Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iranian nuclear weapons

Iranian Nukes? Don’t Worry, Says Prof

An op-ed piece in USA Today appears under the almost satirical headline “Iranian nukes? No worries.”

It advises, “A nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.” A nuclear Iran, the author of the piece writes, would counter “Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly,” which “has long fueled instability in the Middle East.”

I’m all for counterintuitive op-ed pieces that re-examine widely held assumptions, and it’s tempting to dismiss this one as so silly as to be unworthy of a serious response. But USA Today says the article is a condensed version of a longer piece that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its author, Kenneth Waltz, is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. His biography says he has also taught at Brandeis and at the United States Air Force Academy.

So it’s worth taking a moment or two to point out the problems with Professor Waltz’s argument. First, there’s that word “probably.” Waltz writes, “It is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.”

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An op-ed piece in USA Today appears under the almost satirical headline “Iranian nukes? No worries.”

It advises, “A nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.” A nuclear Iran, the author of the piece writes, would counter “Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly,” which “has long fueled instability in the Middle East.”

I’m all for counterintuitive op-ed pieces that re-examine widely held assumptions, and it’s tempting to dismiss this one as so silly as to be unworthy of a serious response. But USA Today says the article is a condensed version of a longer piece that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its author, Kenneth Waltz, is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. His biography says he has also taught at Brandeis and at the United States Air Force Academy.

So it’s worth taking a moment or two to point out the problems with Professor Waltz’s argument. First, there’s that word “probably.” Waltz writes, “It is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.”

“Probably” and “likely” aren’t all that reassuring. If Waltz is wrong and the Iranians do launch a nuclear attack aimed at Tel Aviv, Washington, or New York, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Second, there’s a double standard when it comes to the Israeli A-bomb and an Iranian one. Waltz writes that “by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.” But he blames Israel’s nukes for fueling instability. (Never mind the question of whether “stability” is something that should be desired in the case of some of the Middle East’s more tyrannical or otherwise backward regimes.)

Third, Waltz writes:

Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.

The lack of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East hasn’t been for lack of trying by Israel’s neighbors. Rather, Iraq’s Osirak reactor was bombed by Israel in 1981, and a Syrian nuclear site was flattened in 2007 in an action that is widely attributed to Israel.

Anyway, consider the USA Today article the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them. Let’s hope it stays that way, because if Europe or the United Nations or the Obama administration are looking for an argument to justify standing by while Iran gets the bomb, the Waltz argument may prove too readily available to resist.

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What Motivates Iran’s Nuclear Program?

As Western diplomats prepare to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad, wishful thinking and a desire to reach a deal regardless of its contents appears increasingly to shape American strategic thinking. It is fair, however, to ask what shapes Iranian strategic thinking. Here, Iran’s Supreme Leader, his inner circle, and former Iranian negotiators provide important clues.

Take Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranian government says their goal is energy generation, while Western officials believe the regime wants nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration’s argument parsing the difference between nuclear weapons capability and nuclear weapons possession misses the point, as only about a week of hard labor separates the two, and the U.S. does not have the intelligence assets to determine whether Iranian authorities have taken the final leap until it will be too late).

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As Western diplomats prepare to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad, wishful thinking and a desire to reach a deal regardless of its contents appears increasingly to shape American strategic thinking. It is fair, however, to ask what shapes Iranian strategic thinking. Here, Iran’s Supreme Leader, his inner circle, and former Iranian negotiators provide important clues.

Take Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranian government says their goal is energy generation, while Western officials believe the regime wants nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration’s argument parsing the difference between nuclear weapons capability and nuclear weapons possession misses the point, as only about a week of hard labor separates the two, and the U.S. does not have the intelligence assets to determine whether Iranian authorities have taken the final leap until it will be too late).

Despite debate about Supreme Leader Khamenei’s fatwa, various Iranian officials have suggested their goal is to acquire nuclear weapons and perhaps use them:

  • On December 14, 2001, Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani –often described as a pragmatist in Western circles, declared, “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable.”
  • Iran Emrooz quoted Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, as saying on February 14, 2005, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone. The U.S. is not more than a barking dog.”
  • On May 29, 2005, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholamreza Hasani, the Supreme Leader’s personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran’s top goals. “An atom bomb . . . must be produced as well,” he said.”That is because the Qur’an has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.’” Hasani may be widely reviled by Iranians, but he is nevertheless the Supreme Leader’s direct appointee and charged with carrying his messages.
  • On February 19, 2006, Rooz, an Iranian website close to the Islamic Republic’s reformist camp, quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the regime’s leading ayatollahs, as saying it was only “natural” for the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons.

No less important are the admissions by various Iranian officials that the purpose of negotiations was to divert Western attention while the Iranian regime accelerated its nuclear program:

  • On June 14, 2008, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former President Muhammad Khatami’s spokesman, debated advisers to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ramezanzadeh counseled Ahmadinejad to accept the Khatami approach: “We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities,” Mr. Ramezanzadeh said. The purpose of dialogue, he argued further, was not to compromise, but to build confidence and avoid sanctions. “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities,” he said.
  • This past October, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, also acknowledged Iran’s insincerity: “We did not decide the nuclear goals of the country; they were decided by the regime. When I was trusted with the responsibility of the nuclear team, two goals became our priorities: The first goal was to safeguard the national security, and the second goal was to support and help the nuclear achievements… When I was entrusted with this portfolio, we had no production in Isfahan. We couldn’t produce UF4 or UF6. Had Natanz been filled with centrifuges, we did not have the material which needed to be injected. There was a small amount of UF6 which we had previously procured from certain countries and this was what we had at our disposal. But the Isfahan facilities had to be completed before it could remake yellow cake to UF4 and UF6. We used the opportunity [provided by talks] to do so and completed the Isfahan facilities… In Arak we continued our efforts and achieved heavy water… The reason for inviting the three European foreign ministers to Tehran and for the Saadabad negotiations was to make Europe oppose the United States so that the issue was not submitted to the Security Council.”

More telling has been the Supreme Leader’s comments on rapprochement with the United States. While diplomats and journalists cheered Obama’s offer to outstretch his hand if the Islamic Republic unclenched its fist, few bothered to cover the Supreme Leader’s response, delivered on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran:

“This new president of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree! We said that we should not be prejudiced, that we will look at their deeds. They said we want change. We said, well, let us see the change. On March 21, when I delivered a speech in Mashhad, I said that if there is an iron fist under the velvet glove and you extend a hand towards us we will not extend our hand… [Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists.”

Just last month, Rafsanjani asked why, if the Islamic Republic had relations with Moscow and Beijing, relations with Washington should be out of the question. Hardliners surrounding the Supreme Leader pounced. Alef, a site close to the Supreme Leader and managed by his supporters, published an interview with Abbas Salimi-Namin, director of the Office for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, in which he dismissed any notion of relations with the United States and suggested that Ayatollah Khomeini—the regime’s founding father—forbade them.

Only useful idiots would prioritize a deal over its substance. The Iranian regime reads poll numbers as much as any American inside-the-beltway politico. They understand that Obama will be much less likely to quibble over Iranian nuclear aims than would Governor Mitt Romney. No deal will change the overall trajectory of Iranian nuclear aims, however. The regime has already made those too clear, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of action.

