Best of Enemies

'The message is clear. The world can stop Iran getting nuclear weapons until the spring. After that, Israel might'

After years of ambiguity, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has finally lifted the veil on Iran’s nuclear secrets and forced even the most sceptical to take sides. Its quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear programme released on November 8 was preceded by two weeks of intense speculation about a looming Israeli airstrike.

What to make of the media frenzy — which politicians from Israel’s president Shimon Peres to the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, all fuelled with contradictory statements? What to make of a highly publicised joint air exercise in which Israeli and Nato planes practised long-distance military operations with air refuelling? 

Is Israel’s air force — the same that bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian one in 2007 — gearing up for the most daring airstrike in aviation history?

If Israel were to embark on a difficult, long-distance military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, the first operational requirement is clear skies — something Israel needs to wait for until next spring. Even if the skies were clear, the political horizon is not. From Israel’s point of view, the regional environment is the least ideal that it has been for some time.

Iran is aggressively probing Israeli-Egyptian relations by having its client Palestinian Islamic Jihad shoot rockets daily at Israel’s southern communities; by propping up a dying regime in Syria; and by deploying in Lebanon a massive arsenal of medium-range missiles ready to rain down on Tel Aviv at a moment’s notice. So Israel must choose its timing and targets carefully.

Israel also has to confront renewed terrorism coming from Sinai. It had to evacuate its embassy in Cairo when a rent-a-mob crowd showed up for trouble unimpeded by local security forces. It had to watch helplessly as massive quantities of increasingly dangerous weapons flooded Gaza because of Sinai’s increased lawlessness; and it had to allow more and more Egyptian troops into Sinai in breach of the peace treaty on the pretext that they needed to stop the inflow of weapons.

Meanwhile, a rising tide of Islamic forces is sweeping the region. The Muslim Brotherhood are victorious in Tunis and (at the time of writing) bound to do well in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Surviving regimes feel shaky and, while Saudi and other Gulf rulers might like someone to dispose of Iran for them, an attack could fan the flames of revolt among their already restive peoples. And Turkey, having abandoned its strategic relation with Israel, will make sure its airspace will be closed to Israeli planes.

All this complicates an operation that, even if ordered under more propitious circumstances, would still be daring and dangerous. Perhaps then the media frenzy was designed to help the IAEA, which had to resist huge political pressure from Iran’s enablers China and Russia to make its report as crystal clear as possible about Iran’s decade-long cover-up of its advanced military nuclear programme. The argument is simple: if Israel is isolated, it might act alone. But if the world treats Iran’s threat seriously and acts upon it, Israel will take a back seat. If this was the case, it worked, for the report speaks for itself.

By 2003, Iran had managed to successfully test all the components of a nuclear device. That year, according to a widely publicised 2007 US intelligence estimate, Iran stopped its weapons programme but continued to conduct studies and simulations designed to verify the existing components. 

It has also simulated how to shape uranium metal into spheres — the weapon’s nuclear core; how to maximise the yield of a nuclear-armed implosive device; and how to mount it on a ballistic missile initially designed for conventional payloads.

The only missing piece remains Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level – something that Iran is, at least in theory, already capable of doing given its advances in the enrichment business in the last two years.

Israel, then, has every reason to be concerned. And so should everyone else who cares about the stability of the Middle East, the affordability of energy resources, and the future of the non-proliferation regime.

Will the international community act? Hard to believe, if one looks at the last ten years’ track record of diplomacy. Only this time is different. Iran is nearing the point of no return.

And Israel, after two weeks of non-stop public debate, has gone quiet. The message is clear. The international community can stop Iran until the spring. After that, Israel might.

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