Israel’s deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, caused something of a stir on Wednesday when he told Israel Radio that he believed Iran would be capable of creating a nuclear weapon within three years. But as alarming as that may sound, it seems that Ya’alon, the former IDF chief of staff who currently also serves as strategic affairs minister, was sounding a note of optimism, since he credited the delay to “technological difficulties.”
This is being widely interpreted as meaning the Israelis believe the Stuxnet virus has dealt the Iranian nuclear program a serious setback. On Fox News, John Bolton speculated that this statement may mean “Stuxnet worked better than some of us thought.” While the former UN ambassador admitted that it was “hard to know the truth” about the state of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear capability, he said the one thing we do know about their program is “that they are determined” to achieve it.
Given that we know very little about Stuxnet or any other covert action undertaken by either the United States or Israel, it’s difficult to assess the current level of danger of an Iranian breakthrough. It may be that Israel is trying to dampen speculation about an imminent IDF attack on Iranian targets, but it is not clear whether such an attack would be launched in the face of almost certain American opposition.
While some may take comfort from Ya’alon’s statement, it is not exactly encouraging to know that, in spite of all the difficulties they have encountered, Iran is likely to be in possession of a nuclear weapon by the end of 2013. Even if we believe that Stuxnet has been a success, all it has accomplished is to push off the day of reckoning, and not by all that much. We already know that diplomacy won’t work; that serious sanctions are unlikely to ever gain international support; and, as we learned last week, that even the United States is not enforcing those sanctions against Iran that are already in place.
Bolton noted that “the Iranians have zero fear” of an American attack on their nuclear facilities so long as Barack Obama is president, and he is almost certainly right about that. The Iranians have taken Obama’s measure in the last two years, and their actions speak volumes about their lack of respect for the president and their belief that he is not to be taken seriously as a world leader. They have mocked U.S. efforts at diplomacy and disregarded America’s half-hearted attempts to mobilize world opinion against Tehran. So even if the virus or other clandestine operations have hampered the Iranians, the mullahs and Ahmadinejad have good reason to feel optimistic about their chances of ultimate success. If the best face we can put on this problem is the certain knowledge that in the absence of a U.S. and/or Israeli attack, an Iranian bomb will exist in three years, the Ya’alon announcement is no cause for celebration.