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U.S. Intel Undermined by Iraq, Obama

Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

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Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

But some conservatives who support more aggressive action to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon argue that the C.I.A.’s restraint has, in fact, been influenced by political pressure exerted by the Obama administration. President Obama has said he would use military force only as a last resort against Iran, and conservatives argue that the Obama administration does not want the intelligence community to produce any reports suggesting the Iranians are moving swiftly to build a bomb.

“The intelligence analysts I’ve dealt with have always been willing to engage in debates on their conclusions, but there is top-down pressure to make the assessments come out a certain way,” said John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration.

Previous and subsequent paragraphs reference the notoriously politicized and eventually discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a quasi-putsch created to knock out President Bush’s knees lest he act on Iranian nuclearization – that certain intelligence sources have been shopping around to the media. The article further points out that the unpublished 2010 NIE concluded that Iran had restarted “some basic weapons-related research” but had not “restarted the actual weapons program.”

That’s the kind of semantic distinction-without-a-difference that makes people – described in the article as “some conservatives” – worry that U.S. intelligence agencies are trying a little too hard to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.

A more popular version of the same basic talking point is that “the Iranian leadership has not made a decision to build an atomic bomb,” a phrase that also makes an appearance in the article. This is not a good argument. Of course the mullahs haven’t made the decision to construct a bomb yet. They’re not there yet. When they have the components for a nuclear device, then it will make sense to talk about their decision to construct one. They’re not at a point where they can say “yay” or “nay,” so they still haven’t said “yay.” No kidding.

This reasoning is the equivalent of me pointing out how “I have not made a decision to spend my lottery millions on an island.” That’s technically true, but only in the trivial sense that – having not yet won the lottery – I haven’t gotten to the point where I can sensibly make a decision on whether I’m going to spend my winnings. Iran hasn’t made a decision to build a nuclear weapon in the same technically true but totally trivial sense. And yet public and private Iran analysts insist there’s some significance in the mullahs not having made a decision on something they’re still incapable of deciding upon.

It’s getting easier and easier to understand why the Israelis don’t take those arguments seriously, and why they’re nervous that some in the U.S. intelligence community seem to.

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Iran Lists War Aims Against Israel

Last year, I visited Mlitta, a town in southern Lebanon which Hezbollah has turned into its version of an evil Disneyworld. One of the displays featured huge poster boards sporting Google Earth images of “the next targets.”

In his Alef article, Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, goes further. After justifying a war against Israel, Ali Reza Forqani delves into how Iran should conduct its war:

Israel must come under heavy military strikes from the first blows until the last. The first step of the first stage of Iran’s military attack on Israel must lead to the annihilation of ground zero points in Israel. Iran can use its long-range missiles to accomplish this task. The distance from Iran’s eastern most point to western most point of Israel is about 2,600 kilometers. The Israeli targets deep inside Israeli territory are well within the reach of Iran’s conventional missiles.

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Last year, I visited Mlitta, a town in southern Lebanon which Hezbollah has turned into its version of an evil Disneyworld. One of the displays featured huge poster boards sporting Google Earth images of “the next targets.”

In his Alef article, Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, goes further. After justifying a war against Israel, Ali Reza Forqani delves into how Iran should conduct its war:

Israel must come under heavy military strikes from the first blows until the last. The first step of the first stage of Iran’s military attack on Israel must lead to the annihilation of ground zero points in Israel. Iran can use its long-range missiles to accomplish this task. The distance from Iran’s eastern most point to western most point of Israel is about 2,600 kilometers. The Israeli targets deep inside Israeli territory are well within the reach of Iran’s conventional missiles.

Lest anyone misread Iran’s intent, in a section subtitled “People of Israel must be Annihilated,” Forqani outlines how to conduct genocide:

The residents of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa can be targeted even by Shahab-3 missiles. These three areas which are located very close to each other are very densely populated and the population there accounts for about 60 percent of Israel’s entire population. Therefore, it is possible to use Sajjil missiles to target the infrastructures in this area including power plants, fuel and energy installations, water and sewage treatment facilities, transportation and communication infrastructures; and in the next stage Shahab-3, Ghadr and Ashura missiles can be used to target and strike residential areas in the cities until the final annihilation of the people of Israel.

He then outlines Iran’s missile capability, explaining how Iran could best exploit each missile in its arsenal and bragging that used properly, “Iran Could Destroy Israel in Less Than Nine Minutes.” That the Iranians might soon be able to fit the Sajjil with nuclear warheads should only heighten concern.

Iran may be lots of things; deterrable does not appear to be one of them.

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Thank Israel, U.S. For Nuke-Free Regimes

If I were a Syrian rebel I’d be very appreciative of Israeli military might. Without Israel’s Operation Orchard, the 2007 airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, the dictator in Damascus would now be deterring any pro-rebel outside influence with a nuclear bomb. And depending on how bad things got for his regime, he might find his way to pushing the button. Toppled dictators like to take their walks of shame with big fiery bangs.

It’s amazing how despised preemptive action on the part of democracies ends up looking like a blessing when crises hit. Without the American invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi would have had an extensive WMD arsenal at his disposal while his regime unraveled last year. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom woke him up to the consequences of WMD subterfuge and he gave up his program later in the year. So if not for Israeli and American preemptive action, the Arab Spring might very well have been far more deadly and destabilizing than it already is.

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If I were a Syrian rebel I’d be very appreciative of Israeli military might. Without Israel’s Operation Orchard, the 2007 airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, the dictator in Damascus would now be deterring any pro-rebel outside influence with a nuclear bomb. And depending on how bad things got for his regime, he might find his way to pushing the button. Toppled dictators like to take their walks of shame with big fiery bangs.

It’s amazing how despised preemptive action on the part of democracies ends up looking like a blessing when crises hit. Without the American invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi would have had an extensive WMD arsenal at his disposal while his regime unraveled last year. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom woke him up to the consequences of WMD subterfuge and he gave up his program later in the year. So if not for Israeli and American preemptive action, the Arab Spring might very well have been far more deadly and destabilizing than it already is.

This all leads to the question of Iran. Of the many nightmare scenarios that could be birthed by a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, the one that gets the least attention is arguably the most likely. Eventually, that thug regime will go the way of its neighbors and fall.  Indeed, the Arab Spring had a decidedly Persian kickoff. In June 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand justice in the wake of fixed presidential elections. There is no if about the fall of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And when it happens, does the world really want the mullahs who’ve been preaching Armageddon for three decades to have nuclear weapons? Leave aside the prospect of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear exchange, the misery of an Iranian-Saudi nuclear arms race, and the regional domination of a nuclear blackmailing Tehran. Peace-loving, America-fearing progressives better get their stories straight for the day the mullahs find out their time is up. If the Khomeinists face that prospect with nuclear weapons at their disposal, they’re likely to make Saddam Hussein’s exploding-oil-field retreat in 1991 look like a bunch of bonfires.

“We will destroy you all, even if we ourselves die in the process,” Ayatollah Khomeini said. “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah,” he offered on another occasion. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” Having watched one Arab Spring regime after another elect Islamists into office, the theocrats in Tehran will likely feel secure in the triumph of radical Islam before they self-immolate.

