A report published today in Britain’s Sunday Times says that the ability of Iran to move much of its nuclear program into hardened mountainside bunkers has already rendered it invulnerable to conventional air attack. This account relies on western intelligence and defense sources that may be intent on deterring an Israeli attempt to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But given the obvious difficulties involved in any such attack, especially with the more slender military resources available to Israel than the United States, it could be correct. According to the story, that leaves Israel with only two options: use its own nukes to destroy the site or deploy ground troops to Iran. Needless to say, neither is a realistic option for Israel.
While skepticism about any such story is in order, it does raise a couple of important questions. One is whether the reason for these Western intelligence leaks is behind an effort not so much to stop an Israeli strike as to prevent action by the West should President Obama need to use force to make good on his promise not to allow an Iranian nuke on his watch. It also places speculation about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged order in 2010 to raise its alert level in preparation for a possible attack on Iran is a slightly different context. While that action has been depicted as reckless by some and even interpreted as a cynical attempt to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel or the West, if it is now too late to stop Iran perhaps Netanyahu’s concern was well placed. Just as important, it could be that the complacence exhibited by those in the security establishment in Israel that opposed any thought of action was far from wise. The same could be said about the conviction that still prevails in Washington that takes it as a given that there is still plenty of time to wait until decisions have to be made about the threat.
The American defense establishment has been eager to spread the idea that a strike on Iran is a bad idea because it would only delay rather than completely end the Iranian nuclear program. That is a foolish argument, since even a few years’ delay could buy Israel and the West the time it needs to pursue other options. It also fails to take into account the fact that an Iran that is devastated by effective economic sanctions that amount to a complete embargo (as opposed to the loosely enforced sanctions that are currently failing to persuade Tehran that it is in its interests to give up its nuclear ambitions) would probably not be able to afford to reconstruct its nuclear facilities.
Yet if it is now too late for Israel to stop Iran from the air, it is also entirely possible that the same will eventually be true for the United States, which is no more willing to launch a ground operation in Iran than is Israel (the nuclear option mentioned by the Sunday Times is one that neither country could choose so it is not even worth discussing). That means even in the unlikely event that the Obama administration or its European partners were ever to declare that diplomacy with Iran had definitively failed, there may be no path available to make good on President Obama’s promise to stop Iran from going nuclear on his watch.
Even if it really is too late for Israel to strike, given the strength of American air and naval aviation resources available to use against Iran in the region that may not be true of a U.S.-led effort. But the troubling aspect of these leaks is the impression it gives of a Western military and security establishment that is determined at all costs to influence its own political leadership to back away from confrontation with Iran.
President Obama has specifically and repeatedly disavowed any intention of being willing to “contain” a nuclear Iran. He also pledged in the last of the presidential debates that any possible compromise with Tehran must involve that country giving up its “nuclear program” and not just agreeing to a compromise about the storage of enriched uranium that might enable them to evade the restrictions and, like North Korea, obtain a weapon. But unless he sets some red lines about diplomacy, there is no chance to convince the Iranians that he is serious or that there will be any consequences for them in continuing to prevaricate with the West.
Many in Washington and the capitals of Europe seem to agree with French President Hollande, who is reported to have described Netanyahu as “obsessed with Iran.” That’s an odd way to describe the leader of a country whose existence is threatened by the possibility of an Islamist dictatorship getting the ability to make good on their threats. But given the Iranian success in making fools of Western diplomats and the eagerness with which the Western defense establishment seeks to downplay the chances of doing something about the problem, it’s hard to blame Netanyahu for being obsessed.