The failure of President Obama to impose crippling sanctions a few months after assuming office in 2009 makes the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran nuclear facilities in the coming few months increasingly more likely. To prevent Israel from taking unilateral action against Iran, the Obama administration must insist that any resumption of negotiations is conditioned upon the immediate suspension of all uranium enrichment activities and acceptance of complete oversight from the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA). Otherwise, the U.S. will have to deal with the serious repercussions of potentially a major conflagration in the Middle East with its unpredictably dire consequences.
After the boastful approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and being mired in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama had every reason to adopt a more moderated position towards the Islamic world, including Iran. Such a new strategy, however, cannot be adopted at the expense of losing sight of Iran's cunning and determination to master the technology to build nuclear weapons. In 2008, I proposed to the incoming Obama Administration a new approach to Iran that would address Iran's legitimate concerns including according Iran the respects it seeks, ending the threats against regime change and allaying Iran's security concerns. This approach would be accompanied by a new negotiation structure with a time line to produce an agreement, the failure of which would automatically begin a process of imposing crippling sanctions while leaving the military option on the table should the negotiations fail.
Nonetheless, this combined approach failed to materialize and the crippling sanctions, particularly the boycott of financial transactions through the Iranian Central Bank and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), while ending the purchase of oil by Western countries, did not take place until three years later. Indeed, it was only when this measure started to bite that the Iranian leadership began to feel the pain and expressed their desire to re-engage in negotiations. Most observers familiar with Iran's pattern of diplomacy agree that not much will come out of renewed negotiations because the Iranian leadership simply does not believe that the U.S. will engage in major new hostilities in the Middle East, especially in an election year and when the Obama administration has convinced itself that Iran is still a couple of years away before it has the ability to develop nuclear capabilities of its own. The question is: will Israel buy into the American emphasis on negotiations and sanctions which have not proven to be effective or decide to act on its own?
Throughout the past few years, Israel has established a set of red lines, the crossing of which would oblige it to consider attacking Iran's nuclear program: 1) If Israel determines conclusively that Iran has come very close to mastering the technology to produce a nuclear device; 2) If the international sanctions are not crippling enough to stop Iran from pursuing highly enriched weapons-grade uranium; and 3) If the U.S. is not prepared to undertake military action against Iran's nuclear facilities despite the clear evidence of Iran's closeness to acquiring nuclear weapons. These three red lines, if not already crossed, might now be very close to occurring. More importantly, these conditions may soon become irrelevant as Iran is moving its nuclear weapons program underground. By so doing, Israel's Minister of Defense Ehud Barak warned last month, the Iranians may soon be in a position to operate their nuclear program in what he called "an immunity zone" where bombing, however extensive, would not stall their program as the facilities will be impenetrable. From the Israeli perspective, this closes Israel's window of opportunity to take action. Thus, time has become of the essence as the Iranians may be in a position to transfer their most sensitive nuclear technology deep underground.
The other part of the Israeli calculations is that the Middle East regional environment is now more conducive to taking action against Iran. Tehran has long threatened to turn any strike against its nuclear facilities into a wider regional war through its allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. But Tehran's ability to carry out these threats is increasingly questionable. On the one hand, the Assad regime in Damascus is too weak militarily to engage Israel and is too busy suppressing a popular uprising to provide significant weapon transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The latter finds itself in limbo partly because of reduced financial and logistical support from Iran through Syria, and partly because it has lost its credibility in the Arab street after backing Assad's murderous crackdown. More importantly, Israel's destructive air strikes on Lebanon in summer 2006 will likely inform any Hezbollah retaliatory action against Israel.
On the other hand, it is no longer a given that Hamas would come to Iran's aid as Hamas' leadership is now focused on reaching a power-sharing agreement with the Fatah movement and has dramatically distanced itself from the Assad regime by condemning its atrocities against the Syrian people and vacating its Damascus headquarters. Moreover, Hamas is certainly in no position to repeat the painful experience of Israel's Cast Lead Operation in January 2009. Some might argue that such an Israeli strike on Iran would endanger its already deteriorating relations with the Arab world. In fact, while the Arab public would likely condemn such an attack, the Sunni Arab world, which fears a nuclear Iran perhaps more than Israel does, would be happy to see the Iranian nuclear ambition go up in smoke. Finally, Israel might calculate that, because of the general elections in the U.S., it would be best to act against Iran sooner rather than later to avoid continuing regional instability punctuated with violence at the height of the Presidential elections.
Obviously, Israel would not have found itself seriously deliberating to undertake a preventive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities without U.S. approval had the Obama Administration acted more resolutely on the Iran sanctions much earlier and made them crippling much sooner, especially in 2009 and 2010. By then, it had already become clear that the Iranian leadership was not interested in rapprochement with the U.S. or abandoning its nuclear program. If the U.S. can afford to live with a nuclear Iran thanks to its vast deterrent capacity or geographic distance, Israel does not have that luxury, at least from a psychological perspective. To employ Western rationale in the form of an Iranian-Israeli relationship based on mutual deterrence is misleading. Such a view requires an understanding of how things are being run in Iran, whose leadership believes that destroying Israel is in and of itself an advantage, even if it means the subsequent death of millions of their own fellow citizens as a result of an Israeli massive second strike capability.
By no means is this advocating a military strike against Iran. Rather, it is meant to show that such a military strike is becoming more likely thanks to the failures of the Obama Administration policy whose very aim, ironically, is to avoid a military confrontation. This policy failure is metastasizing. According to the most recent IAEA report (PDF), not only have its inspectors been denied access to suspected nuclear facilities at the Parchin military base in Iran, but the Iranians have also produced a 50 percent increase in their stockpile of enriched uranium, most of which is coming from a newly-opened plant built inside mountain bunkers at Fordow. Instead of working on what the IAEA report reveals, the U.S. has chosen to distance itself even more as the U.S. intelligence community has only this week, perhaps for the first time, discarded the IAEA assessment by arguing that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.
To obviate an Israeli strike the Obama Administration must show Iran that it means business. At this stage, instead of dancing to Iran's tunes by engaging in prolonged negotiations that are only meant to play for time, the P5+1 nations (Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S. -- plus Germany) should not miss the forest for the trees. The negotiation process has never been an end in and of itself but rather a tool to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. To that end, the P5+1 should insist that even starting negotiations is conditioned upon an Iranian acceptance of immediately suspending all enrichment activities and provide full, nation-wide access to the IAEA inspectors in accordance with Tehran's commitments as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol. Second, the P5+1 should set a limit on the timeframe of these negotiations to a maximum of three to four months. Otherwise, Iran might well reach its "zone of immunity" even while conducting talks. Finally, the Obama administration must make it publically clear that it cannot dictate to Israel, which feels existentially threatened by Iran's nuclear activities, how and when to act. This emphasis on Israel's liberty of action might persuade Iran to rethink its nuclear strategy since both former Vice President Cheney and Vice President Biden have emphasized Israel's sovereign prerogatives.
If these three afore-listed conditions are not met by Iran, it will make no practical difference whether or not negotiations are held. Israel might then draw its own conclusion and act as it sees fit. Time is now of the essence given Israel's very recent declassification of the planning and operations of its June 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak Nuclear Reactor outside Baghdad. Surely, the Obama administration must realize that any Israeli military action is likely to draw in the United States.