There are things much worse than Western military action. Foremost among them are those things that only Western military action can prevent or stop. Just ask the Syrians. It’s so bad for them they might even tell you the truth.

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Why Obama Is Wrong on Iran Red Lines

The dispute which President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to resolve during their sit down earlier this week revolved around what the red line should be that outside powers would forbid Iran from crossing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama disagrees, and insists the red line should instead be actual Iranian production of nuclear weapons.  That Obama would allow an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, however, is akin to allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

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The dispute which President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to resolve during their sit down earlier this week revolved around what the red line should be that outside powers would forbid Iran from crossing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama disagrees, and insists the red line should instead be actual Iranian production of nuclear weapons.  That Obama would allow an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, however, is akin to allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran, the White House suggests, should be allowed to become like Japan, a state that has all the technology to put together a nuclear weapon but simply has not chosen to do so. Never mind that Iran is not Japan, and that the two states have very different ideologies. Cultural and moral relativism, however popular they may be in this administration, should never mean turning a blind eye toward an enemy achieving superior weapons technology just because an ally has it.

American policymakers have used the red line controversy to delude themselves into believing that intelligence reports which suggest Iran has yet to make a decision to develop nuclear weapons means the West still has time to allow diplomacy to work. The problem is that once Iran develops nuclear weapons capability—a capability which the IAEA suggests they aim to achieve—it would only take a few days to develop nuclear weapons.

Red lines are important, but so too is a basic understanding of the Iranian threat. Obama may mesmerize progressives with his rhetoric, but sometimes charisma is not enough to cover up basic facts. By defining red lines where he does, Obama is acknowledging he is prepared to see Iran develop nuclear weapons. That is not in the U.S. national interest, and it is disingenuous for Obama to suggest otherwise.

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Obama: GOP Candidates “Casual” About War

President Obama claims the GOP candidates are “casual” about war. Some might counter that President Obama is too casual about an Iranian nuclear bomb:

President Obama fired back at his Republican challengers who have accused him of being soft on Iran, saying at a White House press conference that the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program is “not a game.”

Suggesting that the criticism being lobbed at him is not anchored in substance, Obama accused his rivals — without mentioning their names — of being “casual” about starting a war.

“If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war, they should say so,” he said. “Everything else is just talk.”

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President Obama claims the GOP candidates are “casual” about war. Some might counter that President Obama is too casual about an Iranian nuclear bomb:

President Obama fired back at his Republican challengers who have accused him of being soft on Iran, saying at a White House press conference that the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program is “not a game.”

Suggesting that the criticism being lobbed at him is not anchored in substance, Obama accused his rivals — without mentioning their names — of being “casual” about starting a war.

“If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war, they should say so,” he said. “Everything else is just talk.”

According to Obama, there is still “a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically” with Iran – and when Republicans attack him for being too weak, that’s only because they don’t understand the gravity of war.

“I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make, in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impact that has on their lives, the impact that has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy – this is not a game,” he continued.

Obama’s comments disingenuously imply that Republicans are criticizing him for not bombing Iran, when in fact Republicans are criticizing him because it’s hard to believe he’d ever bomb Iran, even if the world depended on it. As Jonathan outlined earlier today, the Iranians have little reason to take Obama’s threats of force seriously.

And why should they? Obama hasn’t even been resolute when it comes to sanctions. He’s spent the last few days talking about how tough his latest round is, but the congressional deadline for the administration to begin the sanctions went by last week with no action. The Obama administration still hasn’t put them into effect, and there’s been no clear indication of when the Treasury Department will get around to it.

That alone is reason enough for the candidates to criticize Obama for being too weak. And the next time Obama blasts them for having a “casual” view on war, he should realize it’s not the Republicans who are moving us closer to a military confrontation–it’s Iran.

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Obama and Bibi’s Dueling Agendas

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, and the looming question is whether Obama was able to convince the Israeli leader to hold off on an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. will take care of the problem militarily if necessary.

Obama was clear during his AIPAC speech yesterday that he won’t hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, but the near-zero level trust between the president and Netanyahu may make it difficult for the prime minister to take this promise seriously.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, and the looming question is whether Obama was able to convince the Israeli leader to hold off on an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. will take care of the problem militarily if necessary.

Obama was clear during his AIPAC speech yesterday that he won’t hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, but the near-zero level trust between the president and Netanyahu may make it difficult for the prime minister to take this promise seriously.

At The Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports on the main issue of contention between Obama and Netanyahu: Israel wants to demolish Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, while the Obama administration has only indicated that it will use force to prevent Iran from obtaining the actual weapon itself:

At issue is that the United States and Israel disagree on what the trigger or “red line” should be for striking Iran’s nuclear program. The Israelis seek to destroy Iran’s ability to manufacture an atomic weapon, whereas President Obama has pledged only to stop Iran from making a weapon.

“The technical assessments are very similar,” Ephraim Asculai, an Israeli nuclear scientist who worked for 40 years at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told The Daily Beast last week. “The discrepancies come at the definition of red lines, or the definition of the time when something must be done is considered.”

Asculai added, “The United States does not think the time has come when it must make a decision and must take severe action. There lies the big difference between the United States and Israel; Israel thinks the time is here.”

Israel also has a much smaller window for launching an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear program, because its military capabilities are less extensive than those of the U.S. If Obama is unable to fully convince Netanyahu that he’ll use force at the necessary time, then it becomes far more likely Israel will take unilateral military action – and soon.

The icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was thrust into the spotlight in the run-up to last year’s AIPAC event, when Netanyahu lectured the president at a joint press conference. This year, the White House skipped the traditional presser, probably in order to avoid a similarly embarrassing spectacle. But we’re sure to get a sense of how successful the meeting was tonight, when Netanyahu gives his major address to AIPAC.

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AIPAC Head to Obama: Do More on Iran

In a fiery speech at the AIPAC conference this morning, executive director Howard Kohr praised the Obama administration for its efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but warned that the progress so far “has not been enough.”

President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have – more than any other administration — more than any other country – brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. …

The problem is–progress is not enough.  … The reality today is that the Iranian regime is not frightened enough. We must increase the pressures on the mullahs to the point where they fear failure to comply will lead to their downfall.

That is why we must bring even more pressure to bear. Four tracks are critical: tough, principled diplomacy, truly crippling sanctions, disruptive measures and establishing a credible threat to use force. All four are necessary. All four are essential, to underscore, beyond any doubt, that the United States and the west are serious – serious about stopping Iran. And all four, taken together, offer the best chance to avoid a war that no one – not the United States, not Israel — seeks.

That is why all U.S. officials must speak with one voice – so Tehran clearly hears that America is unified in its determination to prevent a nuclear capable Iran.

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In a fiery speech at the AIPAC conference this morning, executive director Howard Kohr praised the Obama administration for its efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but warned that the progress so far “has not been enough.”

President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have – more than any other administration — more than any other country – brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. …

The problem is–progress is not enough.  … The reality today is that the Iranian regime is not frightened enough. We must increase the pressures on the mullahs to the point where they fear failure to comply will lead to their downfall.

