Today, David Ignatius writes that the Bush administration is unlikely to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. “There is uniformity across the U.S. government about the way to proceed with Iran,” says an unnamed official quoted by the Washington Post columnist. “Everyone from this White House, including the vice president’s office, is in agreement that the military option is not the best option at this point.”
Ignatius is undoubtedly correct. In June, both Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Israel to say that Washington was not in favor of the use of force and that Iraq opposed Israeli planes crossing its airspace. “The military option, although always available, is not our preferred route,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell at the end of last month.
So what does Israel think? Its defense minister, Ehud Barak, told reporters in Washington last week that there was still time for “accelerated sanctions.” Yet there is nothing accelerated about the American-led drive to impose additional coercive measures on Tehran. Instead of trying to stop the Iranians cold, the Bush administration has shifted gears and embraced a softer approach. As a practical matter, the new policy contemplates years of additional diplomacy.
The Israelis, however, do not believe that there is much time left. On Friday, Shaul Mofaz, the country’s deputy prime minister, said that Iran is on the verge of a technical breakthrough and would be able to enrich uranium at “military levels” by 2010. The American response has been to provide reassuring words to Jerusalem and consider offering it radar to detect incoming Iranian ballistic missiles, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated to Barak last week during their meeting.
Why would Israel need radar unless Washington thought the Iranians would get nuclear warheads? Last week, a senior State Department official said the United States takes the Iranian threat “seriously,” but the Israelis could be forgiven if they thought that the Bush administration had already given up. For Dubya, Iran is just one more problem to be managed before noon on January 20 of next year. For the state of Israel, it is an existential threat.
Washington, therefore, cannot just let the matter fester. On their own, the Israelis can only dent the Iranian nuclear program, slowing it down two months to two years, as Ignatius reports this morning. A failure to destroy the entire program and the regime itself will only pave the way for Iranian counterstrikes and a series of military actions and reactions that can embroil the Middle East in a modern Thirty Years War.