Monday, August 27, 2012

Israel's Clock Is Running Out on Iran

Jed Babbin
Get ready for war in the Middle East -- after the election.

Last February Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said "Israel is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off." Khamenei promised to support any groups fighting Israel anywhere in the world. On about August 17, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said Israel's existence is an insult to humanity. There has been an almost steady stream of Iranian provocations like these. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear weapons program proceeds unabated.

This week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend a summit of the 120 UN "non-aligned" nations in Tehran giving the Iranian kakistocracy the legitimacy it craves, further isolating Israel and diminishing America's position in the Middle East.

What comes next will be a war between Israel and Iran. Unfortunately, there's a lot of fuzzy thinking going around about how that war could be prevented. In short, it cannot.

Too little and too much has been made of the conflicting statements by White House press secretary Jay Carney and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's statements on diplomatic efforts to stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

Carney, in a press briefing two weeks ago, said the Obama administration believed there was still "time and space" for sanctions to work. Shortly after that, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said Israel's clock "is ticking faster" than America's. Oren repeated the statement made by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu late last month that sanctions have failed to stop Iran's nuclear program. Not that they are failing or are likely to fail. Netanyahu used the present perfect tense, not the future, and he is correct. That means Israel's moment to take military action has almost arrived.

Oren also said that while Israel appreciates the supporting rhetoric coming from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, there are "structural differences between the United States and Israel which we can't ignore."

Too much has been made of this because most of the analysis is entirely wrong. Analysts have said this indicates that Netanyahu has decided to attack Iran before the U.S. election, which is almost certainly untrue. Too little has been made of it because it indicates how dire the Israelis believe the situation has become, and how little influence America will have at the onset or the end of what is likely to become the largest war the Middle East has ever seen.

Perhaps the most wrong-headed analysis came from the least likely source. Charles Krauthammer's August 24 column said that Israel was either engaged in the "most elaborate deception since the Trojan horse or it is on the cusp of a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities." Krauthammer proceeds from that assertion to adopt CSIS analyst Tony Cordesman's three points to forestall the conflict.

Cordesman, as Krauthammer relates, says there should be a statement of "clear U.S. red lines" that Iran cannot cross, that we must make it clear to Iran that it has no successful options for developing nuclear weapons and that we need to give the Iranians a "face-saving way out."

But Israel isn't required to choose between deception and imminent war. In fact, any successful strategy would have to combine the two and give flexibility to the term "imminent." Because America's influence on both Iran and Israel has been significantly diminished by Obama's hostility toward Israel -- and his comprehensive weakness in dealing with Iran -- we lack the credibility of posting "clear red lines" or imposing a non-nuclear option on Iran.

Lastly, and most obtusely, the idea Cordesman poses for a "face-saving way out" for Iran assumes something entirely disconnected from the realities of Tehran's decades-long nuclear program: that there is any path away from nuclear weapons that Iran could conclude is more attractive to it than the path it is on.

We believe that Iran is accelerating its uranium enrichment program and may already have enough to construct three or four nuclear warheads. We know that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons triggers as well as the technology for delivering warheads by missile. But what we don't know far outweighs what we do, which is only one of the reasons we can't declare "clear red lines" or impose any non-nuclear option on Iran. We haven't had accurate, reliable intelligence on Iran's nuclear program for at least a decade. No matter what "red lines" we may theoretically declare, there's no way for us to know when they've been crossed short of Iran conducting an underground nuclear test.

In order for us to impose any non-nuclear option on Iran we'd have to have a level of influence in Iran -- and in Israel and across the Middle East -- that we now lack. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeatedly declared that Iran will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, but neither took any action to prevent it from doing so.

When Obama announced the imposition of major sanctions against Iran, he also -- almost simultaneously -- exempted most European and Far Eastern nations from them. No wonder that Israel's ambassador said there were "structural differences" between our approach to Iran and Israel's: Israel is serious, and we're not. We used to be Israel's strongest ally, but it now has little reason to believe it can rely on us.

Israel doesn't want to be accused of interfering in our election, so any attack on Iran will wait until after the November election. The hostility Obama has shown to Israel already could be nearly matched by alienation of Israel's American allies if Israel is seen to interfere with the election. That's a risk that Israel won't take unless there is a threat so great and so imminent that it demands action. Israel will wait until the election is over.

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