That is why we must bring even more pressure to bear. Four tracks are critical: tough, principled diplomacy, truly crippling sanctions, disruptive measures and establishing a credible threat to use force. All four are necessary. All four are essential, to underscore, beyond any doubt, that the United States and the west are serious – serious about stopping Iran. And all four, taken together, offer the best chance to avoid a war that no one – not the United States, not Israel — seeks.

That is why all U.S. officials must speak with one voice – so Tehran clearly hears that America is unified in its determination to prevent a nuclear capable Iran.

Kohr’s speech, which focused solely on the Iranian nuclear threat, highlighted how AIPAC’s priorities have shifted since just last spring. The Palestinian conflict has faded into the background, and preventing a nuclear Iran has been the main concern since the conference began yesterday.

Specifically, Kohr called on the administration to support even tougher sanctions and demand that Iran freeze its program before any potential diplomacy can begin. His requests are backed up by immediate political muscle: tomorrow AIPAC heads to Capitol Hill for its annual public lobbying day, and these issues will be its top focus.

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Does Obama Want to Contain a Nuclear-Capable Iran?

President Obama clarified today that he’s looking to prevent, not contain, a nuclear-armed Iran, during his speech to AIPAC. While this was a welcome acknowledgement, it’s not particularly meaningful. Containment policy toward Iran has become so unpalatable that even American apologists for the Iranian regime rarely openly advocate it in mainstream discourse.

Instead, these regime allies promote a different kind of containment policy: containment of a nuclear-capable Iran. In other words, the bomb is the redline – but everything that Iran does leading up to the bomb, including high-level enrichment, is acceptable.

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President Obama clarified today that he’s looking to prevent, not contain, a nuclear-armed Iran, during his speech to AIPAC. While this was a welcome acknowledgement, it’s not particularly meaningful. Containment policy toward Iran has become so unpalatable that even American apologists for the Iranian regime rarely openly advocate it in mainstream discourse.

Instead, these regime allies promote a different kind of containment policy: containment of a nuclear-capable Iran. In other words, the bomb is the redline – but everything that Iran does leading up to the bomb, including high-level enrichment, is acceptable.

This strategy brings Iran within arms-length of obtaining a nuclear weapon (which is also well after Israel would have the ability to take military action). And it gives regime apologists more time to argue that a nuclear-armed Iran is less of a threat to the world than commonly believed.

The National Iranian-American Council, an American group that advocates for pro-regime policies, has been one of the most vocal supporters of this policy of containing a “nuclear-capable” Iran. The organization has pushed back against a Senate resolution that would specify Iran’s capability to build a weapon as a redline:

“This measure contradicts and confuses the existing United States ‘redline’ that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Instead of reinforcing existing standards, the measure lowers the bar to assert that even the capability to pursue a nuclear weapon would be grounds for war.  This is dangerous policy to be toying with.

“Acquisition is very different from capability.  Nuclear weapons capability is a nebulous term that could theoretically be applied to every state from Canada to the Netherlands that possesses civilian nuclear capabilities.  We should not be staking questions of war on such a shaky foundation.”

So while Obama was right to reject containment of a nuclear-armed Iran today, it’s noteworthy (and concerning) that he declined to rule out containment of a nuclear-capable Iran:

Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC, praised Obama for keeping the door open to containment. He wrote in the Huffington Post today:

The Obama administration puts the red line not at enrichment — which is permitted under international law — but at nuclear weapons. This is a clearer, more enforceable red line that also has the force of international law behind it.

While expressing his sympathy and friendship with Israel, Obama did not yield his red line at AIPAC. With the backing of the U.S. military, he has stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as the red line.

The fact that the head of NIAC drew this conclusion from the president’s AIPAC speech is something that should deeply worry supporters of Israel.

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German Paper: North Korea Tested Nuclear Warhead for Iran

Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

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Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Nothing but nothing will get Iran’s media and academic apologists to admit that the mullahs are pursuing a nuclear weapon. Their newest semantic trick is to post up on the word “building” and insist that the Iranians aren’t physically constructing a bomb, which is silly inasmuch as of course it’s true. They’re merely building all the parts that go into creating a nuclear weapon – detonators, warheads, highly enriched nuclear material – and when those are finished, then they’ll assemble them all together.

But the apologists are part of a coordinated campaign to downplay the Iranian threat. They’ve got their talking points, and they’re going to push them. And – when Iran does go nuclear – these self-styled experts will transition seamlessly to insisting that Iran will never use the nuclear weapons that they said Iran was never going to build.

Meanwhile, the administration is misleading the public about Iran’s hegemonic intentions and regional posture, according to the inside-baseball security bulletin NightWatch:

The U.S. spokesman said there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the latest deployment of the warships. That statement is not accurate because the Iranians showed they are prepared to use military power, such as it is, in support of their allies. That is not a trivial demonstration of intent. The navy’s execution seems to have fallen short, but the leadership’s intention is clear, which is backed up by the decision to cut crude exports to France and the UK. Iranian threats look serious, never mind that they also are potentially suicidal.

The hope, of course, is that the administration is just being disingenuous. The president’s bumbling diplomacy has resulted in an Iran that’s able to deploy warships on behalf of allies and a regional situation amenable to same. So the White House obviously has an interest in waving that away.

But there’s always the possibility they really do believe having Iranian ships deployed in the eastern Mediterranean on behalf of Syria is just how things are. That would be worrisome. The next step after helping allies is targeting enemies, and Iran has already threatened to use its naval assets to start a war with Israel. So it would be better if the White House does in fact understand the significance of Iran’s naval deployments, is planning accordingly, and is just lying to the rest of us about it.

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Will Obama Clarify His Shorthand Answers on Iran at AIPAC on Sunday?

At Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “clarify” her statement the day before to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who had asked her if the administration seeks to prevent Iran becoming a “nuclear threshold state.” She had responded that the policy is to prevent Iran from “attaining nuclear weapons.”

Berman asked Clinton to clarify if administration policy was in fact “merely to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” or rather to “prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.” At virtually the same moment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was being asked the same question at his press conference. A reporter asked him to “clarify, is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from a nuclear weapon, or to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability?” Clinton and Carney — speaking virtually simultaneously at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — gave opposite answers.

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At Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “clarify” her statement the day before to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who had asked her if the administration seeks to prevent Iran becoming a “nuclear threshold state.” She had responded that the policy is to prevent Iran from “attaining nuclear weapons.”

Berman asked Clinton to clarify if administration policy was in fact “merely to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” or rather to “prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.” At virtually the same moment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was being asked the same question at his press conference. A reporter asked him to “clarify, is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from a nuclear weapon, or to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability?” Clinton and Carney — speaking virtually simultaneously at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — gave opposite answers.

Carney’s answer was, “Well, I think I’ve been clear that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Clinton’s answer was, “I think it’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” Clinton then asserted that her answer – which differed not only from Carney’s response but from her own response the day before – reiterated the existing policy of the administration: “Let there be no confusion in any shorthand answer to any question. The policy remains the same.”

Someone should tell President Obama. On multiple occasions, he has articulated his policy as – to use Berman’s words – merely preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. In his 2008 AIPAC speech, Obama said “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” In his first White House press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, Obama said he would not allow Iran to proceed with “deploying a nuclear weapon.” In the 2012 State of the Union Address, he said “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” [Emphasis added].

