The Iranian regime has a good reason to be happy these days. Last week President Obama made clear that the U.S. will not stand in the way of Tehran’s nuclear program. Moreover, he told the Iranians that the Americans will do everything they can to prevent Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in a bid to prevent its acquisition of the means to commit a new Holocaust.
None of this of course was stated directly. Indeed, on the surface it appeared as though Obama was signaling the opposite message.
During his meeting at the Oval Office with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama made what was widely reported as a concession to the Israeli government when he announced a six-month time limit for his initiative to persuade Iran through negotiations and appeasement to give up its nuclear weapons program.
For months, Israeli leaders had been making clear their concern that Obama’s proposed talks will be open ended and that Iran will exploit them to run down the clock on its nuclear program. And here, during his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama seemed to address this concern by stating that after six months the U.S. would assess the success of the talks and, based on its assessment, Obama would decide whether the talks should continue or whether the U.S. should begin to take more punitive measures against Iran.
Obama suggested that such measures could include further international sanctions against the mullocracy. In the meantime, in an effort to show his good faith to Tehran, Obama ordered Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, to table a bill that would impose U.S. trade sanctions on companies exporting refined fuel to Iran.
A hopeful sign that Obama’s soft-touch policy toward Iran is making headway came at the end of last week from Europe. Several European countries that in the past had rejected levying sanctions on Iran announced that out of respect for Obama’s engagement policy toward the mullahs, they would be willing to consider supporting sanctions next year if the Iranians fail to negotiate in good faith.
Unfortunately, while on the surface Obama’s statement and Europe’s response to it both seem like positive developments, they actually are deeply disconcerting.
Israeli intelligence has assessed that by the end of 2009 Iran will have enriched sufficient quantities of uranium to produce an atomic bomb and that such a bomb could be produced during the coming year. U.S. intelligence estimates assess that Iran can be expected to cross the nuclear threshold and begin building bombs by 2010 at the earliest.
Tehran’s successful test last week of its solid-fuel Sejil-2 missile with a range of 1,200 miles was yet another signal that Iran is moving forward steadily on putting together the three components of its nuclear arsenal: enriched uranium, delivery systems and warheads.
What these intelligence assessments make clear is that, in all likelihood, by the end of 2009 it may well be too late to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. That is, by setting a six-month limit to American-Iranian talks, Obama may very well have given Iran the green light to become a nuclear power. Moreover, by stating that if talks fail the U.S. will only begin considering sanctions – and Europe will only begin to consider supporting sanctions – in January, it can be assumed that any further sanctions will only be adopted by March 2010 at the earliest.
At that point, Obama will no doubt set yet another limit for the sanctions to coerce Iran to change its behavior. After that time period has ended, and assuming that Iran has not changed its behavior vis-à-vis its nuclear program, the administration will only begin considering its options for moving forward. In all, then, it is more than likely that by announcing a six-month time limit for U.S. talks with Iran, Obama has made clear to the Iranians that the earliest they can expect Washington to even begin to consider launching a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations is September 2010.
In the meantime, while these talks are going on, and then presumably while the sanctions are being tried, the Obama administration will try to coerce Israel not to act independently to destroy Iran’s principal nuclear installations including its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, its heavy water plant for plutonium production at Arak, and its nuclear research center at Isfahan. Indeed, the administration is already putting the screws on Jerusalem to take no action against Iran.
For the past several weeks Obama has been using CIA director Leon Panetta to deliver the message to Jerusalem that the U.S. will be extremely angry if Israel decides to launch a military strike on its own to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both made statements in which they all but demanded that Israel take no action.
Israelis for their part are highly skeptical of Obama’s policy. A poll taken early this month by the Anti-Defamation League showed that only 38 percent of Israelis consider Obama friendly toward the country. A poll taken last week by Tel Aviv University showed that 57 percent of Israelis believe Obama’s talks with Iran have no or little chance of dissuading Iran from building nuclear bombs, and a plurality of 41 percent believe Israel should act on its own to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities even if the U.S. orders it not to.
Many Israeli commentators, particularly on the left, are now arguing that due to the Obama administration’s apparent willingness to accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and its obvious opposition to any Israeli (or American) action aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel has no choice but to accept the inevitability of a nuclear armed Iran. Expressing this view in Haaretz last week, commentator Yossi Melman wrote, “The supreme tenet of Israeli defense policy states that Jerusalem must not launch any strategic initiative that stands in contradiction, or places in harm’s way, the clear interests of the United States.”
But this view is wrong. Israel has opted to risk Washington’s ire at least twice in the past. In 1981, when Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear installation at Osirak, Washington repaid it for preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons by voting in favor of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel and by placing strict limitations on weapons exports to the country. In 2007 Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear installation at Dir a-Zur against the expressed wishes of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was only due to support for Israel’s action on the part of President Bush and Vice President Cheney that the U.S. did not condemn the operation at that time.
As recent polls show, despite – or perhaps because of – Obama’s open hostility toward Israel and his clear interest in appeasing Iran at Israel’s expense, most Israelis are not deterred by his administration. While no one relishes angering Washington, most Israelis prefer an irate administration to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Originally published in The Jewish Press.