Photo: Ofer Amram
Giora Eiland
Photo: Ofer Amram

The real question

Israel must find out what Obama means when he vows to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes

Two points of American-Israeli disagreement have been emerging lately. First there is the Palestinian issue, and then there is the Iranian nuclear question. Seemingly, there is agreement over the second issue: Both the US and Israel strongly object to the prospect of Iranian nuclear arms. However, once this general statement is broken down, we discover a big difference.


The first disagreement has to do with estimates on when Iran would acquire full operational capability. Israel prefers to assume that the worst-case scenario will materialize and talks about 2010. The Americans are looking at the 2012-2015 range.


The second disagreement has to do with the existence of an Iranian weapons program that would enable it to turn enriched uranium into a bomb. The Americans identified such activity in 2003, yet once officials in Tehran realized the plan had been exposed, they rushed to terminate the plan and hide the evidence.


In November 2007, the US intelligence establishment published a comprehensive report, claiming that since 2003 there was no evidence of the continuation of the Iranian weapons program. The conclusion of the report’s authors was that such plan does not exist. Yet the Israeli intelligence establishment reached the opposite conclusion: The plan continues to advance, but the Iranians are able to hide it.


Yet these two disagreements are insignificant. The real problem has to do with the emerging gap between America’s official policy, which Israel supports, and what may become President Barack Obama’s new policy. What’s new here is not the willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran, but rather, the issues up for discussion; or more accurately: the issues under agreement.


Uranium enrichment is not only the first component en route to the bomb, but also the most important and complex one, which takes the longest time. It is clear that should Iran fail to control the enrichment process and produce fissile material, it would not be able to acquire a bomb. However, the Iranian willingness to compromise on this front is very low. A required condition that would force it to do it is one of the following two possibilities: A powerful international coalition that would isolate it economically, or a tangible military option. Tehran’s conduct in recent months shows that the Iranians do not fear either one of these options.


2 bad alternatives

The Iranians believe that they will be able to strike a deal with the new US administration: They will continue to enrich uranium (seemingly for peaceful purposes) and merely pledge not to pursue a weapons program. This will enable Obama to claim that he managed to prevent Ahmadinejad from securing nuclear weapons (and indeed, in all his speeches he declared this to be his goal.) Meanwhile, Iran would be granted de facto recognition of its right to enrich uranium. Under such circumstances, even if it freezes its weapons program, it would be able to resume it later on, and from that moment to produce a bomb within several months.


And this is precisely the cause for concern here. Israel will find it difficult to accept a situation whereby Iran can, within a short period of time, shift from the status of a country with nuclear capabilities to a state in possessions of a bomb. Therefore, the question that Israel’s prime minister needs to clarify in his upcoming meeting with the American president is as follows: When you claim that you will prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons, do you intend, like the previous administration did, to stop it in the uranium enrichment stage, or did you give up on this front?


Should Obama pledge, like his predecessor, to prevent the Iranians from enriching uranium, this would be an important achievement. However, talk is not enough, and he must act immediately and create a coalition with Russia and China (in exchange for painful concessions on other issues.)


Should the administration make do with stopping Iran only at the stage of actually producing the bomb, it in fact reconciles itself to Tehran becoming a nuclear power. This is the key question, and it is much more important than the artificial link recently presented between the Iranian nuclear program and an agreement on a “two-state solution.”


Moreover, if this will be the answer, the Israeli government would be forced to choose, as early as 2009, between two bad alternatives: Getting used to a reality where Iran would eventually possess nuclear weapons, or trying to prevent this on its own.


פרסום ראשון: 04.20.09, 00:11
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