By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Can the United States and its European allies peacefully prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? And if not, would Israel try to do so militarily, even if doing so greatly angered President Barack Obama? Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Washington on May 18 particularly to discuss these issues. These questions could well make or break both his premiership and Mr. Obama’s presidency.
With increasing vigour and resources, the clerical regime has advanced a massive – and until 2002 clandestine – program for producing fissile material. It’s a good bet that the Europeans have never really believed that Iran could be deterred from developing a bomb by either engagement or sanctions acceptable to all of the EU’s members. Nevertheless, the Europeans have tried, offering generous trade and credit terms while psychologically stroking the Islamic Republic.
Yet as Thérèse Delpech, a leading non-proliferation expert at France’s Atomic Energy Commission, warned last October at a Brookings Institution lecture, “We [the Europeans] have negotiated during five years with the Iranians… and we came to the conclusion that they are not interested at all in negotiating, but… [only] in buying time for their military program.” In those five years, she also noted, Teheran never implied that if only the Americans were at the table the clerical regime would be amenable to compromise.
We shouldn’t be surprised if the Israelis reach a conclusion at odds with Washington’s near-consensus against pre-emptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In 1981, Jerusalem certainly surmised that a raid against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor could make Saddam Hussein furious and that he possessed conventional and unconventional means of getting even. But they went ahead and destroyed the reactor.
The consensus in Israel is just as widespread about the correctness of last year’s strike against the secret North Korean-designed reactor at Dir a-Zur in Syria – a project that may well have had Iranian backing. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the attack although the Bush Administration opposed it. And in 1967, Israelis believed that pre-emptive action saved their nation from an Arab-initiated, multi-front offensive that could have proved lethal.
For the Israelis today, Iran has become an unrivalled threat. Although antisemitism has been widespread in the Middle East since the 1930s, the strain among Teheran’s ruling elite is akin to what European Jews observed in Austria, Germany and Russia in the early 20th century.
Americans and Europeans don’t like to dwell on the problem of antisemitism in the region, preferring to see it as tangential to geopolitics and economics and treatable by the creation of a Palestinian state. But Israelis are acutely conscious that unrelenting antisemitism and anti-Zionism are important factors in the Shi’ite Islamic Republic’s increasing popularity among Arab Sunni fundamentalists – especially in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood would probably triumph in a free election. In Iran, the anti-Jewish passion among the revolutionary elite appears to have actually increased as ordinary Iranians have soured on theocracy and state-sanctioned ideology.
Never before have the Israelis had to confront a rabidly antisemitic enemy with nuclear weapons and a long track record of supporting deadly killers such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Americans and Europeans can seem to Israelis all-too-nonchalant about the challenge they face – and Western counsel to calm down and get used to the idea of mullahs with nukes doesn’t sit well with a people who have already lived through the unthinkable.
The Western advice may be sage: The threat of an Israeli retaliatory nuclear strike might be a sufficient threat to discourage Teheran’s mullahs from using a nuclear weapon directly, or from leveraging its protective nuclear umbrella indirectly to more aggressively support anti-Israeli jihadists. But Iran’s penchant for terrorism, its extensive ties to both radical Sunnis and Shi’ites, its vibrant antisemitism, and the likelihood that Teheran will become more aggressive (as has Pakistan in Kashmir) with an atom bomb in its arsenal doesn’t reinforce the case for patience and perseverance.
Consider: If Saddam Hussein had had a nuke in 1990, would George H.W. Bush have risked war? Consider as well the near certainty that ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia will go nuclear in response to a Shi’ite Persian bomb. The prospect of another virulently antisemitic Arab state – deeply permeated with supporters of al-Qaeda – possessing an atomic weapon cannot comfort Jerusalem. A pre-emptive strike offers Israel a chance that this nuclear contagion can be stopped.
A tidal wave of Western sanctions might convince the Israelis that the Americans and Europeans are finally serious about countering Teheran. Sanctions against Iran’s importation of gasoline – the country lacks sufficient refining capacity – could shock the regime. The bipartisan Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, recently introduced in Congress, gives the White House the authority to make foreign companies choose between doing business with the US or exporting gasoline to Iran. A European effort to cripple Iran’s production and transport of liquefied gas – an enormous future financial reservoir for Iran given its reserves – could cause a political earthquake in Teheran. The mullahs just might suspend uranium enrichment.
But the Obama Administration appears deeply conflicted about using “sticks.” Is it willing to coerce the Europeans into implementing economy-strangling energy sanctions if the Europeans prove unwilling to punish Iran severely? The administration appears to be entertaining a German and British-backed idea of allowing Teheran to proceed with uranium enrichment – in return for which sanctions against the regime would be cancelled – if it is “monitored.” Yet even if Iran would agree to intrusive monitoring, the Israelis – and others in the region – would surely view such a concession as one big step closer to an Iranian bomb.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly described Iran’s nuclear ambitions as “unacceptable” and warned against the threat that a nuclear-armed clerical regime poses to the world. Yet the administration has tried to keep Iran, and its Iran point man Dennis Ross, out of the headlines. One suspects that this is not because the administration is devising an all-encompassing grand bargain, but because it cannot get the clerical regime to meaningfully engage.
One can sympathise with the reluctance of this administration, like its predecessor, to confront the mullahs. But whether the Israelis strike or not, another storm is gathering in the Middle East. It could prove far more tumultuous than the earlier ones in Iraq.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal by permission of the author.