The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is now agreeing with Israel and most western intelligence agencies that Iran, "may currently be working on ways to turn enriched uranium into a nuclear warhead, instead of having stopped several years ago. This "...contradicts an assessment by Washington [the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, NIE] that Teheran suspended such activities in 2003." According to IAEA, "...Iran managed to make a minute amount of near 20-percent enriched uranium within days of starting production from lower-enriched material."
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington suggests that, 70 percent of the work toward reaching weapons-grade uranium was achieved when Iran succeeded in enriching uranium to 3.5 %. To bring it to Ahmadinejad's announced target of 20%, the breakthrough point to weapons grade enrichment, would take the process another "15 to 20 percent of the way there." To take it to the 90%, weapons grade level, could be achieved in months. Even more dangerous, according to Albright, the final enrichment step would require a much smaller and more easily concealed facility.
By IAEA evidence, then, even Mr. Albright's challenge to the years-long multi-US intelligence assumptions regarding the time-frame for Iran to reach the breakthrough enrichment level was very wrong.
On 2 February US, defense secretary Robert Gates told a news conference in Italy that, "I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work."
A few hours later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a CNN interviewer that, "most of us believe the greater threats are [not Iran and the bomb, but] the trans-national non-state networks [al-Qaueda affiliates]." And no doubt she is correct today regarding the security of the continental United States, an ocean away from the threat. But Israel and the Arab states are mere minutes as the missile flies, and for them the danger is not abstract, something that can wait.
On 3 February Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered "work to begin on producing 20 per cent enriched uranium." And whether that process preceded his order to enrich to breakthrough level, two weeks later he announced the deed done.
Caught off-balance yet again the administration repeated its "hope" that the UN Security Council would finally agree to "tough" new sanctions. According to a senior White House official, "This [sanctions policy] is about driving them back to negotiations, "because the real goal here is to avoid war." But if war is an extension of diplomacy, what is diplomacy without the threat of war?
As regards America's strategic interests in the Middle East, most visibly Arab oil, should US inaction permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability then options for her regional "allies" would quickly narrow. This narrowing is already evident in Turkey. A strategic US partner since the 1950's, Turkey has for several years been seeking accommodation with Iran. One example of this drift is her increasingly cool relationship with that other US regional military ally, Israel. At the same time as Turnkey distances herself from Israel her support for Hamas and her relationship with Iran's strategic partner in the region, Syria, continue to increase.
So, why America’s reluctance to take on in a more direct and serious manner the Iranian threat we need look no further than US Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen’s fears. Faced with more than a decade of American distraction in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, America's traditional defense shield over the Middle East, and particularly covering the oil-producing countries of the Arabian Peninsula has, put mildly, frayed. While the Arabs see themselves increasingly abandoned, the Iranians find the region increasingly open to their influence. And the perception of American weakness, while fueling Arab anxieties, emboldens Iranian aggressiveness.
Should Iran end up a nuclear power, surrounding states from Egypt to Afghanistan would have few choices but to accommodate Iran following the Turkish model, or try to counter the Iranian threat with nuclear weapons of their own. Either way the world would grows far more dangerous. And the increased threat to Middle East oil would will fast trigger a return to the oil price inflation attendant to Bush's invasion of Iraq. If the oil speculation frenzy following that invasion tipped the world towards the Great Recession, the response to a renewed threat to oil on a world just emerging from that recession would be catastrophic. But that's not the worst of it.
US intelligence has long warned of the interest of al-Quaeda in obtaining a nuclear capability. Whether or not Iran will, once it builds its bomb, have the technical ability to fit a nuclear warhead atop a missile, they will certainly have the technology to produce a small plutonium device, one well suited for use by terrorists. And which countries would be most vulnerable to such a weapon? Think Madrid, think London, both cities targets of more recent mass terror attacks. And, of course, the United States, a country only beginning to wake to its own home grown terrorist threat.
Israel, on most countries short list as primary target would, because of its long experience with countering local terrorism, be among the most difficult, so least likely immediate targets.
US policy is unchanged since Bush, provided the 2007 NIE “estimate,” abandoned threat of military action and turned instead to “containment” by sanctions. A serious question is, Do administration insiders even believe sanctions can work? According to the Times article quoted above, "the list of [Iranian] sanctions is [already] six pages long. But none have accomplished the central goal. "Not surprising since," the article continues, "North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar have been economically isolated for decades, with little effect."
So, if the US is anxiously searching for a way to avoid war, where does this leave Israel? Administration efforts to get the Chinese aboard the sanctions train centered on the threat that, "there is something worse than sanctioning Iran: letting war break out between Israel and Iran [and disrupting China's Iranian flow of oil]." Since sanctions without the threat of force is a known dead end, what remains is that, while the US provides a toothless sanctions bark, Israel is for Obama as she was for Bush, the US policy choice to provide the military bite. In my earlier article, "Israel, America's Shaheed?" I concluded that the risks to Israel for attacking would far outweigh even the risks of living with a nuclear-armed Iran. My conclusion remains unchanged.
Iran is, via the Iraq invasion, a made in America problem. The responsibility for its solution resides solely with that country. Only the US has the wherewithal to effectively carry out a military strike, if it comes to that, and withstand the fallout resulting from its impact on the global economy. Israel cannot afford to act as America's pawn in this matter. Her past and present position serves only to encourage the US in its efforts to evade responsibility for dealing with the problem. A public statement to the effect that "Israel stands by the United States and will support any initiative our American friends undertake to eliminate the Iranian threat, including an American led military action," would serve to put the administration on notice, would return responsibility for the solution and its consequences to the superpower and return worldwide focus back to its appropriate target.
Israel cannot place loyalty and machismo above survival. Israel is not America's shaheed.
David Turner blogs at, America, Israel and the Special Relationship and, Israel.