Israel’s leaders are making increasingly loud and worrisome comments about Iran’s nuclear program. Israel sees Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat — a view that is not surprising given repeated remarks by Iranian leaders that Israel should be wiped from the map.
Iran’s leaders may be borrowing a page from the “madman’s guide to international relations,” ratcheting up tension to gain leverage in negotiations; all evidence suggests that the government and elites in Tehran are as self-interested as any other and they have no desire to commit suicide. Exaggerations notwithstanding, the dangers are very real. Iran’s suspected determination to acquire a weapon would unravel the security and political order in the Middle East. Just as dangerous are the possibilities of a crisis as a result of misperception or over-reaction.
Questions have swirled around Iranian nuclear ambitions for years. Tehran’s insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful has not allayed concerns that the government wants at least a “latent” capability that would allow it to build a bomb at short notice. Attempts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, to eliminate the uncertainties have failed. Instead, Iran has kept the IAEA at arm’s length, increasing suspicions and providing a justification for international sanctions.
In its last report on Iran, issued in November, the IAEA concluded that some alleged Iranian behavior could be interpreted as being only for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. This provided a new impetus for the diplomatic effort to engage or push Tehran to the negotiating table.
In its own intelligence assessments, the United States concluded that Iran is making technical advances, but does not yet have the ability, nor the commitment, to build a nuclear weapon. Mr. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, repeated that judgment in testimony last week to the U.S. Congress. If Iran did make that fateful decision, most experts believe it would take at least a year before the process would be complete. And there is no guarantee that such a device would work.
While the U.S. and its diplomatic partners believe that a crisis is still some time in the distance, Israeli officials have been suggesting that their time horizon is much shorter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned that they are “running out of time.” Their comments have reportedly alarmed U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that Israel will launch strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in the next six months.
The model for such an attack is the 1981 Israeli strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. A similar move against Iran would be much harder: The distances are much greater and Iran is aware of the threat. It has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities.
The fact that Israel is talking about taking action is the best indicator that such a move is not imminent. Tel Aviv is not likely to warn an adversary in advance. But the rhetoric signals to other concerned nations the potential for escalation. It should spur the international community to take Israel’s concerns seriously and take action before Israel is backed into a corner. Some cynics claim the talk about Iran is a way for Israel’s leaders to distract their own public from complaints about the economy or the international community from the lack of progress in talks with the Palestinians.
Israel’s tough talk is a spur toward tighter economic sanctions against Iran. In recent weeks, the U.S.-led effort has gained adherents in Europe and Asia. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has promised that the U.S. will “work closely with countries like South Korea and Japan” as Japan and the U.S. try to find a formula that does not damage Japanese economic interests. A team of Japanese officials visited Washington last week to explain Tokyo’s position.
Iran has responded with bluster, including a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened to retaliate against any action — use of force or just sanctions — against his country and pledged support for any nation or group that challenges Israel.
Responses to Iran actually have been restrained, and Iranian threats are likely to unite its adversaries against it. Diplomacy remains stalled. Talks between Tehran and the IAEA last week failed to make progress. Iran continues to stonewall questions about its nuclear program, has refused to allow a visit to a military complex allegedly linked to secret arms work, and did not allow a meeting with the country’s top nuclear official. The IAEA did deliver a plan that Iran could follow to quieten the IAEA’s suspicions.
Failure is frustrating, but it also reduces the diplomatic room that Tehran has used to keep the world at bay. Each time the IAEA team returns to Vienna empty-handed, there is one less reason to give Iran the benefit of the doubt. The next mission to Tehran begins Feb. 19. Another failure to find common ground will push the confrontation to the IAEA’s governing board and then to the United Nations Security Council. There is still time, but it is growing short.
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