When Tehran Blinks



Israel, Ma’ariv 

By Ofer Shelah 



 …all of these will drive Khamenei in the coming months to a point where he’ll either break through or look for a ladder to come down from a high tree.




Translated by Viktoria Lymar


Edited by Steven Stenzler



21 January 2012




The supreme leader of Iran realizes that the ground is shaking, the sanctions are eating the economy and the fear of revolt makes him lose sleep. The pressure led to the threat of shutting the Strait of Hormuz, and the question to be asked is this: who’s going to fold first?



With all due respect to James Bond stories, where the last noise the Iranian nuclear scientists hear would be the sound of a motorcycle speeding away, a second after its rider stuck an explosive charge to their vehicle’s door, and a second before the blast, the event that really matters in the effort to halt the development of the Iranian bomb is to occur next Monday. European foreign ministers will, in a move which Israel has been both long expecting and fearing wouldn't come, make an announcement concerning ceasing purchases of oil from Iran. Because with all due respect to our faith in the power of explosives, those attached to the doors and those cast from airplanes, what is likely to divert the Iranians from the realization of their military nuclear project is the money.


This is going to be a worldwide motion: Europe would commit not to buy, and in parallel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states would commit to fill its needs in the oil sector. The United States is already conducting hectic contacts with South Korea and Japan, another two big consumers of Iranian oil, to get them to join the ban. Altogether, we're talking around 40 percent of Tehran's oil sales. Also, the countries that aren't going to take part in the boycott, with China at the head, are about to find themselves in a way more convenient bargaining position: when the alternative is to drink their own petroleum, Iranians' leverage to raise the price is going to be much feebler.



Doomsday Weapon



It's still unclear what timetable the foreign ministers will allocate for the implementation of the resolution, and that is, of course, an important issue. But it is clear what its meaning will be with regard to the Iranian economy, suffering from high unemployment rates, lack of trust in the local currency – which has lately undergone devaluation of 40 percent within a few weeks (a sure sign of a collapsing economy) – and from the strangulation of international credit.


Two weeks ago, one could observe at the entrance of the banks in Tehran giant lines of people who came to withdraw their money, for they preferred to keep it under their floor tiles before going bust. And all of that, as stated, even before Europe turns off the pipe, out of one side of which oil flows westward, and from the other side, there come in petro-dollars that constitute the essence of Iran's export economy.  

On March 2, the elections to the Majlis [Iranian parliament] are to take place. The spiritual leader Khamenei, the one and only man who would issue a command to launch the final move of the bomb’s development, sees in front of his eyes a fair possibility of masses rebelling in all conceivable ways in a country subdued by the violent governance of the Revolutionary Guards: abstention from voting, local riots, steadily vanishing fear, as happened in the Arab countries and their Syrian ally. What is Khamenei going to think? What is he going to decide? "The time to blink is approaching," remarked an especially erudite Israeli official, concerning his dilemma this week.

That’s the background against which the Iranian threat to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz should be viewed: a stressed and scared rule, with the choking economic noose closing tighter and tighter around it, threatening with the economic equivalent of the doomsday weapon – to forcibly shut down the passage channeling almost half of the globe’s oil.

This is such an extreme maneuver that the Iranians hadn't resorted to it even once in the course of their bloody war against Iraq. The very threat [present] in it is walking on the brink at a level we haven't seen even from the Iranians – while brinkmanship is considered their specialty.  

Those tracking the situation estimate that the firm verbal response of the United States (a "red line," [as] the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defined closing the straits) surprised the regime in Tehran.


The question is whether Khamenei understands what Clinton really means, and whether he comprehends the fact that the closure of Hormuz Strait may resolve the dilemma of the President Obama who, according to the assessments of Israel, fears entanglement in Iran and a dramatic surge in oil prices in the election year.

