The latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the Iranian nuclear program removes the last possibility of denial that Iran is far along on a program to acquire nuclear weapons. The November 8 report detailed Iranian work on nuclear triggers, mathematical modeling of missile trajectories for the delivery of nuclear weapons, and implosion experiments. It confirmed that Iran has sophisticated knowledge of nuclear weapon design and has tested some of the components of a nuclear weapon. If nothing else, the report will force Western governments, most notably the United States, to take their collective head out of the sand and cease pretending that Iran's intentions are an open question.
From Israel's point of view, the report made little difference: There has long been unanimity among Israeli policymakers about Iran's nuclear intentions, and it is a safe bet that much of the information contained in the IAEA report came from Israeli intelligence sources.
But the IAEA report and the anticipation thereof did trigger a spate of articles in both the Israeli and international media about the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. One of Israel's most read journalists announced that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanayahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were united in their determination to hit Iran's nuclear program. In an interview, Barak announced that no more than a year remains before Iran's nuclear program will be immune from attack by Israeli bombers. Meanwhile, Israel's air force carried out well publicized training exercises involving mid-flight refueling and other necessities for launching a long-range air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
It is hard to believe that encouraging a wide public discussion of the necessity of going after Iran's nuclear facilities would be the likely prelude for an Israeli attack. The factors militating against such an attack – other than the shrinking window of opportunity – have not lessened over the last two years. Iran would almost certainly unleash its own long-range missiles against Israel, and its allies on Israel's southern and northern borders would draw upon their own arsenals of close to a 100,000 missiles. Syria's embattled dictator,Bashar Assad, if he were still around, might find a limited exchange with Israel a useful distraction. When Defense Minister Barak says that Israel would probably incur no more than 500 civilian casualties, not everyone finds his remarks totally soothing, even if that number pales by comparison to those who would be lost in a nuclear exchange.
Any military confrontation around the Straits of Hormuz, through which 25% of the world's oil flows, would cause oil prices to rise precipitously and likely cast the already teetering Western economies into severe recession or worse. As the initiator of war, Israel would bear the onus of having chosen pre-emption, and her existing international isolation would only worsen. Were such an attack undertaken without American approval, or at least acquiescence – a near certainty during the current administration – it would lead to severe crisis in Israel's relationship with its main ally and principal arm's supplier.
At best, an Israeli attack, at this point, would only set back the Iranian nuclear program. And it is not even certain that it would succeed. Columbia University's Austin Long ran a number of simulations of an Israeli attack and concluded that on balance Israeli planes probably can inflict severe damage on all Iran's existing nuclear installations, but was much less sanguine about the new Fordrow facility deeply embedded within a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom.
More likely the Israeli chatter was meant to focus the rest of the world on the Iranian threat. Iran is not just a threat to Israel. It would destabilize the entire world, and trigger a massive nuclear arms build-up in the already unstable Middle East. Acting under a nuclear umbrella, Iran can work all kinds of mischief with restless Shiite populations in the Gulf States and in the oil-rich regions of Saudi Arabia. (The Saudis have been no less vociferous than Israel in urging America to act far more forcefully to stop Iran from going nuclear.) Iranian missiles already have a sufficient range to hit Europe, and missiles fired from aboard an Iranian submarine in the Atlantic would render the United States vulnerable as well.
From everyone's point of view, it would be vastly preferable for the United States to lead any military attack on Iran. Because the United States could launch sorties from aircraft carriers or from bases far closer to Iran than Israel, it could fly far more sorties than Israel and have a much better chance than Israel does of setting back Iran's nuclear program for years and sending a strong warning against quickly restarting the program. We have previously detailed in these pages the ways in which the United States could bring Iran to a virtual standstill by destroying its already limited oil refining capacities and cutting off imports.
There were some encouraging signs, in the wake of the IAEA report, that the world is beginning to apprehend the full magnitude of the threat presented by a nuclear Iran. Even the New York Times, not generally known for its warmongering, urged the administration to wratchet up sanctions considerably and termed the Obama administration's response "strikingly muted." Even France, a nation not known for its military prowess since Napolean's day, scoffed at the tepid American response to the IAEA report French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called for "sanctions on an unprecedented scale" to make Iran bend.
Unfortunately, however, the Obama administration response to the Iranian threat remained curiously subdued, if not outright lackadaisical. Mitt Romney detailed the failures of the Obama administration in an oped entitled, "I Won't Let Iran Get Nukes," in the Wall Street Journal. Obama began his presidency with great flourish by announcing a policy of engagement with Iran, without pre-conditions. That policy ignored the more than four years Iran had already spent toying with European negotiators.
The delusion that Iran could be coaxed into fruitful negotiations over its nuclear program led to the single greatest failure of the administration's Iran policy – its failure to support the 2009 Green Revolution that might have severely weakened the regime from within. Romney also pointed out that President Obama in pressing the "reset" button on relations with Russia and acceding to almost all Russian demands failed to secure any Russian cooperation vis-à-vis Iran.
After the Justice Department announced last month that the FBI had uncovered an Iranian plot, traced to the very highest echelons of the government, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, the Obama administration confined itself to the indictment against two low-level operatives, but did not announce any general change of policy. Even after the IAEA report, which showed that the current sanctions regime has failed to stop the Iranian march towards obtaining nuclear weapons, the Obama administration reacted with no show of urgency.
Indeed it did everything possible to ensure that Iran's Supreme Guide Ali Khamenai would sleep better at night as his country pursues nuclear weapons. New Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seemed to make forestalling an Israeli attack a higher priority than stopping Iran's nuclear program. He twice stated publicly, with great fanfare, that an attack on Iran would deal a severe blow to the world economy.
Senator Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) has introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have forced the U.S. to deny access to the American financial system to any bank doing business with Iran's central bank. That would be the most powerful sanction against Iran, as it would greatly reduce its ability to sell its oil, which revenues account for 80% of Iran's export income and between one-half and three-quarters of the annual budget. Again, the Obama administration lobbied against the Kirk amendment on the grounds that it would disrupt world oil markets. (The U.S. Treasury Department has signaled to financial institutions around the world that they should consider terminating relationships with the Iranian Central Bank by classifying it as a territory of "primary money laundering concern.")
The curious lassitude of the president in responding to the Iranian threat has been in stark contrast to his diplomatic aggressiveness of his recent Pacific tour, in which every stop was filled with the announcement of new steps designed to make the Chinese very edgy.
The reluctance to push the Iranians harder and failure to make them worry about the possibility of an American military strike harder is even harder to understand in light of the fact that Iran's vulnerabilities are growing not declining. For the first time, the odds have shifted against Bashar Assad, Iran's closest ally, holding on to power in Syria. The opposition is now armed – against the advice of the United States – with an estimated 17,000 fighters, most of them deserters from the Syrian Army. While not strong enough to defeat Assad's army, they can disrupt the country to such an extent as to cause the business class, which has thus far supported the regime, to withdraw its support.
Syria is increasingly isolated in the Arab world. That isolation has less to do with repugnance at the government's slaughter of unarmed civilians than with Sunni hatred of the Iranians and desire to deal Iran a blow via Syria. A European ban on the purchase of Syrian oil will bite deeply into the already tottering economy.
There is also evidence that the Iranian opposition is growing increasingly focused. Michael Ledeen, who has long urged greater American support for Iranian dissidents, writes that the recent major explosion at a Revolutionary Guards base outside Teheran, which claimed the life of the director of Iran's missile program, was likely the work of dissident groups.
It remains to be seen whether the United States will exploit these vulnerabilities and increase the pressure on the Iranians. So far the signs are not good.