Israel is highly unlikely to stand by while Iran develops nuclear weapons capability, much less actually obtaining, deploying, or getting a nuclear weapon. Israel’s policy reflects the fact that once nuclear weapons capability is attained, getting nuclear weapons requires only a secret political decision that may not be discovered by U.S. intelligence until after the fact. That is what happened in North Korea.

Sen. Graham and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), together with prominent senators and representatives from both parties, have introduced identical “Sense of the Senate” and “Sense of the House” resolutions, which affirm that it is “a vital national interest of the United States to prevent [Iran] from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” and reject “any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”

On Sunday, the president speaks again to AIPAC. We will see if he endorses the Graham/Ros-Lehtinen resolutions or sticks with his prior shorthand answers.

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Obama’s Monday Meeting with Netanyahu

In 2009, after his first White House meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama told the press he hoped to begin a “serious process of engagement” with Iran within months, and would give Iran “what I believe will be a persuasive argument, that there should be a different course to be taken.” Iran turned out to be uninterested in his argument, much less a serious process of engagement.

On Monday, Obama hopes to make a persuasive argument to continue a course that has now failed for more than three years – a “two track” process of engagement (which has yet to occur) and sanctions (which bite but do not deter). Sanctions failed in North Korea (which produced nuclear weapons notwithstanding), Cuba (where they are going on 50 years), and Iraq (where Saddam profited from them). They may benefit China (who will use them to get better terms from Iran for oil purchases) and Russia (who will benefit, as the largest oil producer in the world, from higher oil prices). They will likely not stop Iran.

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In 2009, after his first White House meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama told the press he hoped to begin a “serious process of engagement” with Iran within months, and would give Iran “what I believe will be a persuasive argument, that there should be a different course to be taken.” Iran turned out to be uninterested in his argument, much less a serious process of engagement.

On Monday, Obama hopes to make a persuasive argument to continue a course that has now failed for more than three years – a “two track” process of engagement (which has yet to occur) and sanctions (which bite but do not deter). Sanctions failed in North Korea (which produced nuclear weapons notwithstanding), Cuba (where they are going on 50 years), and Iraq (where Saddam profited from them). They may benefit China (who will use them to get better terms from Iran for oil purchases) and Russia (who will benefit, as the largest oil producer in the world, from higher oil prices). They will likely not stop Iran.

Diplomacy is unlikely to succeed without the “triple track” process recommended by the Bipartisan Policy Center earlier this month, which adds a third track to the first two: “credible, visible preparations for military action on the part of the United States or Israel.” But not only has the Obama administration failed to adopt a third track; it has gone out of its way to reject it. It says all options are on the table, but has studiously avoided any commitment to actually use the ultimate one. It publicly lectures Israel against using it itself.

It has been clear for a long time – well before Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister – that Israel will not stand by as Iran becomes capable of producing sufficient material for a nuclear weapon, much less actually construct one. In Statecraft, his book published in 2007, the year before he became one of Obama’s principal foreign policy advisers, Dennis Ross wrote as follows:

As one leading Israeli defense official said to me, “We think the Iranians intend to use nuclear weapons against us, and we won’t wait for that to happen.” The Israeli impulse toward preemption is likely to be on a hair trigger should its leaders come to believe that Iran is on the verge of producing fissile material by itself. That, alone, argues for preventing Iran’s acquisition of such a capability. [Emphasis added]

The current argument by U.S. intelligence officials that there is no “hard” evidence Iran has made a “final” decision to build a bomb is beside the point. Israel focuses on capability, and its red line is set before Iran actually starts building a bomb. It is unlikely to allow Iran to complete an underground facility that can produce fissile material unobserved and effectively safe from attack, any more than it allowed Iraq and Syria to finish their facilities.

In Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu will likely seek to have the U.S.  add the third track and set a deadline for force — as the last best chance for diplomacy to succeed and the assurance that, if it does not, the final option on the table to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran will in fact be taken.

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NYTimes: War, Again?

The New York Times has a “news analysis”–usually code for “front-page, signed editorial”–lamenting the American public’s appetite for countering the Iranian regime’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. The conceit of the story is that this is a rerun of the war in Iraq, where the supposed existence of a nuclear weapons program spurred the West to form a coalition to depose Saddam Hussein.

“Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable,” Scott Shane tells us, “igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb.” And who is debating the veracity of reporters’ accounts? “Both the ombudsman of the Washington Post and the public editor of the New York Times in his online blog have scolded their newspapers since December for overstating the current evidence against Iran in particular headlines and stories.” So it is the New York Times accusing the New York Times of beating the drums of war. Let’s take a look at some of the other parallels.

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The New York Times has a “news analysis”–usually code for “front-page, signed editorial”–lamenting the American public’s appetite for countering the Iranian regime’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. The conceit of the story is that this is a rerun of the war in Iraq, where the supposed existence of a nuclear weapons program spurred the West to form a coalition to depose Saddam Hussein.

“Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable,” Scott Shane tells us, “igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb.” And who is debating the veracity of reporters’ accounts? “Both the ombudsman of the Washington Post and the public editor of the New York Times in his online blog have scolded their newspapers since December for overstating the current evidence against Iran in particular headlines and stories.” So it is the New York Times accusing the New York Times of beating the drums of war. Let’s take a look at some of the other parallels.

“The intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the Bush administration’s main rationales for the invasion, proved to be devastatingly wrong,” Shane writes. Not just wrong, but devastatingly wrong. I’ll leave it to others to check the Times style guide for the spectrum of wrongness, but “devastatingly wrong” must be among the wrongest you can be, in the Times’s opinion.

Moving on, we’re also experiencing a time “in which each side has only murky intelligence, tempers run high and there is the danger of a devastating outcome,” Shane writes, paraphrasing the opinion of Harvard’s Graham Allison. Well actually, that’s not Allison comparing Iran to Iraq; he’s comparing the Iran conflict to a “slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis.” Fearing that the analogy is becoming strained, Allison summons a stirring appeal to his own authority: “As a student of history, I’m certainly conscious that when you have heated politics and incomplete control of events, it’s possible to stumble into a war.”

Of course, “heated politics” and “incomplete control of events” are staples of both foreign affairs and domestic politics–something a student of history should probably have picked up on. Unconvinced? Let the common sense of academia wash over you:

“I find it puzzling,” said Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, who has studied security threats since the cold war. “You’d think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Still skeptical? What if I told you Betts is a student of history? In fact, he spent the better part of a decade since the Bush administration’s first term as part of something called the “Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy,” made up of “scholars, policy makers and concerned citizens united by our opposition to an American empire.” The group was indeed worried about the possibility of an American empire–its statement warning against it used the word “empire” or “imperial” 16 times.

That American empire never came to be, so what else did the Realistic Realists have to say about American foreign policy? In 2005, the group released an open letter criticizing the Bush administration’s support for Israel, saying it hinders our ability to fight al-Qaeda if terrorists see us as “supporting Israel’s continued occupation of Arab lands–including Islam’s third-most holy site in Jerusalem,” and that Bush was too close to Ariel Sharon and other proponents of a “greater Israel.”