Should the Iranians block the strait, Obama will need to act resolutely and will no longer concerned about the price – because this is already going to be paid. The question is whether Khamenei – besieged, dependent more and more on the extremist Revolutionary Guards, feeling his regime quacking – is indeed considering undertaking a step that might invite to the skies aircraft he truly fears, those carrying the stars-and-stripes flag on their tails, and the military strength of America under their wings.



How Much Time Left?



The logic of proponents of an Israeli offensive on Iran, spearheaded by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, dictates that we need to strike while we still can – and in a little while, a year at the most, we already won't be able to. The Iranians recently started enriching uranium at a site in Fordo near Qom, which they built in secret.


This facility is dug into a mountain, and the claim is that Israel does not possess capabilities to hit it effectively. At some stage, this narrative asserts, the really important activity would be transferred to Fordo – enrichment of uranium to the level of 90 percent, required to produce a bomb – and it will be out of reach for us to do something about it. 

The first question is if we can know. At the moment, at the Fordo facility, there operate single centrifuges (cascades) – no more than Iranians’ symbolic declaration about their intention to employ it. Even at full capacity, there won't be more than 3,000 centrifuges in there; for the sake of comparison, at the main enrichment plant in Natanz, there are 9,000 centrifuges running today, and at full capacity, it's supposed to reach around 55 thousand.


The centrifuges Iranians use are of outdated Pakistani make – they are trying to develop a new and more state-of-art one – and that’s without mentioning repeated bruises in the process. The plant in Natanz, remember, is also monitored by the IAEA.


This state of affairs is supposed to provide to Israel and the West apparent warning signs as to the Iranian decision to foray to the bomb, which has yet to fall, according to our [Israeli] estimation: expulsion of the IAEA inspectors would presage something like that, and an expressed rationale for attack to anyone who sees in the Iranian bomb an existential threat.

In Israel, some are reminding that North Korea had taken this measure and the West hadn't attacked; but North Korea has already been and the lesson has been learned, not to mention that the international ramifications of the Iranian nuke will be far graver than those of a bomb in the hands of the isolated regime in Pyongyang. 

That was one of the messages of Defense Secretary Panetta in his discussions with the Israeli top echelon, whose outward expression was determined statements on the need for international cooperation and a warning against a unilateral Israeli raid: should the Iranians decide to break the rules, they would need to expose this intent. Another message was that since there's no chance that the Iranians get near to the bomb during the current year – even the pessimists in Israel are talking a year since the moment of making that call – which, as stated, hasn't been made yet – there'll be time and ability to thwart the development of the nuke even after the presidential elections in the United States.



Khamenei's Decision Point



Another question, rarely discussed for obvious reasons, concerns the efficiency of the possible Israeli bombing. Without going into classified operational details unknown even to me, one can ask a question rising exactly from Barak's arguments: if Fordo is in truth a site that Israel is not capable of destroying, what time interval would even a totally successful Israeli airstrike of Natanz produce? Are its outcomes, including Iran's legitimation to pass to an open development of the bomb – as the former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan predicted, for example – a reasonable price for an attack like this?

2012 may indeed be the decisive year. At its end, Obama is going to come to power in Washington, free of any considerations other than his place in history, or a Republican president will, a lot closer to Benjamin's Netanyahu's friends in Congress. If the breakthrough scenario does not materialize, the Iranians will go ahead with their creeping enrichment until reality stops them.

In Israel, the assessment is that it will happen much before the end of the year: the resolution to fall this week in Europe, the pressure on the banks, flight of the private businessmen, primarily Chinese, from the projects in Iran – all of these will drive Khamenei in the coming months to a point where he’ll either break through or look for a ladder to come down from a high tree.

Most of these people, it should be said, think as well that an Israeli assault would solve all the dilemmas for the Iranians, unite the nation around the regime at least at this point, and put a stick in Israel’s spokes in a dangerous way. The question is whether the people who at the end of the day are to make this decision, belong to this majority. The question is whether someone is going to blink in Jerusalem, before someone blinks in Tehran.


Original Hebrew article: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/328/657.html?hp=1&cat=479


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