Much has been made of Israel Prime Minister Arial Sharon's decision to quit the Likud Party, and run for re-election under the banner of a new, more centrist political movement. It's a daring political gambit, designed to defeat critics (and former Likud allies) who oppose the Israeli pull-out from the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, Sharon is taking an even bigger gamble in Israel's relationship with Iran. Recent statements by the Prime Minister and other senior Israeli officials highlight a clear differentiation between Tehran's current efforts--focused primarily on uranium enrichment--and an Iran with nuclear weapons. While that latter scenario remains unacceptable to the Israelis, there are growing indications that Tel Aviv will tolerate an Iranian nuclear research program.
There are a number of signs that support this contention. As early as September 2004, Sharon publicly ruled the possibility of unilateral action against Iran, although there were periodic warnings from other officials about the dangers Tehran faced by pursuing nuclear weapons. More recently, several senior officials have noted the distinction between the "nuclearization" process (Iran's research program) and actual weapons production. Senior Israeli defense officials believe that Iran could acquire a bomb by 2008, but other estimates push the acquisition timeline out to 2010 or 2012. Indeed, comments by a high-ranking IDF officer (probably Chief of Staff Dan Halutz) indicated that the Iranian nuclear therat may be more remote than first thought.
Such assessments are probably based on a variety of factors, including Israeli intelligence reporting from inside the Iranian program. The Israelis may believe that Tehran will have difficulty in completing the enrichment process and designing a working bomb, obstacles that could push eapons production beyond the 2010-2012 timeframe. Israel has also completed deployment of an extensive anti-missile system, built around U.S. Patriots and the Israeli-developed Arrow II system. While not foolproof, this integrated system does provide redundant, overlapping coverage of Israeli population centers from the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (the only Iranian missile currently capable of reaching Israel), providing another measure of comfort for the Israeli public. And, of course, the Tel Aviv retains the capability to strike Iran on short notice, using tactical aircraft or its own ballistic missiles, armed with conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Diplomatically, Israel believes its recent withdrawal from Gaza deserves some sort of reward," from the West and Tel Aviv may ask European negotiators to press Iran for a 'deal" on its nuclear program. Tel Aviv will also use the Gaza agreement as leverage with the United States, pushing for more military aid and increased research on technology that could help defend Israel from an Iranian attack.
Sharon's decision to differentiate between a "nuclear" Iran and an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons is clearly a calculate risk. An Iranian breakthrough could lead to weapons much sooner, forcing Israel to abandon long-haul diplomatic efforts and deal with the issue over the short term. Likewise, a failure of Israeli intelligence might lead to faulty assessments and a false sense of optimism or confidence, when (in fact) Israeli might be facing an immediate nuclear threat. However, if Sharon is right, Israel may have several years to let diplomacy run its course, bolster Israeli defenses, improve relations with moderate Arab neighbors, and (if necessary) develop a national consensus on dealing with Iran more forcibly.
Is it a gamble worth taking? One could argue that giving Iran time to possibly develop nuclear weapons is akin to British and French appeasement in the mid-1930s. History showed that the west had an opportunity to move decisively against Hitler, but failed to act and paid a horrendous price. There is a similar risk in the Israeli calculus, but Sharon realizes that a strike against Iran would not eliminate Tehran's nuclear program, invite a new wave of terrorist attacks against Israel, and derail Tel Aviv's expanding relations with Islamic moderates. A strike against Iranian nuclear facilities might produce short-term tactical gains, but the long-term benefits are less clear. Iran has likely decentralized its development efforts, and could reconstitute its nuclear program quickly. According to some estimates, even a successful Israeli attack might delay Iran's nuclear program by only two years.
If that assessment is accurate, Sharon may believe that he has no other choice but to watch and wait. While the Israeli Air Force remains ready, there is no public consensus for a strike against Iran, and no efforts underway to develop that support. And, with Sharon facing the political fight of his life, the Iran pot will be placed on the back burner, amid hopes that it doesn't accidentally boil over.
Interestingly, the Iran issue was back in the news shortly after I posted this article. Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon reiterated that his nation would never allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. However, Sharon also noted that diplomacy is the best way for Israel to deal with its enemies in Tehran. Sharon's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, made similar comments and urged the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue.
The observations of Sharon and Mofaz came only one day after an unnamed, senior defense official told the daily Maairv that Israel might have to resign itself to a nuclear Iran.
"I don't see any force that can turn things around -- to wit, Iran going nuclear -- and there is going to be no choice but to resign outselves to that inchoate reality," he told the paper
The comments of Sharon and Mofaz were intended to show unity within the Israeli government, and caution Tehran that its nuclear efforts could have serious consequences. But as we previously noted, Israel faces tough choices in dealing with Iran, and seems to have adopted a more benign approach, hoping that diplomatic efforts can reign in Tehran's nuclear program. The comments of the defense official probably don't represent a majority of Sharon's cabinet, but they underscore the extreme challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program, politically, diplomatically and militarily.