Clock Ticking for West to Act on Iranian Nuclear Program
Published: December 29, 2011http://www.nytimes.com/2011/
The Iranian nuclear clock ticks faster and louder in 2012.
Ehud Barak, the defense minister of Israel, said in late November that it was probably a question of nine months before Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons moved into a “zone of immunity” where it could no longer be stopped.
Two weeks ago, his counterpart in Washington, Leon E. Panetta, the secretary of defense, estimated that it was likely to be “about a year, perhaps a little less” until Iran could have a nuclear weapon. Carefully imprecise, Mr. Panetta has said, “If we have to do it, we will deal with it” — without specifically explaining what “it” is.
That’s Pentagon fog. But the context for 2012 is clear. Here’s what makes it particular: With Mr. Barak’s reference to nine months, the Israelis are apparently talking about how much time they think remains for a successful raid on the Iranian nuclear project’s sites.
Running parallel to the U.S. presidential campaign, this takes in a period when Israel would judge the effectiveness (or failure) of American and European plans to make Iran bend through sanctions severely limiting its oil revenues.
The circumstances provide a largely visible series of gauges throughout the year indicating whether the likelihood of military action against Iran is growing or receding.
Above all, the U.S. presidential election in November affords the Israelis an opportunity to exert pressure on Barack Obama to act decisively on Iran.
George Perkovich, who deals with the Iranian issue as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, describes the situation this way: “In a suboptimal world, the preference in Washington and almost everywhere else would be, ‘Let’s keep muddling along, playing this along, till after the election.”’
On the other hand, Mr. Obama must face: Israeli notions of a rough nine-month limit to stop Iran via sanctions; Republicans accusing him repeatedly of “throwing Israel under the bus”; and the inside-the-Beltway dictum that a presidential candidate can’t win if he is on bad terms with the majority in Congress that backs Israel, the millions of fundamentalist Christians who are its supporters, and a great part of the Jewish voting public.
Add this, too: poll results from the German Marshall Fund showing that of the 76 percent of Americans concerned about Iran acquiring nukes, only 8 percent could just shrug the problem off, and 54 percent would understand the use of military force against Iran if other options were exhausted.
For the time being, Israel is not needling Mr. Obama. Rather the opposite.
“We are asked, sometimes,” Mr. Barak has said, “whether Obama is really a soft appeaser.” His answer: “You discern a man who is capable and ready to take on the fiercest of political risks in order to make good what he believes in.” He added, “Go ask Osama bin Laden.”
That’s not as unsubtle flattery as it might seem.
The remarks are aimed at voters to raise the bar of expectations for Mr. Obama’s support of Israel on Iran. The dynamics of the campaign mean he will most likely have to provide Americans with an unequivocal orientation well before November — the same likelihood and time frame Mr. Perkovich sees for Iran “to take steps, albeit insufficient ones, to indicate there’s some traction in the diplomatic approach.”
In my reading, the Israelis, or at least Mr. Barak, who recently visited with the president in Washington, have probably offered more clarity about Israel’s red lines in exchange for the expectation for something similar from the administration.
This involves Mr. Barak’s response on U.S. television concerning a probable nine-month period after which “no one can do anything practically about” Iran’s nuclear goals.
He said it is “because the Iranians are gradually, deliberately entering into what I call a zone of immunity by widening the redundancy of their plan” — replicating equipment on all levels — and “making it spread out over many more sites.”
Mr. Barak was asked if he foresaw a point when it would be impossible to block the Iranian program. His answer was, “Yes.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, director for anti-proliferation at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, said, “It’s a real possibility in the next nine months.”
The Israeli red lines, which if violated presumably mean an Israeli attack on Iranian sites, have been variously and unofficially described as Iran’s moving material into a virtually impenetrable mountain site at Fordow, near Qom; expanding the program’s number of advanced centrifuges; or expanding its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium.
None of this may jibe with what the Americans consider irreversible steps by the mullahs.
And none of what the administration and the European Union do to cut Iranian oil revenue (now in the face of Tehran’s threat to close oil tanker traffic in the Gulf at the Straits of Hormuz) may be sufficient to lead the Israelis to choose restraint.
The gauges indicating the likelihood of military action begin to function very soon.
By late January, it will be clear if the Europeans are willing to act on oil with a severity sufficient to make a major dent in Iran’s economy.
At the end of February, after the scheduled enactment of new American sanctions, the Department of Energy will issue a report on which countries remain Iran’s oil clients. They may include India, Japan and South Korea, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which tracks Iranian oil sales.
At that point, Mr. Obama would have to decide whether to level sanctions against them.
By some time next June, said Mr. Dubowitz, “If there’s no impact on Iranian oil revenue, then you’re at the end of the sanctions road.”
That’s 2012 ticking. The volume changes over the weekend.
With the end of 2011, the United States no longer holds responsibility for policing Iraqi airspace. Iraq has no replacement aircraft for now, and the shortest route for long-range Israeli F15Is to attack Iran’s nuclear sites will be wide open to them beginning Sunday.