Friday, August 01, 2008

A Step Closer?

Does the pending departure of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put his country one step closer to bombing Iran?

That’s the assessment of British journalist Con Coughlin, who expounds on his theory in today’s U.K. Telegraph. Mr. Coughlin echoes a point that we have made before; with Mr. Olmert pre-occupied by personal scandal, it was more difficult for him to make critical decisions.

As Coughlin observes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has ground to a halt, partly because Israeli negotiators—and Mr. Olmert—were unsure of the government’s future. Concerns about political paralysis have also affected handling of the Iran issue:

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, is the most likely candidate to replace Mr Olmert. She recently lamented to her senior aides that, should it became necessary for Israel to launch military action against Iran to prevent it developing nuclear weapons, there would be no one in Jerusalem to authorise it.

Coughlin believes that Mrs. Livini (and other candidates for prime minister) would be more willing to make a tough call on Iran, and authorize long-range strikes against its nuclear facilities. Livini’s likely contender for the Kadima nomination, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, is more hawkish that the foreign minister.

The presumptive Likud candidate, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has long supported a preemptive attack against Iran, saying the country is “preparing a second Holocaust” with its nuclear weapons program. Riding a wave of growing security concerns among Israeli citizens, Mr. Netanyahu has already called for early elections after Olmert's departure.

The fourth major contender, current defense minister (and Labor Party leader) Ehud Barak has also been taking a tough line against Tehran, saying military options remain squarely “on the table.” By Mr. Coughlin’s reasoning, any of these individuals, serving as Israel’s next Prime Minister, would be more likely to approve a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In his estimation, that puts Tel Aviv “one step closer” to a military showdown with Iran.

But that potential day of reckoning may not be as close as some believe. First, Olmert won’t step down until after his party holds its elections in September; after that, his successor will try to form a new government. If that doesn’t work, then there will be Parlimentary elections (with Likud and Mr. Netanyahu as the early favorites), a new Prime Minister and a new coalition.

Even if Kadima hangs on to the reigns of government, Israel will spend the rest of 2008 trying to sort out a new government. Though not inconceivable, it is considered less likely that Israel would strike Iran during the transition process.

However, an exception would be made if Israeli intelligence received irrefutable proof that Iran was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, or already had one. That represents the “ultimate” red line for Israel’s government, regardless of who is in charge.

In a newspaper interview almost three months ago, Mr. Olmert said “it may take another two years, maybe four,” for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. His comments suggested that Israel might have a small window in deciding on military action against Tehran.

But even that window is narrowing. Earlier this week, Iran announced that it has installed 6,000 centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear complex, allowing accelerated production of enriched uranium. Additionally, other reports suggest that Tehran has signed a deal for the Russian S-300 air defense system, which would greatly complicate potential Israeli attack plans. A steady increase in centrifuge operations, coupled with deployment of the S-300, could force an “earlier” Israeli decision to attack Iran, regardless of domestic political conditions.

Still, the most likely scenarios place a final decision on attacking Iran in the hands of the next Israeli Prime Minister, and the new American President.

ADDENDUM: On the other hand, Israeli officials now say that Tehran is on the path toward a "major breakthrough," in its nuclear program that is "unacceptable." As Bloomberg reports:

``It is an existential threat,'' [Deputy Prime Minister] Mofaz said at a forum on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``We have to make sure we are prepared for every option.''


While Mofaz accused the Iranian government of ``buying time'' in its resistance to international pressure to suspend uranium enrichment, he said the diplomatic ``track'' should continue.

``We don't want war, we want peace,'' Mofaz said. ``But we will not let the second Holocaust take place.''

The comments from Mofaz, who also serves as transportation minister, echoed statements he made last month to the Jerusalem Post that ``all options are on the table. If there won't be a choice other than a nuclear Iran or a military option, it's clear what our decision has to be.''

The last round of saber-rattling by Iran and Israel helped push oil prices toward record levels. Late today, the price of a barrel of crude was up about $1.

Mr. Mofaz's comments are consistent with his own, previously-stated views, and those of other Israeli officials. He did not elaborate on the supposed "breakthrough" that Iran may be nearing. But, it's worth noting that a senior Israeli official recently discounted the possibility of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities this year. The deputy prime minister's observation suggests that Israel has received updated information on Iran's nuclear efforts, and is modifying its assessment.

Based on that, we might just be a step closer to Israeli military action against Iran.

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