By Nadav Eyal
The decision makers have no sense of certainty that Obama will act soon; in other words, all the legends, according to which there is some agreement with the Americans, are, simply put, legends.
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
3 May 2013
While Obama is dealing with the red line he has drawn in regard to chemical weapons in Syria, Netanyahu's line on the Iranian nuke seems to be forgotten. It is not.
Two red lines have been delineated in the Middle East in the last two years. The first was that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was charted at the U.N., with that bomb cartoon which has already become a cult. Its essence: setting a limit on the amount of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level by Iran. The second was President Obama’s: he explicitly addressed the possibility of using chemical weapons in Syria and made it clear that this would be a "game changer."1 Those are strong, binding words, for an American president.
The Israeli red line was presented at the U.N. in September 2012. Since then, the Iranians were already able, technically, to easily reach the amount of uranium that the Prime Minister stated as grounds for a confrontation. The amount is about 250 kg. They are today at approximately 170 kg, and they occasionally convert a part of the enriched uranium to nuclear fuel rods, apparently to avoid reaching the threshold set by Israel. In Israel, the estimation is that the Iranians may arrive at up to 200 kg and stop there.
They estimate and hope. The American red line was introduced many times, however, this time the greatest commitment took place in Jerusalem at the end of last March, at the press conference in which Obama affirmed that the United States would respond exceptionally to the use of chemical weapons, and doubted the possibility that the rebels would use, or could use, chemical weapons. Around the U.S. red line declaration – probably, even before, but possibly also after it, the use of chemical weapons has been made in Syria.
The U.S. President has clearly said that this week. The Americans found themselves in a serious confusion after the head of the [IDF's] Military Intelligence Research Division Itai Baron spoke on the use of chemical weapons as a fact;2 his statement was not coordinated with political officials, some of whom wondered this week why a senior IDF officer is talking about the silence of the international community. They noted, quite rightly, that the Israel Defense Forces is not a human rights organization and an intelligence officer is not a diplomat.
But the genie is out of the bottle. The fact was laid before all. America's red line, Obama's one, has been crossed. Now, say observers in Washington, the Obama administration "won’t rush to action" - which is the way to say that the White House will do everything to avoid further involvement in the bloodiest conflict in the Middle East. The Americans would like to actually create a new red line here – to say to the Syrians: It may have happened once or twice, but that’s it.
Effectiveness of an Ultimatum
There's not much room for interpretation here. The Israeli ultimatum has been somewhat effective; either the Iranians stopped enriching at the previous fast pace for they feared an Israeli strike or they stopped due to the international pressure (resulting from the fear of war in the Middle East, that would start with an Israeli surprise attack). Nonetheless, in the bottom line – it’s working, in the meantime. In parallel, of course, as [the head of the Institute for National Security Studies Maj. Gen.] Amos Yadlin pointed out this week, the Iranians have been expanding the capacities of their enrichment infrastructure. Meaning, their capabilities to "break out" to the bomb have become faster. With more centrifuges, running speedier, from an hour Khamenei makes a decision – the ability to dash to the bomb has improved and keeps improving significantly.
In contrast to that, the American ultimatum has crumbled. The Middle East is now watching Washington dodge. There were introduced a number of new threshold conditions – say, serial use or evidence that Assad himself ordered the very use of the weapons. The Republicans are pressing the Obama administration to act, and the administration itself is going to succumb to pressure and dispatch weapons to the Syrian rebels. Although a series of investigations have shown how the weapons provided by the European countries consistently leak to the jihadist and al-Qaedist rebel organizations that proliferate in Syria itself.
What’s the conclusion? "The conclusion is that the Iranians are taking a very good look at what the Americans say and do then," commented an Israeli official at the forefront of the struggle against the Iranian nuke. "The Iranians are careful not to cross the Israeli red line, but the Assad regime has definitely crossed the American red line. The credibility of the U.S. threat is likely to be eroded." These are prudent words.
To Lull the Iranians
Anyone thinking that the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran has dropped off the agenda is making a big mistake. Israel is awaiting Supreme Leader Khamenei’s decision. The feeling is that Iran is going rogue and wild in behavior – including instructing Hezbollah to widespread terror operations in Europe. "Morons," as one decision maker put it.
Should the spiritual leader compromise with the West, even in a diplomatic deal which Israel views as problematic, Jerusalem will have to grit its teeth. Nevertheless, if after the Iran elections it turns out that Khamenei continues to accelerate the expansion of the centrifuges’ infrastructure and advances toward the red line – even without crossing it for real – the decision makers will again face the dilemma of an offensive. It's on the agenda, and it has never left the agenda, and it’s going to be back on the regional agenda unless there occurs a surprising positive development in the coming months.
