Comment by: Goodwill Ambassador Eliana Benador
At a time when the whole world seems to follow the lead of the current president of the United States against America's former best ally, Israel, suddenly there is a rush to push Israel to repeat the prowess they did with Osirak -and which pushed Iraq's nuclear capabilities many years back.
Naturally, it will be no surprise that some of us will look with skepticism Israel's Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak's decisiveness to attack Iran.
The fact that this is being spoken and discussed in the public fora, makes it also implausible.
In the case of Osirak, Israeli political and military leaders decided what to do. They did it. And the first to learn about it, was the world.
IRAN, ISRAEL, AND THE BOMB
Posted by David Remnick in The New Yorker
Around a year ago, I visited the Hatzor Air Force Base in central Israel. While interviewing a high-ranking officer about the training that was going on there for a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, I noticed a large picture on the wall of Israeli fighter jets flying over the territory of Auschwitz. The planes were there to participate in a commemoration, in 2003, of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Polish Air Force. The photograph, the officer told me, was a gift from a leading Israeli Air Force official. It came with the caption, “Israeli warplanes over Auschwitz. Remember and do not forget. Always rely on ourselves.”
The officer did not express an opinion about whether Israel should launch a strike against Iran. That was not his job, he said. “What we’re trying to do is to give the political level a choice,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s a leadership decision, probably the biggest such decision since the establishment of the state of Israel. We are building the opportunity, the capability.”
Later this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog outfit, will issue a report to its member states on Iran’s nuclear program. According to various press accounts, Western diplomats who have been briefed describe the report as finding, more explicitly than before, that Iran, despite its own denials and despite international sanctions, has been developing capabilities that appear intended for the production of a nuclear weapon. The I.A.E.A.’s evidence, the BBC reported, will include “intelligence that Iran made computer models of a nuclear warhead,” and satellite images of a steel container that could potentially be used to test explosives “related to nuclear arms.” The Guardian’s account of developing events, by Julian Borger, is truly alarming.
The details will emerge—and they, inevitably, will be denied in Tehran. At a group interview that I attended in New York two months ago, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted yet again that Iran’s nuclear program was solely for civilian purposes, and, in advance of the new I.A.E.A. report, Iranian officials have declared the evidence that has leaked false, part of an overall fabrication.
An important article by Seymour M. Hersh published in The New Yorker last June, “Iran and the Bomb,” has made plain the complexity—and the potential perils—of trying to assess the nature and the pace of Iran’s nuclear program. Hersh quoted Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the I.A.E.A., as saying, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.” The article, while taking into account the contradictions in Iranian statements and the nature of the regime (including its vicious crackdown on dissidents last year), began by reminding the reader of where hasty, exaggerated, and even manipulated intelligence led the Bush Administration, and the country, in 2003. (In that spirit, we should wait to read the I.A.E.A. report itself before coming to premature conclusions via diplomatic leaks. ElBaradei’s successor is less sanguine about evidence of Iranian intentions.)
From talking to American officials, I get the clear sense that President Barack Obama is deeply concerned about the I.A.E.A. report and the Iranian situation in general, but is hardly eager to lead, or even sanction, a military strike on Tehran. Hawks like Dick Cheney say that this is because Obama is weak and allergic to the use of military strength—a Republican talking point rendered ridiculous, time and again, by the President’s actions, from the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen to his actions in Libya. In Cannes this week, Obama discussed with Nicolas Sarkozy of France and others ways to further isolate Iran in the U.N. and tighten sanctions, possibly making moves on Iranian financial institutions, including its central bank. On a trip to Asia later this week, Obama will try to persuade the Russians and Chinese, who are slower to act against Iran, to cooperate. The tension here is marked: The I.A.E.A. report comes not long after the United States accused Iran of hatching a plot to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
What has most heightened the sense of anxiety, in diplomatic circles and beyond, is a series of leaked reports coming from Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, and other members of the seven-person security cabinet have grown increasingly determined to launch a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities—with or without Obama’s assent.
The country’s most influential columnist, Nahum Barnea, wrote a front-page commentary in Yediot Ahronoth recently called “Atomic Pressure,” slamming Netanyahu and Barak for acting dangerously and without a thorough public discussion. Barnea, who is as connected a journalist as I have ever met, tried to describe Netanyahu’s thinking: “Ahmadinejad is Hitler; if he isn’t stopped in time, there will be another Holocaust.” He continued, “There are those who describe Netanyahu’s attitude on the matter as an obsession: All his life he dreamed of being Churchill; Iran gives him the opportunity.”
Barnea is right: Netanyahu is obsessed with the Second World War parallels, real or imagined, and even used them to justify his opposition to the peace process with the Palestinians in the nineties. Netanyahu is deeply influenced not only by his hundred-year-old father’s right-wing Revisionist ideology, but also by a profound sense of himself as Israel’s post-Holocaust protector. Heroic imagery, like the F-15s flying over the rail tracks to Auschwitz, is no small part of what drives him. Five years ago, he said of the Iranian nuclear issue, “The year is 1938 and Iran is Germany.”
Ehud Barak has a far more dovish image than Netanyahu, at least among many Americans, because of his overtures to the Palestinians in the last months and days of the Clinton Administration. But Barak carries with him a bitterness about those failed negotiations; he has said that they showed the Palestinian leadership’s “true face.” And on the Iranian issue he is far more hawkish. Indeed, he is said to be in agreement with Netanyahu on the need to act against Iran before it is, in their terms, too late.
Polls show deep division in Israel over a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites. To no one’s surprise, Haaretz, the paper read by the country’s liberal elite, has also published many editorials and columns denouncing a military strike or, at the very least, urging caution and public discussion.
