by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 29, 2012
I returned to Israel last week with a planeload of new olim under the aegis of Nefesh b'Nefesh. It takes considerable courage to move to Israel at a time when the home command is summoning citizens to receive new gas masks, in preparation for possible war, and the papers are filled every day with discussion of if and when Israel will attack Iran, and the catastrophic costs if it does.
The next report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Iranian nuclear program, according The New York Times' David Sanger, will contain evidence that Iran has added hundreds of new centrifuges in its deep underground Fordow facility, and is focusing its efforts on enrichment up to the 20% level, far beyond any plausible civilian need. Former chief IAEA investigator Olli Heinemen told the Times, "Even if the new centrifuges are not operating yet, a thousand new ones would represent a 20% increase – and an increased production level will be a red line for many people." Already, Iran has increased the amount of enriched uranium in its stockpiles from enough for one bomb when President Obama took office to five today.
Iran is clearly entering the "zone of immunity" from Israeli attack that has so obsessed Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Immunity from an Israeli attack, but not from American. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted recently, Israel and America have different time lines by virtue of their different military capabilities. An Israeli mission against Iran, which will at best only set back the Iranian program a couple of years, is, in the opinion of most military experts, at the outer edge of Israeli capabilities.
Not so for the United States, which could fly multiple sorties for weeks from aircraft carriers stationed close to Iran, and which has new bunker busters capable of penetrating Iran's underground facility at Fordow. As we have noted frequently, the United States could also cut off the head of the snake – Iran's Revolutionary Guard – by attacking its prime assets and training camps. Degrading the Revolutionary Guard, whose capacity for brutality towards the regime's opponents would put that of Assad's minions to shame, might make possible an internal revolution in Iran, which is the only long-range solution to the Iranian threat.
So if there were the slightest chance that the United States will attack Iran's nuclear facilities and prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capacity, Israel would gladly wait. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has utterly failed to convince either the Iranians or the Israelis (apart from the eternally optimistic President Shimon Peres) that it is serious about preventing Iran from going nuclear.
Nor do the Israelis share the American's expressed confidence that their intelligence would give them time to act if Iran made a decision to "weaponize" nuclear warheads. Almost once every decade since the end of World War II, American intelligence has been surprised by another country going nuclear – the Soviet Union in 1949; China in the '60s; India in the '70s, Pakistan in the '80s, and North Korea in 2006.
As Israel's former ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold pointed out last week in Israel Hayom, the United States has consistently failed to stop rogue states from gaining nuclear capacity. President Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he was determined to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, even at the danger of triggering a war, but failed to do so. Similarly, under President George W. Bush, the United States refused to act on clear intelligence that North Korea was building Syria a nuclear reactor, and left it up to Israel to destroy the reactor.
A number of former government officials have suggested recently ways in which the Obama administration could buttress Israel's confidence that it will act. Dennis Ross, who held the Iran portfolio on the national security council under President Obama, suggested in The New York Times supplying Israel with America's newest super-duper bunker busters and refueling planes to lessen its feeling that Iran was entering the zone of immunity. And former deputy national security advisor under President George W. Bush, Elliot Abrams, urged the President to seek an authorization for the use of force against Iran by the summer of 2013 if it has not complied with certain demands.
Ross's proposal would, at most, give Israel more time before it felt is had to launch a strike. And Abrams' suggestion goes against all President Obama's deepest foreign policy inclinations. The first of those is his reverence for international institutions, first and foremost the U.N. In Libya, he was only willing to "lead from behind" because the action enjoyed international support. China and Russia could both be counted on to exercise a Security Council veto of any military action against Iran.
Secondly, President Obama has made outreach to the Muslim world the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and would thus be extremely reluctant to attack another Muslim nation, even though such an attack would delight the Saudis and the Sunni-led Gulf States, which are only slightly less terrified of a nuclear Iran than is Israel (and far less capable of doing anything about it.)
David Wurmser, a former adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney and later to John Bolton at the State Department, recalled last week a conversation with one of his successors in the incoming Obama administration. The official explained how he was crafting a Iranian policy, "eerily identical" to the one pursued by the Bush administration without success. Wurmser asked the man what his backup plan was in the event that diplomacy and sanctions did not work. He could not conceive of any possible alternative. At some point, "pressure must work," he insisted. That point has still not been reached, and never will be.
