Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new prime minister, will soon visit the White House to deliver a tough message: President Obama must stop Iran from acquiring atomic weapons or Israel will soon act unilaterally to prevent Tehran from going nuclear.
“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told The Atlantic magazine. He describes Iran’s nuclear program as “an existential threat for Israel” and warned that Iran threatens a second Holocaust with its “wipe Israel off the map” ideology.
“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran,” Netanyahu said.
This issue is urgent for Israel and time lines are now drawn in months, “not years,” Netanyahu said. “The problem is not military capability, the problem is whether you have the stomach, the political will, to take action,” said another adviser.
Israel’s urgency was explained by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. Last week, Petraeus told Congress Tehran’s “…obstinacy and obfuscation have forced Iran’s neighbors and the international community to conclude the worst about the regime’s intentions.”
Petraeus cautioned, “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”
But some U.S. officials don’t share Israel’s sense for urgency. Adm. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, said Israel and the U.S. are working with the same set of facts, but are interpreting them differently. Israel takes “…more of a worst-case approach to these things,” Blair explained.
“Reaching a military-grade nuclear capability is a question of synchronizing its strategy with the production of a nuclear bomb,” Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, Israel’s chief of military intelligence said. Yadlin argues Iran is stockpiling low-level enriched uranium (LEU) and hopes to use the dialogue with the West to buy the time it requires to manufacture an atomic bomb.
Iran has a growing inventory of LEU. The United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that as of November 2008, Iran had almost a ton of LEU, and nuclear analysts estimate that’s nearly enough for conversion into high-enriched uranium suitable for one bomb. Meanwhile, Tehran’s uranium enriching centrifuges run around the clock and the regime continues to add more of them.
Further, on March 24, the IAEA indicated it “…was unable to make any progress … about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme because of lack of cooperation by Iran.” IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei believes “Iran only wants enough mastery of enrichment to keep the world guessing about its nuclear defenses without provoking massive retaliation.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates guesses Iran isn’t close to having a nuclear bomb, and Director Blair adds, “[t]he minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015.”
Blair concedes Iran has imported some weapons-grade material, but it’s his view Tehran is still unable to make a bomb, even though it cooperates with ally North Korea which tested an atomic device in 2006.
The differences in the interpretation of the facts will be an issue when Netanyahu meets Obama to present three courses of action for the president’s consideration.
First, the prime minister will warn Obama that doing nothing could have dire consequences. Netanyahu will encourage Obama to reject the notion an atomic-armed Tehran will “behave like any other nuclear power.”
Netanyahu will cite Tehran’s irrational behavior during the eight year Iran-Iraq war as evidence. It “wasted over a million lives without batting an eyelash … It didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness,” Netanyahu explained. “You see a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.”
He will caution Obama that an atomic Iran would enable its terrorist proxies, Hizballah and Hamas, to fire rockets at Israel while enjoying a nuclear umbrella and could “embolden Islamic militants worldwide.” The regime could give atomic weapons to terrorist proxies and other nations.
Netanyahu will warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would dramatically change the balance of power in the Middle East, weakening America’s influence especially in the energy sector. It might persuade Arab nations to develop nuclear arsenals which would further destabilize the region.
Second, the prime minister will support Obama’s diplomacy and sanctions course of action, but not for long. “How you achieve this goal [denying Tehran atomic weapons] is less important than achieving it,” Netanyahu will repeat to Obama.
The prime minister is skeptical that Iran can be pressured to surrender its atomic program, however. Netanyahu acknowledges Tehran’s economy is in trouble, “…which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.”
But the U.S. has imposed sanctions against Iran under the National Emergencies Act, and the U.N. has sanctioned the regime’s commercial activities associated with its nuclear program. Tehran continues its atomic activities in spite of these measures.
Last Friday, Obama told a NATO summit in France “We cannot have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He promised his administration will use diplomacy to dissuade Tehran from pursuing atomic weapons. But top Iranian officials have dismissed U.S. overtures, demanding the U.S. remove its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan before dialogue could begin.
The Israeli prime minister’s final course of action is an Israeli attack, possibly with U.S. assistance. Some Israelis believe Netanyahu has made up his mind to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities with or without the U.S., because he has no confidence in diplomacy and sanctions.
An attack could be triggered once the Israelis determine that the Iranians are close to acquiring a finished bomb. It’s not clear exactly how anyone will know that time, however.
Israel has the right attack arsenal to destroy the Iranian targets, but mission success is dependent on certain U.S. support. The Israeli Defense Forces have special operations forces, long-range fighters and refuelers, cruise missile armed submarines and ballistic missiles that can range Iran. But they lack air space control, electronic warfare cover, air defense codes, and other support that the U.S. can provide.
Some experts say, however, that the Iranian facility at Natanz is buried so deeply and hardened sufficiently to prevent an Israeli air attack — even with the bunker-buster bombs sold to Israel last year — from succeeding.
Netanyahu will promise Obama the strike can destroy Iran’s atomic facilities. But the prime minister will exclude the possible consequences from his petition because the list is long and sobering.
Iran would immediately retaliate by trying to blockade the Straits of Hormuz through which 40 % of the world’s oil passes. This can be done by sinking tankers in the narrow channel.
Tehran will counterattack Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf with hundreds of ballistic missiles and unleash its terrorist proxies. In 2004, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said, “If anyone invades our nation, we will jeopardize their interests around the world.”
The long range implications are potentially more problematic because Iran might redouble its atomic efforts. Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor served to reinforce that country’s atomic lusts, even though it set Saddam back by at least a decade. After the attack, Saddam Hussein increased his nuclear staffing from 400 to 7,000 personnel and invested 20 times more money in his renewed program.
How serious is Netanyahu about unilaterally striking Iran, and how close is Tehran to acquiring an atomic weapon? Obama’s national security team wants those answers before selecting the administration’s course of action.
The answers are deadly serious and too close.
The upcoming meeting between Netanyahu and Obama is likely to be a watershed event in our Middle East policy and world events.