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Has Panetta’s Shift on Iranian Nukes Come Too Late to Do Any Good?

Just weeks after publicly signaling that the United States not only had no interest in using force to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons but was also seeking to discourage Israel from acting, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has shifted his position. Though the United States has consistently sought to throw cold water on the idea that an Iranian nuke was imminent, Panetta sang a different tune in an interview with CBS.

Panetta told Scott Pelley: “It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel.”

Because the likelihood of such a facility’s existence is great, then what the secretary is telling us is that there is every chance Iran will have nuclear capability by the end of 2012. Such an admission puts the administration’s feckless diplomacy on behalf of sanctions on Iran and failure to enforce existing restrictions in a new light. But if Obama and his team have now finally awakened to the imminent nature of this threat, it must leave both Americans and the Iranians confused as to their intentions.

For three years, President Obama has taken a consistently strong line about stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But his actions have fallen far short of his rhetoric. American diplomacy has failed in efforts to appease (“engage”) Iran and then in rallying international support for the sort of “crippling sanctions” — to use Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s phrase — that might actually work. In recent weeks, the administration has opposed a ban on transactions with Iran’s Central Bank, a measure that could effectively impose an oil embargo on the Islamist regime, and insisted on Congress providing waivers that would enable the president to avoid enforcing these sanctions.

All this passivity, and Panetta’s very public statements about eschewing the use of force and casting doubt on Israel’s ability to do so, seemed to be based on the idea that an Iranian nuke was a long-term rather than a short-term threat. That is a point of view not shared by Israel. Israeli intelligence tended to see Iran as closer to going nuclear than their American counterpart,s but this was often dismissed as alarmism that was rooted more in the nature of the existential threat an Iranian bomb would pose to Israel than anything else.

The question now arises: What is the source of the new urgency being shown by the administration?

Cynics may see it as a function of next year’s presidential election as Obama attempts to avoid being seen as weak on Iran, especially to Jewish voters. It could also be part of an effort to scare countries like Russia and China (who have heretofore protected the Iranians from tough sanctions), into backing American plans for an oil embargo.

But it could also be that in the wake of last month’s International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program, the president and his advisers are finally realizing it is no longer possible for the U.S. to continue to prevaricate about this issue. Though a successful Iranian nuclear test sometime next year would be a blow to Obama’s re-election hopes, that is the least of the country’s worries in the event of such a calamity. An Iranian nuclear weapon would transform the balance of power in the region by, at the very least, strengthening Islamist and terrorist movements and scaring Arab governments into trying to obtain their own nukes. The danger to Israel’s existence is also plain.

Panetta is right to sense that time is running out for the West to do something about Iran. Yet if Iran thinks Panetta is, as he has in the past, just blowing smoke, they may not be deterred by the secretary’s words. After years of behavior that convinced the Iranians Obama wasn’t serious about stopping them, it may be that this change of tactics has come too late to do any good.



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