The nuclear standoff between Iran and the west is quickly gathering speed. Amid all the rhetoric and posturing, there are clear signs that a military confrontation is only months--if not weeks--away. And, if recent statements and events are any indication, it will Israel that strikes the first blow. Simply stated, the new Olmert government is running out of time, patience--and options.
From the Iranian side, there has been no cessation in the war of words--nor any serious effort to resolve the nuclear impasse. Just today, a senior Iranian military official vowed that Tehran would target Israel "first," if the U.S. does "anything evil." The Iranian officer--a Rear Admiral in the Revolutionary Guards Navy--did not specify the type of action that would trigger a response from Tehran, and he did not say how Iran might target Israel. Iran has a small number of medium-range ballistic missiles (SHAHAB-3) that are capable of hitting Israeli targets with conventional, chemical or biological warheads. Additionally, Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups could carry out attacks inside Israel and the Iranian Air Force has a small number of aircraft that could reach Israeli territory (although their prospects of carrying out a successful strike are dim, at best).
Iran's growing bellicosity suggests it has little to fear from the upcoming UNSC debate over its nuclear program. Russia and China have reportedly told Iran that they oppose sanctions and military action, leaving the timid UN with no real options for punishing Iran. That's the diplomatic equivalent of a green light for Tehran to continue its nuclear program and rachet up the rhetoric. The U.S. has refused to take the military option off the table, but demonstrated no real appetite for using it, at least over the short haul. As we noted yesterday, the current U.S. strategy seems to revolve around the upcoming UNSC debate; if that fails to produce any meaningful results, then the issue will be raised at the G8 Summit in July.
I'm not a diplomat, so perhaps I don't understand the potential impact of that "approach." In other words, if the UNSC fails to act--and that seems to be the most likely option--how can we expect the G8 to take meaningful action, with some of the participants (read: Russia) already in Tehran's pocket, and others (read: The Europeans) worried about terrorist attacks and possible interruptions in their oil supplies. A discussion at the G8 would be fine, if the participants had some sort of concrete game plan to dealing decisively with Iran, with all options open for consideration. As it stands, the potential discussion will be just that--more talk, with no real threat to back it up.
For Israel, the Iran issue is moving rapidly beyond the discussion stage, and becoming a matter of national survival. Last week's blunt assessment of the Iranian nuclear program--delivered by the Mossad chief during meetings in Washington--suggests that Tel Aviv is prepared to act, regardless of U.S. policy. Israel's reported discovery of covert Iranian nuclear sites adds new urgency to the equation; the existence of such sites would speed Tehran's development of a bomb, and reduce the Israeli window for carrying out a preemptive military strike.
Earlier this year, we observed that Israeli military action was unlikely during the incapacitation of former Prime Minister Sharon, the election of a new government, and Ehud Olmert's transition to power. That period is now passed, as evidenced by the tone of last week's meetings in Washington, and the likely grim tone of the U.S.-Israeli summit scheduled for later this month. When Olmert meets with President Bush on 23 May, I expect he will deliver a message that mirrors that of the Mossad chief. Israel is gravely concerned about the rapid progression of Iran's nuclear program, and if the U.S. doesn't take action, the Israeli Defense Forces will.
For the past year, the Israelis have given diplomacy a chance to work, and their patience has been rewarded with pointless talks, increasingly heated rhetoric from Iran, and an expansion of Tehran's nuclear efforts. The reported discovery of those covert facilities in Iran have likely ended any Israeli hope for a negotiated settlement, and raised prospects for a preemptive Israeli strike. It's difficult to forecast when such an attack might take place--the Israelis are masters at hiding military preparations--but you might want to circle some moonless nights in late spring or early summer, before the sandstorm "season" begins in the Middle East. An Israeli strike against Iran may no longer be a matter of "if" but "when."