As we soon found out, Sharon was actually willing to once and for all bury the idea of a “greater Israel” by initiating his historic disengagement plan, removing every last Jew from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. You might say Betts and his co-authors were devastatingly wrong. You might also be surprised to know that Betts’s co-authors of that letter included John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Juan Cole. Or you might not be surprised.

In any event, the intelligence on Iran isn’t all that murky. What the Times is saying is that even when we can all agree on what the intelligence shows, we can’t trust it, because of Iraq. The Times is actually building a case here against military action even if Iran is about to achieve nuclear capability. As the article notes, however, that’s a view shared by some academics from Harvard and Columbia, but opposed by a majority of Americans.

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Can Israel Strike Iran?

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal has a column today asking whether Israel can bomb Iran. He writes:

Put simply, an Israeli strike on Iran would not just be a larger-scale reprise of the attacks that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. On the contrary: If it goes well it would look somewhat like the Six-Day War of 1967, and if it goes poorly like the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Nobody should think we’re talking about a cakewalk.

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Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal has a column today asking whether Israel can bomb Iran. He writes:

Put simply, an Israeli strike on Iran would not just be a larger-scale reprise of the attacks that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. On the contrary: If it goes well it would look somewhat like the Six-Day War of 1967, and if it goes poorly like the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Nobody should think we’re talking about a cakewalk.

While many proponents of a military strike draw parallels to Israel’s strike against the Iraqi reactor in 1981, or its attack on the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, Stephens is correct to note that the Iranian situation is far different, but he doesn’t go far enough: Even if Israeli pilots managed to fly into Iran with surprise, they will not be able to fly out with surprise once they drop their ordnance. This means that, even before Israeli planes can strike at Iranian nuclear facilities, they would have to strike enemy airfields, surface-to-air missile batteries, command and control centers, and radars. Multiple planes would then strike at the same target to better ensure success. In short, this could mean more than 1,000 sorties. Certainly, Israel has submarines and unmanned drones, but these alone will not suffice.

Too often, discussion about a military strike revolves around the bunker buster issue. This is not a make-or-break issue. While Iran has buried facilities under mountains—not the usual stuff of a civilian energy program—it would suffice to destroy the entrances or exits to such facilities. Israel timed its strike on Osirak to pre-empt the loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor. Iran’s centrifuges are already spinning, so if Israel collapses entrances to the mountain facility, Greenpeace should dance a hora of joy.

Stephens is correct that a strike would likely delay Iran’s nuclear program. Such a strike would come at a high cost, though experts can debate the length of the delay. In all likelihood, it would not equate to the setback suffered by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, whose own missteps in Kuwait contributed to further sanctions and war, extending the delay beyond Israel’s wildest dreams. Still, the real question for policymakers is what plans are in place to take advantage of such a delay. Ultimately, until policymakers are willing to discuss the real problem—not Iran’s potential nuclear weapons but the regime which would wield them—there will be no lasting solution.

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Obama Leads From Behind Israel on Iran

Most observers have spent the past few months trying desperately to interpret the mixed signals emanating from the Obama administration on Iran. It has escalated its rhetoric against Iran’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time continued to shy away from actions that might actually stop Tehran, such as the tough sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank that would set in motion a partial oil embargo. Yet, while American diplomats travel the globe trying to corral other nations to support sanctions on Iran, American leaders have been open about their unwillingness to contemplate the use of force and horror at the thought Israel will act on its own.

The latest such contradictory signal comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius his biggest worry is the Israelis will take care of the problem for him:

Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the United States could then stop them militarily.

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Most observers have spent the past few months trying desperately to interpret the mixed signals emanating from the Obama administration on Iran. It has escalated its rhetoric against Iran’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time continued to shy away from actions that might actually stop Tehran, such as the tough sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank that would set in motion a partial oil embargo. Yet, while American diplomats travel the globe trying to corral other nations to support sanctions on Iran, American leaders have been open about their unwillingness to contemplate the use of force and horror at the thought Israel will act on its own.

The latest such contradictory signal comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius his biggest worry is the Israelis will take care of the problem for him:

Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the United States could then stop them militarily.

Ignatius goes on to say Obama and Panetta have told the Israelis not to strike, because they think it will “derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold.”

Anyone wondering why the Israelis seem to be moving closer to deciding to attack on their own need only read that statement. The Israelis — and the Iranians — know the current sanctions program is nowhere close to stopping Iran. That is because Obama has not only hesitated to put the stringent sanctions recently passed by Congress (over his objections) into effect but also has never forced the Treasury Department to enforce the existing far weaker measures aimed at Iran.

Though Israel knows it cannot do the job of setting back Iran’s nuclear program as well as the United States can, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak may have arrived at the same conclusion their Iranian enemies have come to in the last three years: Barack Obama is too weak and indecisive to be taken seriously when he threatens Iran. That means the only alternative to sitting back and waiting patiently as the Iranians run out the diplomatic clock on a feckless Washington-led effort to restrain them, is for Israel to strike.

Clearly, the administration’s preference is for the Israelis to be sufficiently cowed by U.S. pressure into standing down. Obama and Panetta would like Netanyahu to believe the U.S. would cut off the Israelis the way the Eisenhower administration did in 1956 when it abandoned Israel during the Sinai Campaign. But, as Ignatius points out, an open breach with Israel during an election year would be political suicide for Obama.

So rather than take responsibility for dealing with a problem that threatens the peace of the world, once again the Obama administration is trying to lead from behind. Except this time it isn’t hiding behind France as it did in Libya but behind tiny Israel, who will face the risks of Iranian counter-attacks alone and under the threat of being cut off by its own ally. It is unlikely Israel can be convinced to back off by vague American promises of more negotiations or stepped up covert attacks. Neither plan offers much hope of success. That is why the Israelis may be on the verge of deciding to strike on their own.

Under these circumstances, Ignatius is right that Israel’s leaders probably feel they are better off on their own in this enterprise rather than being shackled by Obama. But with Iran once again vowing to destroy Israel, Netanyahu and Barak realize allowing Ayatollah Khamenei to have his finger on a nuclear trigger simply cannot be tolerated.

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Iranian Missile “Aimed at America,” Says Israeli Deputy PM

At a national security conference in Herzliya today, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned that the Iranian regime has “already built missile capacity,” and cited reports it is developing a missile with a reach of 10,000 kilometers – a range that was “aimed at America, not us,” he added.

“The clock keeps ticking,” said Ya’alon. “We should be talking sooner rather than later…So if anyone here is scared or fears the prospects for the Middle East and the world, they should be determined in the next few months to take steps against the nuclear action in Iran.”

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At a national security conference in Herzliya today, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned that the Iranian regime has “already built missile capacity,” and cited reports it is developing a missile with a reach of 10,000 kilometers – a range that was “aimed at America, not us,” he added.

“The clock keeps ticking,” said Ya’alon. “We should be talking sooner rather than later…So if anyone here is scared or fears the prospects for the Middle East and the world, they should be determined in the next few months to take steps against the nuclear action in Iran.”

