Foreign Affairs

Time for an Israeli Strike?

With Iran’s hard-line mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unmistakably back in control, Israel’s decision on whether to use military force against Tehran’s nuclear weapons program is more urgent than ever.  

Iran’s nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.  

Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process. President Obama is almost certainly not.  

He still wants “engagement” (a particularly evocative term now) with Iran’s current regime. On July 2, the State Department confirmed that Secretary Hillary Clinton spoke to her Russian and Chinese counterparts about “getting Iran back to negotiating on some of these concerns that the international community has.” This is precisely the view of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, reflected in the Group of Eight communiqué the next day. Sen. John Kerry thinks the recent election unpleasantness in Tehran will delay negotiations for only a few weeks.  

Obama Administration sources have opined (anonymously) that Iran will be more eager to negotiate than it was before its election in order to find “acceptance” by the “international community.” Some leaks indicated that negotiations had to produce results by the U.N. General Assembly’s opening in late September, while others projected that they had until the end of 2009 to show progress. These gauzy scenarios assume that the Tehran regime cares about “acceptance” or is somehow embarrassed by eliminating its enemies. Both propositions are dubious.  

Obama will nonetheless attempt to jump-start bilateral negotiations with Iran, though time is running out even under the timetables leaked to the media. There are two problems with this approach: First, Tehran isn’t going to negotiate in good faith. It hasn’t for the past six years with the European Union as our surrogates, and it won’t start now. As Clinton said, Iran has “a huge credibility gap” because of its electoral fraud. Second, given Iran’s nuclear progress, even if the stronger sanctions Obama has threatened could be agreed upon, they would not prevent Iran from fabricating weapons and delivery systems when it chooses, as it has been striving to do for the past 20 years. Time is too short, and sanctions failed long ago.  

Only those most theologically committed to negotiation still believe Iran will fully renounce its nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has a “Plan B,” which would allow Iran to have a “peaceful” civil nuclear power program while publicly “renouncing” the objective of nuclear weapons. Obama would define such an outcome as “success,” even though in reality it would hardly be different from what Iran is doing and saying now. A “peaceful” uranium enrichment program, “peaceful” reactors such as Bushehr and “peaceful” heavy-water projects like that under construction at Arak leave Iran with an enormous breakout capability to produce nuclear weapons in very short order. And anyone who believes the Revolutionary Guard Corps will abandon its weaponization and ballistic missile programs probably believes that there was no fraud in Iran‘s June 12 election. See “huge credibility gap,” supra.  

In short, the stolen election and its tumultuous aftermath have dramatically highlighted the strategic and tactical flaws in Obama’s game plan. With regime change off the table for the coming critical period in Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s decision on using force is both easier and more urgent. Since there is no likelihood that diplomacy will start or finish in time, or even progress far enough to make any real difference, there is no point waiting for negotiations to play out. In fact, given the near certainty of Obama’s changing his definition of “success,” negotiations represent an even more dangerous trap for Israel.  

Those who oppose Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons are left in the near term with only the option of targeted military force against its weapons facilities. Significantly, the uprising in Iran also makes it more likely that an effective public diplomacy campaign could be waged in the country to explain to Iranians that such an attack is directed against the regime, not against the Iranian people. This was always true, but it has become even more important to make this case emphatically, when the gulf between the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the citizens of Iran has never been clearer or wider. Military action against Iran’s nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently.

Otherwise, be prepared for an Iran with nuclear weapons, which some, including Obama advisers, believe could be contained and deterred. That is not a hypothesis we should seek to test in the real world. The cost of error could be fatal.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post.

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