A man like Netanyahu, who spearheaded the line to halt Iran, has no intention of leaving the region in a state of "20 or 50 percent of North Korea." The decision makers don’t have any sense of certainty that Obama will act soon; in other words, all the legends, according to which there is a covenant with the Americans, are, simply put, legends. And what about the sense that the Israeli military threat has eroded? The answer: "We have no problem with the Iranians assessing that the military option is not on the agenda. That’s even better. But it is on the agenda."
Shortly before Obama's visit, I asked the U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro (at the Herzliya Conference) regarding the principal disagreement between Israel and the United States – the difference between Obama's statement that "Iran will not be nuclear-armed" and Israel's assertion that continuation of the current situation is not sustainable. This difference is in the substance of the dialogue between the parties; indeed, Obama merely promises that Iran won't possess a bomb, but for Jerusalem, also Tehran’s walking on the verge is very dangerous (according to foreign reports, Israel too is formally only a nuclear threshold state; what separates it from the bomb is a turn of a screw or an insignificant technical matter). Shapiro's reply was a masterpiece of friendly diplomacy. He more or less clarified that there’s no gap between the sides. Unfortunately, there is more than enough; the Israelis are not yet convinced and the conduct of Washington, even in the Syrian context, doesn’t help.
A Nuclear Consensus
And meanwhile in Iran, there’s an election campaign. They are parting from Ahmadinejad with a feeling of relief; both the general public, so it seems, and the Spiritual Leader who over the past two years confronted the Iranian President openly and in an unprecedented manner. The candidates are many, among them – Khamenei's son-in-law, and still it's not entirely clear where the Ayatollah places his support. The Western commentators identify his decision as one that will symbolize whether Iran is on the way to a significant confrontation with the West or to a compromise.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is perhaps the most interesting of the contenders; the close confidant of Ahmadinejad is considered the leader of the "deviant current", as it is disdainfully dubbed by the clergy. Deviant from what? From the idea that Iran is first and foremost an Islamic entity. The ayatollahs claim, Mashaei is trying to reinforce nationalist concepts at the expense of religious ones. Those are big words, but the key point is that the Iranian president, and his new candidate as well, are not clerics themselves, and their power does not derive only from the religious establishment; this threatens the the clergy’s dominance.
Overall, the replacement of Ahmadinejad causes harm to Israeli interests on two levels. On the first level, the entire election process and the advent of the new president are expected to substantially inhibit the global tackling of the Iranian threat. The world will not want to hurry to exert massive pressure on a new president, but rather to give him a grace period, that would allow him to show flexibility and compromise in the future. This is the time dimension. In the political dimension, Ahmadinejad has been a considerable publicity [hasbara] asset for the Israeli positions. The Israelis may have forgotten, but under Rafsanjani or Khatami, much more moderate and solid leaders than Ahmadinejad, the nuclear program was developing as much. In practice, some experiments of the ‘weaponization group’ were performed during the office of Khatami, a reformist and human rights supporter.
The conclusion is simple: As in Israel, the Dimona [nuclear reactor] is a national consensus, so also in Iran, there’s no meaningful difference between reformists and conservatives in nuclear matters. True, a part of the political system is interested in bargaining with the West because of the costs of sanctions, but all parties (assuming they accept the essence of the Republic, which is an Islamic regime) would like to see nuclear capabilities.
This week we have seen harbingers of the consequence of replacing Ahmadinejad – with the expressions of a bunch of candidates who sharply criticized the Holocaust denial by the incumbent president. Holocaust denial, beyond its absolute despicability, is a bad tactical mistake of the Iranian leadership. It has demonstrated the nature of the danger posed by the ayatollahs' regime to the West and officially added the anti-Semitic motif to the Shiite radicalism.
The new candidates realize this mistake, whether tactical or whether substantive, and are withdrawing their hands from the project of Holocaust denial. This is excellent news for human decency, but it as well illustrates that the banal demonism represented by Ahmadinejad is ending. The new Iranian leadership, starting from June, will no longer look like a caricature of stupidity, wickedness and hatred. Again, these are good news for the family of nations, yet less good news for someone who wants to mobilize the world against the nuclear program, which is Iran's strategic decision rather than a shimmer of evil.
Original Hebrew article:
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