IDF intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi estimated Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium to build four bombs. So far time has been on the side of the Iranian regime, which is reportedly pumping out uranium at enrichment levels sufficient for building a bomb at a rate of around 15 kilograms per month. At the conference, Kochavi said Iran already has 100 kilograms enriched to 20 percent, which experts say is enough to build at least one bomb. Kochavi added it also has 4 tons of lower-grade uranium, which is mainly being used to manufacture higher-enriched fuel.

Iran’s development of long-range missiles isn’t a secret, but coming from a high-profile figure like Ya’alon, the comments highlight that a nuclear Iran presents as much of a threat to the United States as it does to Israel. The question is whether the Obama administration will be able to project enough strength during the election year to convince the Iranian regime that military action is a real possibility, if the latest round of tough sanctions fails.

Full disclosure: I am visiting Herzliya on a press junket sponsored by the Emergency Committee for Israel, a  pro-Israel advocacy organization.

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Iran’s Subsidiary Goal: Disarm Israel

The increased attention given to the threat from Iran’s nuclear program by both Israel and the United States has set off alarm bells on the left, where even the Obama administration’s at times half-hearted effort to pressure the Islamist regime is worrying. But those arguing against the crippling sanctions that the United States is thinking about imposing–let alone the use of force to avert the Iranian nuclear threat–have a subsidiary goal: disarming Israel. That’s the point of an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Shelby Telhami and Steven Kull, who urge that those worried about the danger an Iranian nuke would pose to Israel, the Middle East as a whole and the security of the West, should instead focus their efforts on getting Israel to disavow its own nuclear deterrent.

The conceit of this argument, which repeats a point some in Iran and others in the Muslim world have also put forward, is that the way to persuade the ayatollahs to renounce nukes is to force the Jewish state to dismantle its own nuclear arsenal. But the seeming fairness of this proposal masks its inherent bias. Unlike Iran, or indeed any other country on the planet, Israel faces threats to its existence as a nation. Those who wish to give up its ultimate weapon are asking it to put its trust in the goodwill of its neighbors and the international community, a notion that contradicts the lessons of Jewish history as well as the very reason for Israel’s existence.

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The increased attention given to the threat from Iran’s nuclear program by both Israel and the United States has set off alarm bells on the left, where even the Obama administration’s at times half-hearted effort to pressure the Islamist regime is worrying. But those arguing against the crippling sanctions that the United States is thinking about imposing–let alone the use of force to avert the Iranian nuclear threat–have a subsidiary goal: disarming Israel. That’s the point of an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Shelby Telhami and Steven Kull, who urge that those worried about the danger an Iranian nuke would pose to Israel, the Middle East as a whole and the security of the West, should instead focus their efforts on getting Israel to disavow its own nuclear deterrent.

The conceit of this argument, which repeats a point some in Iran and others in the Muslim world have also put forward, is that the way to persuade the ayatollahs to renounce nukes is to force the Jewish state to dismantle its own nuclear arsenal. But the seeming fairness of this proposal masks its inherent bias. Unlike Iran, or indeed any other country on the planet, Israel faces threats to its existence as a nation. Those who wish to give up its ultimate weapon are asking it to put its trust in the goodwill of its neighbors and the international community, a notion that contradicts the lessons of Jewish history as well as the very reason for Israel’s existence.

Telhami and Kull’s thesis seems to begin with the premise that there is no way for the West or Israel to prevent Iran from getting nukes eventually if that is their goal. They claim that since Iran will have its nukes if it wants them badly enough, the real choice is not between a nuclear Iran and a non-nuclear Iran but between a Middle East in which neither Israel nor Iran has nukes and one in which they both have such capability. That is not true, because even if a bombing campaign would only set the Iranian effort back a few years, the continuance of sanctions and the threat of future attacks would, if the West were determined to press its point, force Tehran to give up its nuclear fantasy. But the pair ignores this and goes on to argue that a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is actually more desirable for Israel than a non-nuclear Iran.

While it is true that a Cold War-style policy of mutually assured destruction would not work, that is an argument for stopping Iran, not disarming Israel. It is also true that Israel’s official ambivalence about its nuclear weapons is pointless, and it can be argued that its nuclear deterrent is of limited value as everyone knows they will never be the first to use one.

But the one thing those who dismiss the value of Israel’s nuclear arsenal often forget is that Israel’s status as an unofficial nuclear power provides the state’s enemies with a very convincing argument to avoid a direct challenge to its existence. Forcing Israel to divest itself of such weapons, even if it will never use them, can only encourage those in the Muslim and Arab worlds who continue to dream of its destruction. Israelis rightly say that a nuclear-free Middle East must await the conclusion of a lasting peace agreement that will ensure such fantasies are impossible.

Those who ask us to disarm Israel rather than preventing Iran from gaining such weapons also ignore the obvious difference between the goals of the two nuclear programs. Israel is a democracy and has no wish to obliterate its neighbors or to end their independent existence. Iran is an Islamist tyranny whose goal is the destruction of Israel. Anyone who sees these two states as morally equivalent or believes there is no real difference between them with respect to possession of nuclear weapons has either lost their moral compass or is pushing another more sinister agenda. Diverting diplomacy aimed at persuading the ayatollahs to abandon their nukes into a discussion about Israel’s weapons won’t heighten the chances for Middle East peace. It will just give Tehran more time for its scientists to work on a weapon.

It is to be hoped that sanctions and an oil embargo will force Iran to realize it must abandon its nuclear dream without the use of force. But no matter which method the West must ultimately employ to stop Iran, disarming Israel is merely an invitation to more Middle East strife.

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In Obama They Trust? Israelis Ponder U.S. Intentions Toward Iran

Anyone listening to what’s being said about Iran by the White House and State Department lately could easily be convinced stopping the ayatollah’s nuclear program is one of Washington’s top priorities. But the public “disappointment” being expressed in Israel by senior members of the Netanyahu government tells a different story. While the New York Times was reporting a few days ago that American diplomats were going all out to persuade Japan, South Korea and even China to comply with American sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank as part of a prelude to a U.S.-led oil embargo of the Islamist state, the Israelis seem to be reading from a different playbook.

Though Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has registered support for Obama’s sanctions drive, his chief political deputy today contradicted him and denounced the administration’s cautious approach to pressuring Iran. And though the White House issued a statement summarizing a phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on Thursday that emphasized U.S.-support for Israeli security, reports out of Israel about the talk lead one to believe the focus of the chat was something else entirely: an American demand that Israel promise not to attack Iran on its own.

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Anyone listening to what’s being said about Iran by the White House and State Department lately could easily be convinced stopping the ayatollah’s nuclear program is one of Washington’s top priorities. But the public “disappointment” being expressed in Israel by senior members of the Netanyahu government tells a different story. While the New York Times was reporting a few days ago that American diplomats were going all out to persuade Japan, South Korea and even China to comply with American sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank as part of a prelude to a U.S.-led oil embargo of the Islamist state, the Israelis seem to be reading from a different playbook.

Though Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has registered support for Obama’s sanctions drive, his chief political deputy today contradicted him and denounced the administration’s cautious approach to pressuring Iran. And though the White House issued a statement summarizing a phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on Thursday that emphasized U.S.-support for Israeli security, reports out of Israel about the talk lead one to believe the focus of the chat was something else entirely: an American demand that Israel promise not to attack Iran on its own.

