When US Vice-President Joe Biden finally got to comment on Iran in his recent speech at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington D.C., he lowered his voice almost to a whisper: “Big nations,” he said, “can’t bluff. And presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff. And President Barack Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing.” Biden was of course referring to the ongoing Washington diatribes about deterrence versus prevention — and sought to reassure those who fear that the administration may hesitate to pre-empt Iran militarily if needs be.
The rhetorical effect of Biden’s comments, delivered as if he was revealing a well-kept secret, put to rest the notion of a pusillanimous US executive with no appetite for war.
The administration’s tough whispers may be reassuring to the adoring crowds of pro-Israel activists. And, to be fair, there is no reason to believe that Obama would hesitate if military prevention came to be the only way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The problem for the President and his cabinet — even in the new incarnations of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel — is not whether there is a lack of will to launch a strike to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. The problem, as it has been for previous administrations, is to know when to act before it is too late.
Consider this — only six years ago, the Syrian dictator who has spent the last two years slaughtering his own people was busy building a replica of the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear reactor on the banks of the Euphrates. The US did not know its location — it was the Israelis who alerted the administration, as one learns from the recent, magisterial account of that episode in Elliott Abrams’s essay, “Bombing the Syrian Reactor: The Untold Story”, in the February issue of Commentary magazine.
Had it been left to American intelligence alone, Syria might have been where the freakish hermit Communist kingdom of North Korea is today. North Korean advances in nuclear weapons were not exactly forecast with Swiss-watch precision by the CIA.
And when the US showed up in Tripoli in 2004 to collect Muammar Gaddafi’s nuclear arsenal, which the Libyan dictator had traded in for his regime’s safety (a bad bargain for him, eventually — see North Korea by contrast), its team was surprised by the difference in size between what they had expected and what they were given. That difference is a measure of how blind Western intelligence is to such threats.
This is not to say that Western intelligence agencies are incompetent — many of them do a fine job. But gathering information about what are usually the most secretive programmes on earth is never an exact science.
Indeed, the history of nuclear proliferation shows that the West is almost invariably unprepared. Whether it was how long it would take the Soviet Union to develop the hydrogen bomb or how soon Pakistan would test a nuclear bomb, our spooks failed to warn their political masters in time or with the level of accuracy needed to allow prevention to work.
The same is true of Iran’s programme. How could this one be different?
Neither Israel nor the US has sufficient eyes on the ground. Other Western services may fill gaps here and there but the truth is that we do not know what Iran is still hiding — and we have every reason to believe it has more aces up its sleeve than we have managed to uncover since 2002.
We still haven’t fully understood the reasons behind Iran’s slow-motion progress to nuclear weapons. Why has Iran not crossed the threshold yet, though technically it could have done so long ago? Is it the non-existent fatwa against nuclear weapons? Is it technical hurdles? Is it a hesitation nurtured by the desire to have the capability while remaining within the confines of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons? Is it brinkmanship? Factionalism?
Just as Western governments failed to predict other nations’ nuclear tests before it was too late, so it may come to pass with Iran — not out of a stubborn refusal to see the threat for what it is, or from a delusional conviction of Iran’s ability to act responsibly once it has the bomb, given its track record without. Rather, the reason may be over-confidence in our ability to predict and prevent the confluence of certain technological advances and political visions that, even in the best of cases, we do not fully understand.
Assume that Biden’s tough whispers are sincere, then: his boss will pull the trigger if he knows it is five minutes to midnight. But history suggests that the President’s clock may be running slow on Iran’s timeline to nuclear breakout. And if that is the case, even the best intentions will not save the world from living under the shadow of a nuclear Iran.