Ari Shavit, a centrist by the paper’s standards, and a well-informed writer who has hardly been dismissive of the dangers of a potential Iranian bomb, wrote this week, “The strategic decision regarding Iran is the decision of our generation. Israel has not faced such an important and difficult decision since it decided to build the Dimona facility”—the nuclear complex in the Negev desert, which became active in the sixties. “If Israel acts against Iran prematurely, the implications could be dramatic. An eternal war with Tehran, an intermediate war with Hamas and Hezbollah, tens of thousands of missiles on dozens of cities in Israel.” Shavit did not stop there. “If Israel is late to act in Iran,” he wrote, “the implications could be critical to our survival. A nuclear bomb in the hands of fanatic Muslims could change our life entirely and could shorten our life span.”
The debate in Israel over Iran has not exactly been a secret, nor has it been limited to leaks from the government and columns in Yediot and Haaretz. (When is there ever a secret conversation in Israel? It may have the noisiest political culture in the world.) Many of Israel’s leading former intelligence and military leaders agree with Nahum Barnea (and are also, quite likely, among his sources). Meir Dagan, who led Israel’s Mossad spy agency until last January, has said publicly that an attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea….The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” (Dagan also faulted the government for not proposing a peace initiative with the Palestinians.) On Iran, Dagan has been joined in his caution not only by political voices on the left, but also by the former chief of general staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and former head of the Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, as well as by leading non-liberals in the government such as Benny Begin (the son of Menachem Begin) and Dan Meridor.
“I decided to speak out because, when I was in office, Diskin, Ashkenazi and I could block any dangerous adventure,” Dagan said earlier this year. “Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi and Barak.”
American officials, led by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have met with Netanyahu and Barak, both in Israel and in Washington, and they discussed Iran at length. According to a report in Sunday’s edition of Haaretz, Panetta failed to extract a promise from the Israelis that they would not carry out a raid on Iran without coordinating it with the United States.
According to State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks, some Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, might object in public to an Israeli raid but would actually be delighted to see it happen. As the Arab Spring has transformed the region, the Iranians and the Saudis are engaged in a none-too-subtle battle for geo-strategic influence. The Saudis hardly see an Iranian bomb as a threat solely to Israel.
At the same time, the potential dangers of a strike are clear: a prolonged and bloody regional war; attacks on Israel from Gaza and Lebanon; the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, a main world oil transport lane; a sharp rise in energy prices with disastrous effects on the world economy.
It does not require an Iranian official to point out that Israel, despite its policy of “ambiguity,” possesses somewhere around a hundred nuclear weapons. It developed those weapons in defiance of international law as a means of protection, a counterbalance to its overwhelming strategic disadvantages. Iran with a nuclear weapon, Israelis argue—and here there is near-unanimous agreement—is something else entirely: an aggressive theocratic dictatorship whose leaders routinely express everything from a desire to remove “the Zionist entity” to a denial of the Holocaust itself will, with nuclear capability, be a dangerously destabilizing force in an already unstable region.
If one assumes that there remains serious doubt about the details of Iran’s nuclear program—its progress, its timing—there can be no wishing away the seriousness of the issue or the nature of the regime. The attempts to stymie Iran so far—not only through sanctions, but through covert means, including assassinations of nuclear scientists and the Stuxnet computer worm—have, according to an analysis by David Sanger in Sunday’s Times, “slowed Iran’s nuclear progress by one or two years.” Sanger writes that a new computer worm, a “Stuxnet 2.0 may be in the works for Iran.”
The reports coming from Israel this week may be a kind of tactical noise. For at least the past five years, the Israeli leadership has made threatening sounds about absolute deadlines. It may be trying to heighten the sense of crisis in order to insure that the United States, Britain, and other Western powers will go to great lengths to intensify sanctions and exert maximum pressure on Iran in the wake of the new I.A.E.A. report.
A unilateral attack from Israel, however, would be a grave mistake for all the reasons made plain by Meir Dagan and so many others. It is terrible enough to imagine what might happen if Iran came to possess a bomb; but an attack now would almost certainly lead to a tide of blood in the region. The Middle East today is in a state of fragile possibility, full of peril, to be sure, but also pregnant with promise. A premature unilateral attack could upend everything and one result of many would be an Israel under fire, under attack, and more deeply isolated than ever before.
“For Israel,” a columnist from Ynet, Yediot’s English-language Web site concluded, “the way to cope with the Iranian nuclear threat is to adopt indirect routes, by supporting tougher sanctions against Iran and also by securing an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that would minimize regional tensions.” This route—call it the route of rigorous containment—is the right one.
Containment, as Louis Menand’s excellent essay on George Kennan (out Monday in The New Yorker) makes plain, is a complicated and costly form of vigilance—politically, diplomatically, and militarily. But it worked beyond anyone’s expectations during the Cold War. So much so that it avoided a headlong confrontation even as it sapped the strength of the Soviet regime. In the case of Iran, that kind of containment, however expensive in many ways, is immensely preferable to a heedless attack that risks the whirlwind.
The Israelis have great confidence in their capacity to check proliferation through military means. (Ask the Iraqis and the Syrians.) But even the senior officer at the Hatzor air base, where pilots were training for a possible mission to Tehran, was clear about the costs. The officer there told me that he and the rest of the Israeli military establishment knew that such a mission would not be nearly as simple as its strike, in 1981, on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Not only does Iran have far more varied and well-protected facilities, he said, but, “It’s a huge issue—because of the day after. If and when it will happen, the whole region will be different.” That is a rare moment of understatement in the Middle East.