According to the Times, the U.S. is promising Asian nations which rely on Iranian oil that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that share Israel’s fears about Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons will make up for any shortages they experience if the embargo goes forward. But the same piece pointed out that America’s Arab allies could only provide the additional oil for a limited time. That caveat about the potential pitfalls of an embargo has led China to declare its absolute opposition to any further sanctions on Iran.

Netanyahu sought to encourage the drive for tougher sanctions when he said this week that “for the first time, I see Iran wobble” in the face of the restrictions placed on its commerce. Yet Deputy Moshe Ya’alon gave a far less sanguine evaluation of the American effort when he said Saturday the government was worried about the president’s willingness to take the crucial next step in the process: an oil embargo. He openly speculated that Obama’s fears about the political impact of a rise in gas prices was the reason why the administration was opposed to the congressional vote on sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank as well as to the implementation of the measure.

That’s where the different spins about this week’s Obama-Netanyahu call phone come into play. The White House statement read like a Democratic Party campaign appeal to American Jews when it said:

The President reiterated his unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, and the President and the Prime Minister promised to stay in touch in the coming weeks on these and other issues of mutual concern.

As JTA’s Ron Kampeas says in an attempt at translation, what Obama was really saying to Netanyahu was:

I, Barack Obama, am serious about squeezing Iran hard, which is what you have been seeking.

I, Barack Obama, have your back.

But Israeli sources are now saying the purpose of the phone call was to warn Netanyahu not to attack Iran. This would not be the first time Israel has received such a message. Netanyahu has heard this before, but the decision to re-emphasize American opposition to a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at the same time many in Washington were expressing unhappiness about the way Iranian nuclear scientists have been turning up dead is causing some in Jerusalem to think the U.S. is more worried about an Israeli pre-emptive attack on the existential threat they face than the prospect of an Iranian nuke.

If the American desire to head off an Israeli attack was based on the idea the use of force now would unravel a growing international coalition behind an Iran oil embargo, then such warnings might be justified. But if the U.S. is merely talking about an embargo in order to convince voters Obama is serious about Iran but will never be followed up by action, then Israel’s misgivings are more than justified.

The question here is one of trust. If one believes Obama means business about Iran, then his seeming caution about enforcing the bank ban and desire for Israel to take no military action while an embargo is being planned is entirely sensible. But if, as seems to be the case with many Israelis, you have no faith the president will ever take any concrete action with regard to Iran, than all the diplomatic activity and warnings to Israel are merely attempts to keep things calm during an election year. Unfortunately, after three years of “engagement” with Iran and feckless diplomatic outreach, it’s hard to argue that the skeptics are wrong.

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Answering Jeffrey Goldberg on Iran

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg raises a number of questions regarding the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, but also makes a number of assumptions which may not be warranted. First, his questions:

1) Why aren’t the Iranians attempting to kill Israeli defense officials? The answer, I believe, has more to do with Iranian technical limitations… Perhaps one [other] thing holding back Iran, though, is fear that attacks on Israeli officials…would prompt an immediate Israeli strike on Natanz, before the regime is able to move its centrifuges to its underground facility at Fordow.

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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg raises a number of questions regarding the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, but also makes a number of assumptions which may not be warranted. First, his questions:

1) Why aren’t the Iranians attempting to kill Israeli defense officials? The answer, I believe, has more to do with Iranian technical limitations… Perhaps one [other] thing holding back Iran, though, is fear that attacks on Israeli officials…would prompt an immediate Israeli strike on Natanz, before the regime is able to move its centrifuges to its underground facility at Fordow.

Of course, if the Iranian nuclear program is military in nature and the elements of the Iranian security services which would have custody, command, and control over a nuclear weapon hope to use it against Israel, then why get in a tit-for-tat now rather than simply concentrate on completing a program which will achieve the goal of killing Israelis a million-times-over?

Likewise, there is always the possibility the Iranians overstate their intelligence capabilities, while the Israelis downplay theirs. Then again, perhaps Goldberg is wrong to assume the Israelis—rather than an Arab intelligence service—are behind this. After all, the Mossad is a shadow of its former self and has long ago ceased being the most effective intelligence service in the Middle East, as recent boondoggles illustrate. As much as American officials view Arab Shi’ites as Fifth Columnists, perhaps we need to recognize that the Fifth Column can go both ways.

2) Does Israel, or whoever is assassinating Iranian scientists, believe that these killings will actually slow-down Iranian nuclear development? In other words, do the people behind the assassinations believe that Iranian nuclear knowledge is so concentrated in the minds of a few scientists that a limited series of assassinations can cripple the program? This doesn’t seem likely, obviously.

Well, just earlier this week the head of Iran’s nuclear organization said the regime was having trouble keeping its nuclear scientists onboard. As my colleague Ali Alfoneh pointed out in his “Iran News Round Up” from this past Monday, Fereydoun Abbasi, Iran Atomic Energy Organization director, said a number of Iranian nuclear scientists are not willing to contribute to Iran’s nuclear program. According to Abbasi, the scientists are eager to “preserve their international contacts.” He likened them, however, to “deserters” during the Iran-Iraq.

3) Is the goal of the assassination program to convince Iranian nuclear scientists to seek other lines of work? This is also plausible, but not likely to work: I think the regime would take the Tony Soprano approach — you can’t resign from the Mafia — and tell frightened scientists to get back to work, or suffer the consequences, or have their families suffer the consequences.

Indeed, that is how I interpret Fereydoun Abbasi’s statement.

4) Why is Iran so incompetent at protecting its nuclear scientists? This is a perplexing issue.

There is a common problem among dictatorships that officials tell their superiors what they want them to hear. Perhaps the Iranian leadership truly believes the alleged spies they are arresting are guilty. All a foreign intelligence service has to do, however, is cull the authors of academic papers which Iran publishes online. As I wrote earlier, Alef News has released the titles of academic articles he had published (scroll down for English). What is clear, however, is that the Islamic Republic is deeply penetrated.

5) Why is the Mossad, assuming this is the Mossad, so deft at assassinating people in Tehran? It’s a very hard target, Iran, and the Mossad has on more than one occasion bungled assassinations in terrible ways (the attempted killing of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan is only one case in point).

Again, Goldberg might consider that the list of those who oppose Iran’s nuclear program is far greater than just Israel and the United States. Indeed, fear of an Iranian nuclear breakout can make strange bedfellows. When it came to extraordinary rendition, the CIA clearly worked with some unsavory Arab governments. Why is it so unbelievable that there would be intelligence cooperation in this case? While I had earlier dismissed the tit-for-tat Iranian and Arab claims of sleeper cells in each others’ countries, perhaps there could be something to that.

6) Another question, or something closer to an observation: If I were a member of the Iranian regime (and I’m not), I would take this assassination program to mean that the West is entirely uninterested in any form of negotiation (not that I, the regime official, has ever been much interested in dialogue with the West) and that I should double-down and cross the nuclear threshold as fast as humanly possible. Once I do that, I’m North Korea, or Pakistan: An untouchable country.

Goldberg may have cause and effect confused here. Certainly, what the Iranians say in Persian about negotiation, and what they say in English are two different things.

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