A satellite image of construction near Qom, Iran.(NYT)
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Is There A New Understanding on Iran?

The U.S. and Israel hash it out through articles

Marc Tracy
August 20, 2010
A satellite image of construction near Qom, Iran.(NYT)

Today, the Times reported that the United States has persuaded Israel that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons for at least one year; that there will be ample warning before the “breakout” actually occurs; and, therefore, there is no need to consider a military strike as early as the beginning of 2011, as Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg had reported in a story last week. “We think that they have roughly a year dash time,” says Obama’s top nuclear adviser. “A year is a very long period of time.” The article argues that Israeli officials have genuinely bought these claims, at least to an extent, thereby lowering the chances of an attack within the next year.

In addition to reassuring Israelis on both the general time-frame and the advance warning Israel will receive—officials believe, for example, that it would take weeks, perhaps months, for Iran to go nuclear even after (publicly) kicking international inspectors out—the administration is arguing that sanctions and sabotage are working well. (Indeed, a great subplot to the article is the between-the-lines implication that we are basically sabotaging the shit out of Iran—“The public explanation by American officials is that the centrifuges are inefficient and subject to regular breakdowns,” the Times hints. Remember that forestalling the program through covert sabotage is probably the ideal outcome here.)

Goldberg notes that the Times story basically confirms his reporting. What may have changed in the intervening week or so is that “The top leaders of Israel are increasingly convinced that Obama means what he says when he says he is ‘determined’ to stop Iran’s nuclear program.” (Which makes sense: A key argument Goldberg offers is that, even if you don’t think Obama cares all that much about Israel or Iran specifically, he is a massive believer in nonproliferation, and the first rule of nonproliferation is: No new members of the club.)

One interesting, if ultimately speculative, way to view the two pieces is as a public conversation between the Israeli and American governments. Yossi Alpher (via Goldberg) suggested that Goldberg was the target and victim of Israeli “spin.” That’s a significant exaggeration—Goldberg’s piece is broadly reported and panoramic (and also, truly, must-read; if you haven’t done so yet, well, there is a weekend coming up), and he was demonstrably very much aware of the agendas of all who spoke with him. However, I do think (and even Goldberg thinks) that Goldberg’s piece conveyed the Israelis’ genuine and urgent fear not only of an Iranian bomb, but of an imminent Iranian bomb; their belief that postponing a bomb is inherently good; and their threat that they really will take matters into their own hands, but maybe it would be better if the United States did so instead. (Several months ago, incidentally, The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, no hawk himself, made precisely that case.)

Today’s piece represents the American response, and it is essentially this: “We hear you, but ease up a bit.” Yes, the administration is saying, we know a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and if it comes right down to it, you can probably count on our support of, and even participation in, a military strike. But there is more time on the clock than you think there is, and non-military means of avoiding a bomb—namely, sanctions and sabotage—are working better than you are giving them credit for, so give them some time.

(Both pieces, also, are messages to China: Namely, keep supporting sanctions, or else we are going to bomb Iran, which will cause your economy to dive—a message Israeli officials have explicitly conveyed to China’s leaders. While the China-backed U.N. sanctions are having little practical effect—it is rather the American and EU sanctions aimed at cutting off the refining-challenged Islamic Republic’s gasoline supplies that are doing real damage—it is better for everyone if China is onboard with all of this, which they were as of the most recent Security Council vote.)

Meanwhile, debate over the issue has raged at the Atlantic all this week: Check it out.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.