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With Iran, Uncertainty Is Only Certainty

What are Israel’s plans in advance of inspectors’ new report?

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Iranian President Ahmadinejad at the United Nations in September.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Details of the new International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program, which could be released as early as Wednesday (which is to say, tomorrow night), have already begun to be released. Its imminence has already prompted much talk in Israel, of course, about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Barak’s supposed convictions that the time was approaching when Israel’s basic security interests would require it to launch a military strike, but it’s not clear how much of that was real and how much of that was threatening talk for the purpose of leverage. Anyway, the Times reports that that the new paper will find Iran is working on an implosion devise at a military base called Forchin. “It would be hard for Iran to explain a ‘peaceful’ use for implosion experiments,” according to the Times. Haaretz intelligence correspondent Yossi Melman’s sources tell him that the report predicts Iran is months away from the bomb. Contra the assertions of some like Seymour Hersh, says the Washington Post, Iran continued its weapons program after the 2003 U.S. invasion of next-door Iraq, helped along by a Russian former nuclear scientist. Perhaps needless to say (but worth saying anyway), Iran denies all this.

Maybe more worrisome is the sense that non-military means of halting or slowing Iran’s nuclear program—primarily sanctions and sabotage—have run their course. Stuxnet, David Sanger estimates, actually delayed the program by one to two years, but barring “Stuxnet 2.0”—Duqu?—that is done with. The Guardian similarly reports that Iran has moved past the earlier obstacles that the West, led by the United States, has placed in front of it.

And it looks like the West is running out of sticks. There are always sanctions to levy on Iran’s central bank, but those will be of limited effect; an oil blockade is extremely unlikely given its effect on energy prices as well as the risks involved in enforcing it. Israel Whoever it is can’t keep assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists forever (right?). Which leads to the question of whether military action is on the way, and whether it should be.

A fair amount of hay is made out of all the talk, as well as Israeli officials’ refusal to swear off military action recently. But of course Israel is talking, and of course it won’t swear off military action: It feels it needs that leverage in order to rally world opinion—including and perhaps especially the Russians and the Chinese, who are already taking joint action to try to keep the IAEA details undisclosed—to take the sort of harsh stands it feels need to be taken. Likely, we won’t know that Israel has taken military action until it has—if it does. (Of course, a regime fearful of threats is by definition a regime that is rational and interested in self-preservation, and therefore a regime that could be contained.)

Should it? New Yorker Editor David Remnick makes a somewhat convincing case for containment. I’m skeptical of his citation of Seymour Hersh’s article about Iran’s possible lack of a program last spring—that article had more holes than Swiss cheese—but am sympathetic to his general caution, borne of the experience with Iraq’s alleged WMD, that we should be very careful in trusting even the best intelligence.

His strongest argument comes here:

It is terrible enough to imagine what might happen if Iran came to possess a bomb; but an attack now would almost certainly lead to a tide of blood in the region. The Middle East today is in a state of fragile possibility, full of peril, to be sure, but also pregnant with promise. A premature unilateral attack could upend everything and one result of many would be an Israel under fire, under attack, and more deeply isolated than ever before.

In other words—and this is the danger of analogizing everything to 1938, as Netanyahu famously does—there are issues of uncertainty and even of calculating odds. The negative consequences of an Israeli attack—massive war with Hamas and Hezbollah, maybe rockets from Iran itself, God knows what worse forms of retaliation—are essentially known and all but guaranteed. By contrast, the negative consequences of not launching a strike range vastly and unknowably, and if they go all the way up to Armageddon in the Middle East, they also go all the way down to Iran’s never making weapons. I know this is scary, but it’s the way life is lived: You can believe that the worst-case scenario for not striking Iran is worse than the worst-case scenario for striking Iran, and, because of the odds and the contingencies, still oppose striking Iran.

U.S. Hangs Back As Inspectors Prepare Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program [NYT]
Iran Will Be Able to Build Nuclear Bomb in Month, IAEA Says [Haaretz]
IAEA Says Foreign Expertise Has Brought Iran to Threshold of Nuclear Capability [WP]
America’s Deadly Dynamics With Iran [NYT Sunday Review]

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Nathaniel says:

I really can’t stand the arguments, like Remnick’s, that the attack would leave Israel “more isolated” than ever, when it’s commentators like himself who contribute to that. Was not Remnick the one who said “it’s getting harder to defend Israel” in polite company?

If you don’t think the intelligence is good, or that Iran wouldn’t use the bomb and that an attack is thus not justified, fine.

Even the defense that, hey we have Americans over there, and we don’t want them to get hurt, would be more honest, if not very noble.

But if Remnick doesn’t have the energy or stomach to defend Israel when the going gets tough, then why bother with his “friendship” in the first place.

Really intriguing concept , thankyou with regard to posting.

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With Iran, Uncertainty Is Only Certainty

What are Israel’s plans in advance of inspectors’ new report?

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