the former national security adviser Ilan Mizrahi noted that Israel would ‘have difficulty’ opposing an arrangement, pursued in Geneva, in which Iran has its uranium enriched by a responsible nuclear power. And he sounded, understandably, a little vague about the overall possible agreements taking shape in Geneva. While a deal under which Iran ostensibly came clean about all its nuclear facilities, and accepted new safeguards and inspection regimes, would be hailed as a success by the United States, Mizrahi noted gently that this would still leave the possibility of Iran maintaining a secret weapons program. ‘If that [kind of deal] happens,’ he said, ‘we will always have to live with this question mark.’

But the insistent view, in an Israel whose intelligence services, according to CIA director Leon Panetta, helped expose the Qom facility, is that of course Iran is pursuing secretive elements in its nuclear quest.
The fact that no other major hidden nuclear facilities have yet been revealed may be a function of tactics – they may be known to the West, as Qom was for three years, which is biding its time on when to publicly confront the Iranians – or they may be undiscovered; after all, Syria built a nuclear facility in Israel’s backyard, and it went unnoticed for years.

Largely overlooked in the reporting from Geneva, incidentally, is the fact that another Iranian deception was exposed there. Earlier this year, Iran approached the IAEA with a request for new supplies of low enriched uranium for its decades-old, IAEA-safeguarded research reactor in Teheran. The Iranians should have suggested that their own stockpile of LEU – supposedly being produced precisely for such peaceful use – be utilized. But Teheran, evidently with its eye on non-peaceful use, didn’t want to see that stockpile depleted. The proposal now being discussed, under which Russia and France would perform the further enrichment necessary for the use of this Iranian feedstock at the Teheran reactor, reducing Iran’s known LEU stockpile, was the international community’s elegant response.

Israel and the US are maintaining close and constructive coordination on the Iranian nuclear crisis. Concerns and assessments are shared effectively. Nothing that was raised by the US in Geneva came as a surprise in Jerusalem.

But the US’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, confidently asserting that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003, shattered any expectations here that the Bush administration would stop Iran. So Israel had concluded long before the current administration took office that it would ultimately need to rely on itself.

And that conviction has only been reinforced by everything that has unfolded in the last few months – notably including the latest revelation by US officials, including Panetta, that the US knew about Qom back in 2006. The disclosure that US intelligence was aware Iran had a covert enrichment facility makes a mockery of the NIE’s complacent assurances about a frozen Iranian nuclear weapons program, and it appears to confirm the long-held Israeli sense that the unwarrantedly sanguine NIE was deliberately skewed to deny president George W. Bush the evidence to more forcefully confront Iran. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized on Thursday, ‘The authors of the 2007 Iran NIE have some explaining to do.’

MOREOVER, JERUSALEM’S confidence in this administration and its judgement – on Iran and anything else – seems also to have been shaken because of what are considered here to have been costly rookie errors where the Palestinians are concerned.

The Netanyahu government professes itself shocked that the Obama administration sought to disown understandings reached with the Bush administration, and put in writing, on Israel’s retention of major West Bank settlement blocs.

And it broadcasts shock, too, that Washington sought to insist on a halt to all settlement building, including in east Jerusalem – a demand it should have known Binyamin Netanyahu would not and could not meet, and one that placed the US at odds with the Israeli mainstream while unrealistically heightening Palestinian expectations. As a consequence, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met readily and frequently with prime minister Ehud Olmert even as settlement construction proceeded, is playing hard to get, staving off talks with Netanyahu despite the prime minister’s stated readiness in principle for a freeze in the West Bank.

Counterproductively for US, Israeli and genuine Palestinian interests, the Abbas of fall 2009, now being cajoled back to the negotiating table by Obama’s envoy George Mitchell, is a more radical figure in the eyes of the Israeli government – a leader proving obdurate over settlements, inciting against Israel over Jerusalem, and farcically investigating his own actions in initially agreeing to shelve the Goldstone Report while now feverishly working to maximize that report’s Israel-bashing potential.

Previous Israeli governments, including the Likud-led coalition of Ariel Sharon, consistently spoke of Abbas as an asset. More skeptical by its very nature, this government – which is now reduced to seeking to condition resumed talks on a commitment from the PA not to act against Israel in international legal forums, and urging a halt to PA propaganda against Israel – is far less sure.

IN THIS government’s thinking, efforts at negotiation with the Palestinians have been set back because of the exaggerated US demands on settlement, and the reality on the ground has grown more tense in the interim.

That’s bad enough for Israel. But miscalculation by Washington over Iran would have far more profound consequences here.

Which is why, for all the genuinely excellent coordination between the US and Israel, and the truly wide exchange of information, Jerusalem’s silence over the goings-on in Geneva speaks loudest of all.
America and the other key world players are doing what they see fit with regard to Iran. As will Israel.

© The Jerusalem Post