The looming showdown over Iran's nuclear program took another series of twists and turns yesterday. Rhetoric between Tehran and Tel Aviv has clearly ramped up in recent days, and while I'm not predicting an imminent Israeli strike, the two nations are clearly on a collision course once again. And, there's a certain irony in that realization; Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon had hoped to keep the nuclear issue in the background during his re-election campaign. But his hopes have been dashed, by events in Israel and Iran.
On the political front, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an aggressive option for dealing with Iran, said he would support pre-emptive strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities. In remarks published Monday, Netanyahu endorsed the concept of a unilateral strike, similar to the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.
"I will continue the tradition established by Menachem Begin, who did not allow Iraq to develop such a nuclear threat against Israel, and by a daring and courageous act gave us two decades of tranquility," Netanyahu told the Maariv daily. "I believe that this is what Israel has to do."
Netanyahu's remarks were quickly criticized by political rivals and outside analysts. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is also a candidate for the Likud Party nomination, accused Netanyahu of making "inflammatory statements," and stated that the uclear issue should be "taken out of the campaign."
Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst at the the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, described Netanyahu's comments as a "desperate political move" and warned that such statement would undermine regional peace efforts.
Netanyahu faces an uphill battle in his bid to become Prime Minister for a second time, but he has achieved one goal, by making the Iranian nuclear program an issue in the Israeli campaign. As we've noted previously, Prime Minister Sharon is in the fight of his political life, having left Likud to form a new centrist party, which (supposedly) will give him more room to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians. As a part of that strategy, the Iranian issue was essentially removed from the political burner. Until recently, Sharon repeated calls for a diplomatic solution, while other Israeli officials took pains to differentiate between Tehran's nuclear research program (which could be tolerated) versus a nuclear-armed Iran, which remains unacceptable to Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu's statements resonate with conservative voters, (Sharon's base), then the Prime Minister will have to expend time and effort explaining his Iran policy, and how it meets Israel's security needs.
That may be a tough sell, since Tehran is clearly moving ahead with its nuclear program. Iran has rejected a proposal to enrich its uranium in Russian facilities, which offered a measure of external control over a key element of the nuclear fuel cycle. Meanwhile, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator told Reuters that his nation's patience is "wearing thin" and it would give the European Union only a few months to settle the matter through negotiations. EU diplomats had hoped the Russian enrichment offer might produce a breakthrough, and lead to a peaceful solution. Iran has long claimed that it is only interested in developing a nuclear power industry, but intelligence reporting and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believe Tehran is intent on producing nuclear weapons.
Iran's continued bellicosity on the nuclear issue suggests several things. First, with the Israelis in a political campaign (and the U.S. occupied in Iraq), Tehran may perceive that the threat of a military strike will remain low in the coming months. That gives Tehran an opening to badger the EU, negotiate deals for new military hardware, and even purchase additional nuclear reactors, as it did on Monday. Meanwhile, Iran will continue its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, although a working bomb may be several years away.
To is credit, Mr. Netanyahu is right about one thing: Iran's nuclear program needs to be an issue in next spring's Israeli election, and not divorced from the political process. While a public debate on Iran's nuclear plans will add fuel to the political fire in Israel, it is a necessary part of the democratic process. A nuclear-armed Iran is the gravest security challenge facing Israel, whether Tehran achieves that capability in a matter of months (as some have suggested), or more likely, over the next 3-4 years. The Israeli public (and the western community) need to hear how the next Prime Minister plans to deal with that threat.