The world needs to be much tougher on Iran, but an Israeli attack would still be a disaster
Nov 12th 2011 | from the print edition
THE debate about timelines is almost over. This week’s report on Iran’s nuclear programme by the UN’s watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is its most alarming yet. Although no “smoking gun” proves beyond doubt that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, the evidence gathered in a 12-page annex is hard to interpret in any other way.
Concerted efforts by Western intelligence agencies and the Israelis to sabotage the Iranian programme have been less effective than was previously believed. Iran has already begun moving part of its uranium-enrichment capacity to Fordow, a facility buried deep within a mountain near Qom. Intelligence sources estimate that if Iran opted to “break out” from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it could have at least one workable weapon within a year and a few more about six months after that. Iran’s leaders may not choose that path. But what happens next depends less on Iran’s technical or industrial capabilities than on politics. For the time being at least, ambiguity almost certainly serves Iran’s purposes better than a confrontation. But in Israel, talk of a pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities is increasing.
Publicly, Israel has stuck to its well-worn line that no option should be ruled out. But well-placed leaks suggest that the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, are exploring the possibility of a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Their cabinet colleagues seem less persuaded and Israel’s powerful military and intelligence establishment is against a strike. Polls show that Israelis are split on the issue. But Mr Netanyahu is determined not to go down in history as the prime minister who allowed Israel to become threatened by a hostile, regional nuclear power.
Rising fear, rising danger
The Israelis’ anxiety is understandable. They fear a theocratic regime that embraces the Shia tradition of martyrdom may not be deterred by a nuclear balance of terror. For a country as small as Israel, even a small-scale nuclear attack could be an existential threat. Two of Mr Netanyahu’s predecessors took action, against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, to prevent just such a threat; and it worked. The opportunity to attack Iran is now, before it is too late—or so the argument goes in many Israeli households.
Yet the arguments against an attack are still overwhelming, even for Israel. A sustained bombing campaign would take weeks and set off a firestorm in the Middle East, with Iran counter-attacking Israel through its proxies. It would do nothing to help regime change in Tehran. The economic consequences could be catastrophic. And to what end? A successful campaign would still only delay Iran, not stop it. The technical difficulties for Israel’s armed forces of carrying out such a broad mission over such a long time are immense. Indeed, the suspicion is that Mr Netanyahu would be betting that what Israel started, America would feel forced to finish.
Barack Obama should make it very clear to Mr Netanyahu that he would not do that. At the same time, he should pursue two courses: pushing sanctions, on the one hand, and preparing for a nuclear-armed Iran on the other.
So far, attempts to impose punitive sanctions have fallen short. Russia and China (Iran’s biggest trading partner) have refused to support efforts at the UN Security Council to beef up the sanctions regime, for instance by limiting Iran’s imports of refined petroleum or targeting the activities of its central bank. Yet the West should not give up the effort: there is a (slim) possibility that, as the prospect of an Iranian bomb and an Israeli strike draw near, Russia and China might shift their positions.
If Iran does not halt its nuclear programme, its rulers should expect their country to be treated as an international pariah. That means not just pushing for more serious sanctions, but also stepping up the covert campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear facilities. It also means preparing for the day when Iran deploys nuclear weapons. To that end, America must demonstrate to its allies who feel threatened by Iran—not just Israel, but Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states too—that its commitment to extending nuclear deterrence to them is as firm as it was to Europe at the height of the cold war. America must also be willing to make available to its allies advanced ballistic missile defences.
Iran must be made to understand that owning nuclear weapons is a curse for it rather than a blessing. And Israel must be persuaded that striking Iran would be far more dangerous than living with its nuclear ambitions.