Sunday, September 27, 2009
Too late to stop Tehran, Obama aims to stifle an Israeli attack
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
Maestro Barack Obama's histrionics in New York and Pittsburgh Thursday and Friday, Sept. 24-25 - and his threat of "confrontation" for Iran's concealment of its nuclear capabilities - were water off a duck's back for Tehran, whose nuclear weapons program has gone too far to stop by words or even sanctions The Islamic regime only responded with more defiance, announcing that its second uranium enrichment plant near Qom would become operational soon.
The US president's tough words and willingness to step out of his axiomatic insistence on dialogue and turn to economic warfare against Iran may be impressive but it is no longer effective. Tehran is too close to its goal of a nuclear weapons capability to be deterred by offers of engagement or economic penalties.
Obama certainly knows this. He also understands that Iran is now unstoppable except by force. His performance was therefore directed at another target: Israel, whom he is determined to dissuade from resorting to military action against Iran's nuclear installations.
Defense secretary Robert Gates hit the nail on the head when he said Friday: "The reality is there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so."
Iran was allowed to reach the point defined by Gates thanks to the permissiveness of two US presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and two Israeli prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. They had no illusions about the deterrent value of the three sets of UN Security sanctions imposed to punish Iran, but held back from pre-emptive action on the pretext that there was still plenty of time before Iran was in a position to destroy Israel.
In any case, Israeli leaders argued, Iran's nuclear ambitions were a threat to the whole world and it was therefore incumbent on the "international community" to take care of them.
This of course did not happen. Iran carried on exploiting international inaction, finally capitalizing on Obama's foot-dragging in his first nine months in office.
By now, Iran has used the gift of time to process enough enriched uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs and is able to produce another two per year.
Its advanced medium-range missiles will be ready to deliver nuclear warheads by next year.
Detonators for nuclear bombs are in production at two secret sites.
And finally, a second secret uranium enrichment plant - subject of the stern warning issued collectively in Pittsburgh Friday by Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British premier Gordon Brown - has come to light, buried under a mountain near Qom. Its discovery doubles - at least - all previous estimates of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Caught red-handed yet again in massive deceit, the Iranian president Mahdmoud Ahmadinejad had only more defiance to offer. America owes his government an apology, he told interviewers in New York Friday, because the new plant would not be operational for 18 months, and Tehran had therefore not violated International Atomic Energy Agency rules requiring notification.
He was soon caught in another lie.
Saturday, the Iranian news agency was informed by an aide of supreme leader Ali Khamenei that "the new plant would become operational soon."
Iran's published concealments and deceptions are disquieting enough. But a whole lot more are undoubtedly buried in fat intelligence dossiers on Iran's nuclear program - plutonium production, for instance. The progress made in its plutonium-based weapons program was never mentioned in the stern condemnations of the last few days, except indirectly in a quiet comment from an anonymous Israeli official Friday night.
He said Iran operates on two hourglasses and both were running out fast. He was referring obliquely to the enriched uranium and the plutonium tracks.
Sarkozy was clearly thinking about those undiscovered Iranian secrets and evasions when he declared in Pittsburgh:
"Everything - everything must be put on the table now" (at the October 1 meeting of the Six Powers with Iranian negotiators). Obama too urged Iran "to come clean."
All the powers concerned - the US, Russia, France, Germany the UK and even China - have the same information as Israel and are fully aware that Iran has already crossed a number of red lines this year and will cross more in 2010. The more time allowed for diplomacy and engagement, the greater Tehran's defiance. Meanwhile, world powers will argue - not over futile sanctions, but on how to stop Israel, so wasting several more months.
DEBKAfile's sources note that the Gates assessment and the cooling note he injected into the US president's oratory came after Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak visited the Pentagon. The visit clearly did not change Gates' view that the Iranian nuclear program was now too advanced to stop, while the use of force would only gain an interval of up to three years, after which Tehran would pick itself up and start again. Therefore, according to Gates, diplomacy remained the only viable option.
The answer to this argument is simple: It is exactly this approach which gave Iran 11 quiet years to develop its weapons capacity. For Israel and Middle East, a three-year setback is a very long time, a security boon worth great risk, because a) It would be a happy respite from the dark clouds hanging over the country from Iran and also cut back Hamas and Hizballah terrorist capabilities, and b) In the volatile Middle East anything can happen in 36 months.
But the US defense secretary believes Israel, like the rest of the world, must accept life under the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran and make the best of it.
This view is shared by the Kremlin. It was advanced by prime minister Vladimir Putin to Binyamin Netanyahu during his secret trip to Moscow on Sept. 7.
According to DEBKAfile's Russian sources, when the Israeli prime minister tried to counter Putin's thesis and explain what restraint meant for Israel, the Russian prime minster became impatient and told his guest to leave.
After that interview, the Israeli government can no longer avoid appreciating that Gates and Putin talk the real talk for Washington and Moscow, while their leaders' moralistic condemnations of Iran are mainly hot air for public consumption and for maneuvering Israel into a position where a military strike would be hard to conceive.
Netanyahu's Sphinx-like silence on the nuclear to-do in the US this week was apt. But it is hard to tell what he is hiding. Will he succumb to the world powers' pressure to sit tight while Iran goes all the way to a military nuclear capability - or face up to it and act?
This is the most important decision of Netanyahu's political life as two-time prime minister of Israel. It will also determine Israel's future.