Friday, November 27, 2009

Israel's threat - or maybe bluff - to attack Iran

I got a little chuckle out of this section of David Sanger and William Broad's article in the New York Times about Iran's nuclear program:
Israeli officials, meanwhile, have said that they will not consider taking military action until Mr. Obama’s deadline runs out, leaving hanging the suggestion — maybe the bluff — that they are preparing for that possibility in 2010.
Yeah. Maybe the bluff.

The Times is signaling that they aren't complete morons. Every expert says a military attack would not on balance slow Iran's drive towards nuclear capability but would carry an immense cost, for the US even more than for Israel. Israel is making the same threats it's been making for years, even though it has never made a public threat when it actually intended to strike in the past.

I would say that the US should accept Iranian enrichment, but I'm pretty sure it already has in private. The deal broke down because six senior Iranian generals were killed. Now Iran is working to embarrass the Obama administration by putting it into a position to either escalate hostilities when right now Iran has better cards or to back down.

The problem at this moment is less enrichment than the fact that once the US establishes a relationship with a separatist group in Iran, and it certainly has put a lot of resources into forming relationships with anti-Iranian groups during the Bush administration and likely into the Obama administration, Israel is ingrained in the US security establishment deeply enough that it has access to any relationships the US established.

In a wag the dog sense, the United States is not able to effectively cut anti-Iran projects without Israel's permission, but Israel has a much different view on making Iran so angry it decides to humiliate the Obama administration than the Obama administration does. This seriously, even fatally, detracts from US credibility when dealing with Iran.

What I'm saying is that even if there was an order from Obama to stop funding the Balochistan rebels, or an order to discourage or prevent attacks during negotiations, the funding would continue through Israel directly, or through France, England, Canada or another country that could maintain military support at Israel's request or direction without the Obama administration necessarily knowing.

It is a very unhealthy relationship between the US and Israel, but Iran is not going to bear the cost of the US' inability to control its client by continuing negotiations as if the deaths of six senior generals didn't happen. Just an unfortunate reality. A deal that was possible early in October was impossible by late October.

Baradei's efforts to salvage it couldn't address the root issue which is that Iran blames the US, with some justification, for an event that the US cannot deliberately control. The attack was a structural symptom of the US identity and priorities in the region.

So there'll be no bombing, the Times is right that Israel "maybe" bluffing. Obama will decide if he wants to accelerate the Iranian enrichment program by introducing new sanctions or if he wants to pay the price the Iranians are asking for the lives of the Iranian generals - that price may well be a larger Iranian domestic LEU stockpile than had been agreed in early October.

The second choice makes more sense from the US point of view than the first. But Obama will make his own choice. If Obama makes or has made the second choice, we would still be hearing sanctions posturing until a new deal has been nearly finalized, just as we heard sanctions posturing from Hillary Clinton all summer and through September before the last deal was made public.

One interesting fact is that either way, Iran will have a larger stockpile by the time the Obama administration ends than it would have had if the deal had gone through. The option of Iran remaining below the one ton threshold is now, possibly permanently, off the table. The US could probably get an agreement below two tons now but next year at this time, sanctions or not, even two tons may well be off the table.

Sanctions, or even the status quo with no agreement are leading to a situation where Obama's first term ends with Iran possessing 5 tons of LEU dispersed and effectively bomb-proof. 2012 can close with Iran truly in possession of a practical, effective and irreversible nuclear weapons capability. Iran at that point would have no need to actually build a weapon unless an unlikely specific emergency comes into view. That would be a tremendous, even historic victory for the Iranian revolution and would guarantee immunity from outside military threats to its survival.

Neither bombing or sanctions could prevent that.

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