For years, we’ve been told that there’s plenty of time to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The world laughed when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu drew a red line across a cartoon bomb at the United Nations last fall to demonstrate the need to act before it was too late. President Obama, who has vociferously pledged that Tehran will never gain such a weapon on his watch, tried engagement and then a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to try and make good on his promise. He still insists that this policy will eventually work and with the election of a new supposedly more moderate Iranian president, virtually everyone in the chattering classes and the foreign policy establishment has seemed content to allow the administration to keep talking about talking with the Islamist regime even if there’s no sign that it will ever work. This complacence has been criticized by American conservatives and some Israelis to little effect, but now one of the most reliable indicators of establishment thinking in Europe with little sympathy for Israel is agreeing with those long deemed alarmists about Iran.
In an eye-opening article published this week, the Economist dismisses the notion that anything the United States and its allies has been trying will work:
British and American intelligence sources think Iran is about a year away from having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, and rather further from mastering the technologies to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a missile. But David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks that by mid-2014 Iran will have the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks, should it choose to do so. It seems unlikely that Iran could be forced to change course on this matter by foreigners. The best that can be hoped for is that it decides that it does not want or need a nuclear weapon.
But given that, as the magazine stated in the opening sentence of the piece, “Iran is putting up with sanctions that damage its economy rather than accept a deal limiting its nuclear programme,” what possible reason is there to believe that the ayatollahs would simply give up what the regime has worked so long and hard to achieve? The obvious answer is none at all. Which means that the assurances we have been getting from Washington about having all the time in the world to let diplomacy work—in spite of repeated failures—was pure bunk. While I wouldn’t expect those who have been working diligently to switch American policy from one aimed at stopping Iran to one of containment (something Obama has disavowed) to draw any conclusions from this, it should be noted that this turn of events has led a leading columnist at Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper to make a startling concession: Netanyahu was right all along.
As Ari Shavit notes in today’s Haaretz:
While Israel was busy with light entertainment in the form of political reality shows, The Economist informed it this week that a difficult strategic reality is taking shape around it. What the world promised would never happen is happening at this very moment. What the top ranks of Israel’s defense establishment promised would never happen is in fact happening. Iran is becoming a nuclear power, while Israel (which is sunk in summer daydreams) stands alone.
From 2009 to 2012, a vigorous debate over Iran took place here. On one side were the optimists: President Shimon Peres, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, then-Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the defense establishment, the media establishment and the refreshing spirit of hoping for the best. On the other side was a gloomy, besmirched pessimist: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The mention of Dagan and Diskin is important here. The former spooks were two of the stars of The Gatekeepers, a film in which former security chiefs flayed Netanyahu’s government for its policies and have been lionized in the West as the sane, smart Israelis who should be listened to instead of the dumbbells that were elected by the Israeli people. Yet, as one of their cheerleaders now attests, they were wrong about the most important defense issue faced by the country.
But as Shavit writes, it was the famous gatekeepers and other liberal Israelis who were listened to by the West:
America is there, said the optimists. No, it isn’t, said the pessimist. There’s a hidden hand, said the optimists. No, there isn’t, said the pessimist. There’s time, said the optimists. No, there isn’t, said the pessimist. Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped by the fall of 2012, the pessimist said. It’s not Iran’s nuclear program that’s the problem, but the prime minister, the optimists said.
For three and a half years, the optimists went from one journalist to another and from one American to another and said that the pessimist is a dangerous purveyor of doom and gloom who sees molehills as mountains and doesn’t understand that the world won’t let Iran go nuclear. For three and a half years, the optimists tied the pessimist’s hands on the basis of the threefold promise of America, the hidden hand and time.
Just as Israel’s left-wingers have done much to poison the minds of Western journalists and opinion-makers about the standoff with the Palestinians, the willingness of so many top Jerusalem figures to align themselves against Netanyahu on Iran had serious consequences. The optimists, as Shavit calls them, refused to help the prime minister to ratchet up the pressure on Obama to act before Iran had amassed the huge store of enriched uranium that it now possesses or it had stored much of its nuclear infrastructure in hardened, mountainside bunkers that would be difficult even for the United States to destroy. Instead, they helped hamstring the efforts of Netanyahu and former Minister of Defense Ehud Barak in their efforts to mobilize the West to act or to get a green light from Washington for Israel to strike on its own.
After repeatedly accusing Netanyahu of crying “wolf” about Iran, as Shavit puts it, Israel must now deal with the fact that “a strategic wolf with nuclear teeth is now at the gate.”
But, as he notes, as dangerous as the situation has become, it is not too late for it to be corrected. A decision by the West to enact a total economic blockade and boycott of Iran—with no exceptions for China to buy their oil—could bring an already shaky Iranian economy to its knees in a manner than even the ayatollahs would have to notice. A credible threat of force rather than the amorphous language used by a president who is clearly determined to do anything but use force to stop Iran might also get their attention.
But with the U.S. seemingly ready to waste another year on a diplomatic track that is designed merely to give Iran more time to develop their nukes, there seems little chance of either of those things happening.
The result is the situation the Economist describes in which Iran is certain to get a nuclear weapon sometime before the midterm elections next year. At that point, apologies to Netanyahu from his detractors in both the U.S. and Israel will be both too late and of no use to a Jewish state confronted by a nuclear Iran that wants to wipe it off the map.