As if the European crisis wasn’t enough to keep the world busy this week, reports of an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities were being discussed all over the press and the blogosphere. In a jaw dropping display of disarray, senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials appeared to be overtly leaking deliberations to short circuit a potential attack.The NYT reports:
The most recent debate [within Netanyahu’s government] has been prompted by the confluence of three events that has made the issue seem especially urgent in Israel, according to American officials who have been worried about whether Israel might conduct a surprise attack.
The first is Iran’s continued production of low- and medium-enriched uranium: it now has enough fuel for roughly four bombs, though producing them would require more time, more enrichment, and more risk of exposure. The second is Iran’s declaration that it is moving much of its production to a well-protected underground site near the holy city of Qum.
But perhaps the most important event is a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, expected next week. For the first time, the agency is expected to describe, in detail, the evidence it has collected suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with warhead designs, nuclear detonation systems and specialized triggering devices that can be explained only as work on a nuclear weapon.
In addition to those issues, faint rumors reached Via Meadia that another factor is at work: that some in the Israeli government believe that Iran’s program may be much more vulnerable than previously thought. US and Israeli intelligence appears to be much improved in recent years, perhaps because growing unhappiness with the mullocracy among educated Iranians has made cooperation with foreigners against the regime more acceptable. Via Meadia has to wait like everybody else for the secret cables to come out on Wikileaks, but over the last couple of years the military in both the US and Israel has sounded more positive about the chance that attacks might ‘work’ in the sense of inflicting very serious damage to the Iranian program. What happens after that remains anyone’s guess; I am reminded about the football saying that once you’ve put the ball in the air, only three things can happen, and two of them are bad.A story in the Guardian that the British are gearing up their preparations to go into Iran with the US contributed to the flutter of nerves though, interestingly, financial markets seemed more fixated on Europe and US jobs news. Whether that is because traders are too small brained to fix on more than one topic at a time or whether the smart money has good reason to discount these stories, Via Meadia cannot say.In general, I am still persuaded by what Martin Indyk and others say about Israeli intentions: when the Israelis are talking and squabbling about something, don’t worry. It’s when they go suddenly and totally quiet that you should watch out. Of course, they could be going for the double fake-out… If nobody thinks they are preparing an attack when they are talking about an attack — that would be the perfect moment for a surprise.Rumors aside, few doubt Israel’s willingness to attack Iranian facilities if necessary. Too few believe it of Obama. So far the US President has restrained himself to tough economic sanctions and (some say) the covert stuxnet virus – but this doesn’t mean he spends his spare time beating swords into ploughshares. In an earlier post I discussed the Iranian threat to Obama’s foreign policy:
Ideas and ideals move this president more than the regional balance of power or the price of crude. In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world. […]
The consequences of the Iranian nuclear drive for the President’s Wilsonian project are deadly; the Iranian nuclear program can fairly be called an existential threat to the Wilsonian ideal. In particular a nuclear Iran will kill the two dreams at the heart of President Obama’s foreign policy and indeed of his view of the world: the dream that the genie of nuclear weapons can be forced back into the bottle and the dream that the nations of the world can build a post-Westphalian international order in which the world’s governments are bound by deepening networks of laws.
The President, I am sure, does not want another war in the Middle East. But neither does he want history to remember him as the leader who threw away the world’s last chance to control nuclear weapons. The world now understands that Barack Obama has no problems with killing when he thinks it needs to be done; we’ll have to see how things work out with Iran.The political calculation reinforces my sense that the President is closer to acting than some think. His tough foreign policy has been a net plus for the administration; arguably he has been much more successful abroad than at home. A decisive strike against the Iranian nuclear program would, assuming reasonable success, bolster his popularity among swing voters and make him look, as they say, ‘presidential’. Failure of course could backfire as it did when Jimmy Carter’s hostage rescue mission miscarried, but if President Obama believes that the plans are solid, his political advisers will likely not try to hold him back.Meanwhile, the policy of keeping the pressure on and ratcheting sanctions up seems to be a partial success. Iran hasn’t given up the weapons program, but the international consensus against letting it succeed is visibly stronger and more engaged than it was two years ago. One way or another, this standoff will have to end. It looks less and less likely to end with a global acquiescence to Iranian nukes.