Even worse from Israel's point of view than the conclusion that President Obama will not stop the Iranian nuclear program is the lack of any assurance that Mitt Romney, if elected, would be much more likely to order an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Otherwise, Israel might at least have the luxury of waiting for the November election results. Wurmser argues that the political establishment in Washington D.C. since 2003 has rejected the concept of preemptive war. And that was also true in the Republican administration of George W. Bush, who was frequently ridiculed as for his "cowboy" instincts.
European capitals during that period were focused less on stopping Iran than on continually recalibrating sanctions, when Iran again proved thoroughly intransigent, for the purpose of deflating any momentum towards a more robust U.S. policy. And in that desire, they were fully aided and abetted by at least half the Republican foreign policy and intelligence elite, most notably with the leak of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that purported to show that Iran had abandoned the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Actually, the full report demonstrated the exact opposite: The leaks constituted, in Wurmser's words, a "soft coup" by the intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracy.
That same bureaucracy was constantly discovering evidence that "moderates" within the ruling clerical establishment were taking over from "hardliners" and other reasons militating in favor of more patience and slightly tougher sanctions as a fig leaf for the moribund diplomatic process.
Summing up his experiences, Wurmser writes chillingly: "I have all my life counted on the greatness of America and its tradition of doing the right thing, even at the last moment. But right now, the cavalry is not going to ride to Israel's side, even at the last moment. There is nobody of influence within the establishment or bureaucracy in Washington . . . seriously arguing for preemptive action." America, he concludes, has become a "sleeping giant," like the West in the '30s.
Lee Smith, one of the most astute Middle East analysts, came to the same conclusion last week in a piece entitled "Why Romney Won't Strike Iran." From Jimmy Carter during the hostage crisis until today, no American president has drawn red lines for Iran or given Iran any reason to fear swift retribution for the violation of any such lines. American policymakers, across the board, continue to think in terms of the success of MAD (mutual assured destruction) during the Cold War. They believe a nuclear Iran can be similarly contained. They do not view a nuclear Iran as an intolerable threat to the United States. As Dempsey put it last week, "[The Israelis] are living with an existential concern that we are not living with." The best, then, that Israel can hope for from Romney – and the most he has said to date – is: "If you guys feel a need to act, then go ahead. We'll stand with you." Whether they will get even that much from Obama is questionable.
The irony is that by refusing to give Israel any reason to hope that America will act, U.S. policymakers are helping to bring about the result they so fear: another Middle East war. Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a believer in the efficacy of "soft power" nevertheless concludes (as quoted by Charles Krauthammer) that "there are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible." That has not been done. Neither the Iranians nor the Israelis nor the Sunni kingdoms take seriously America's military threats.
The only thing that can prevent war, in Cordesman's view, is for the United States to announce a clear deadline for negotiations and tell the Iranians that there are only two options: (1) a negotiated settlement on generous terms, but with no enrichment capacity; or (2) the physical destruction of their facilities.
We are reliving the 1930s once again. Churchill frequently pointed out that the West's unwillingness to engage Hitler from the beginning, when he could have been easily stopped, cost the West untold millions of lives and much of its treasure. Hitler skillfully manipulated the tendency of all democracies to avoid conflict until it is unavoidably thrust upon them. And Iran is doing the same.
Israel would be the first victim of an expansionist, hegemonic Iranian regime, which gives open expression to its annihilationist intentions toward the cancerous "Zionist entity," in possession of nuclear weapons. But it would not be the last. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran is the world's leading exporter of terror. How much more dangerous will it be when its proxies operate under a nuclear umbrella.
In addition, nuclear weapons would greatly increase its ability to threaten other major oil producing nations, and thus to control the worldwide price of oil. The nuclear arms race that a nuclear Iran would trigger would destabilize the world in ways incapable of rectification afterwards.
For once Santayana's hackneyed warning that "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it" seems right on point. Only the Jews, who suffered the most, retain the memory of seventy years ago.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics
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