The Islamic Republic Goes to the Polls

The moment of truth approaches for the West and Israel.

rabbani20130613090933707Iran elects a new president today to replace the outgoing, obstreperous, openly genocidal-toward-Israel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Does that mean there’s hope someone more moderate will win and steer Iran away from its confrontational course with the West?

Not really. For one thing, none of the candidates—up to the finish line, there appeared to be six of them—has genuine moderate credentials. For another, even if a real moderate was elected, true power over Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is himself an apocalyptic ideologue.

The two presidential candidates best known in the West are Iran’s current nuclear negotiatior Saeed Jalili, an unequivocal hardliner, and Hassan Rouhani, who was nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 under reputedly moderate president Mohammad Khatami. During the election campaign Rouhani leveled harsh criticism at Jalili, claiming it was his aggressive negotiating approach that led to the Western sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions against Iran.

Rouhani’s criticism of Jalili, however, boils down to style. Rouhani proudly takes credit that, during his own, more restrained tenure as nuclear negotiator, “the groundwork was laid for developing the country’s nuclear capability quietly and secretly, far from the tumult of the international system.”

The West, meanwhile, has been taking a breather from the Iranian nuclear issue while awaiting the results of the elections—despite the fact that just about all knowledgeable Iran analysts agree that, beyond a possible change in style, the elections will have no real impact on that issue.

True, intensified U.S. sanctions, set to take effect July 1, are supposed to further ramp up the pressure on Iran’s economy. And last week Israeli defense analyst Alex Fishman reported that, in a move aimed at assuring America’s Middle Eastern allies that Washington is serious about stopping Iran’s nuclearization, the Pentagon has been running highly successful tests of bunker-busting bombs.

There is no sign, though, that Jerusalem is assured, with Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz sounding loud warnings that the situation is already critical.

This week Steinitz told reporters in Jerusalem that Tehran was “very close” to crossing the red line for making a bomb that Steinitz’s boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, specified before the UN last year, and that

Once they have 250 kilos [of enriched uranium], this is enough to make the final rush to 90 percent [enrichment]…the level of enrichment required for a nuclear warhead….

It is a matter of weeks or maybe two months to jump from 20 percent to 90 percent with so many centrifuges….

What they are doing now—instead of crossing the red line, they are widening and enlarging their capacity by putting in more centrifuges, faster centrifuges.

While asserting that Iran’s aim is not just to build a single bomb but a “nuclear industry” producing 30 bombs per year, Steinitz has been saying Western diplomacy could still work—but only if accompanied by an overt, credible military threat:

The Iranians feel very vulnerable, especially from American air operations. This is their main concern—that if the West, if NATO, if America decide to attack them, a few hours of accurate air raids might destroy their nuclear facilities.

Steinitz’s sense of urgency appears to contrast with remarks also made this week by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

True, Dempsey said that

Iran is a threat to US national security in many ways, not simply their move towards the potential to develop a nuclear weapon…they are also active in cyber. They’ve got surrogates all over the region and all over the world. They proliferate arms. They are a disruptive influence globally. And so I do consider them a threat to our national security.

Yet on the nuclear issue itself, Dempsey had this to say:

the intelligence community has not yet come to a conclusion that they intend to build a nuclear weapon, but they’re certainly preserving and building on their options to do so, which should be of concern to all of us and is.

That sense of an imminent crisis animating Steinitz—who works closely with Netanyahu—appears to be lacking.

In any case, Friday’s Iranian elections remove the last fig leaf for what Israel sees as Western temporizing and—essentially, despite the sanctions—passivity toward Iranian nukes.

If in the coming months the West—and particularly the Obama administration—resumes its approach of making occasional blustery statements while persisting in pointless, toothless “diplomacy” that merely allows Tehran to buy time, it will be up to Israel to prove that it, too, is not just engaging in empty rhetoric.

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