It’s been building for a decade. President George W. Bush warned that “The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons.” President Barack Obama has expressed worries about “the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” In 2009, a high-level U.S. intelligence official concluded that Iran could have a nuclear bomb in 2011. And now, that moment—the one so many dreaded and predicted and feared—appears to be at hand. Specifically, the latest IAEA report expresses “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” concludes that Iran “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” declares that there are “strong indicators of possible weapon development” and details a number of examples of overt and illegal efforts at weaponization, including: nuclear-bomb modeling, developing trigger devices and studying ways to fit nuclear payloads onto the Shahab-3 missile. As the Washington Post puts it, the IAEA has concluded that “Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon.”
This helps explain the rush of diplomatic and military activity swirling around the Middle East.
In diplomatic circles, the IAEA report has been called “a game changer” by British officials.
In Israel, recent weeks have seen a flurry of very-public, very-choreographed signals: long-range missile tests; air maneuvers in Italy featuring what one Israeli newspaper describes as “lengthy, long-distance mission exercises”; and streams of worrisome words.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that “A nuclear Iran will be a dire threat to the Middle East and the entire world and…a direct and grave threat to us.”
There are suggestions by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel has plans to strike Iran with or without U.S. support. It’s worth noting that Israel has taken unilateral preemptive action in self-defense many times: the 1967 war was a preemptive war; the strike on Iraq’s nuclear facilities at Osirak in 1981 was preemptive; the bombing raids on Syria’s nascent nuclear plant in 2007 were preemptive; and the mysterious Stuxnet cyber-attacks, purportedly carried out by a quiet coalition of American, Israeli and European intelligence agencies, were preemptive.
There are reports that Barak and Netanyahu are trying to win over a majority of the cabinet for a counter-proliferation strike. Barak has even discussed casualty figures, suggesting detailed war-gaming on Israel’s part.
President Shimon Peres speaks of a “ticking clock…there is not much time left.” The elder statesman says “Iran is nearing atomic weapons…What needs to be done must be done and there is a long list of options.”
Most of the options are military. The Guardian newspaper reports that “Britain’s armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran.” Not known for hyperbole or military cheerleading, the left-leaning paper cites military sources who say the U.S. and U.K. are planning “targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities.” Information leaked to the Guardian sketches the outlines of a series of counter-proliferation strikes “predominantly waged from the air, with some naval involvement, using missiles such as the Tomahawks [and] a small number of special forces.”
The Arab world, too, seems genuinely concerned about Iran.
Open-source materials—from the Los Angeles Times to the London Sunday Times to the Jerusalem Post—are filled with reports that the Saudis are so concerned about an Iranian bomb that they have privately agreed to open an air corridor for Israeli warplanes. One report indicates that the Saudis even tested how they would “stand down” their air defenses to make way for an Israeli strike force.
The Saudis recently engaged in a $60-billion spending spree—mostly for warplanes, missile defenses and bombs. The UAE is quietly purchasing 4,900 bunker-busting JDAM bombs. “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,” the UAE’s ambassador to the United States openly declared last year.
Indeed, diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks reveal that Iran’s Arab neighbors have urged Washington to strike Iran preemptively.
That brings us to the linchpin of international action, the United States. A year ago this time, Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, raised eyebrows by declaring, “We’ve actually been thinking about military options for a significant period of time.”
There have been vague reports that Special Operations forces may be deployed for intelligence gathering in Iran, that the Stuxnet cyber-attacks set Iran’s nuclear program back and that Washington is exploring a beefed-up presence in Kuwait. (The U.S. has 23,000 troops in Kuwait, with plans to deploy another 4,000 in the tiny emirate—perhaps permanently—as the Iraq operation winds down.) There are also reports that the Obama administration is seeking to expand military ties with Saud Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, as a hedge against Iran.
But those initiatives—especially garrisoning more troops in Kuwait and forging a long-term security partnership with the Gulf states—don’t convey any sense of urgency.
In other words, don’t expect the Obama administration to pull the trigger. What’s most likely happening is an orchestrated effort to use the threat of military force to get Iran’s attention and dissuade it from going nuclear.
Indeed, even the New York Times has noticed the wildly divergent views held by Israel and the U.S. vis-à-vis Iran’s looming nuclear threat: While Israelis see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, the Obama administration apparently sees a nuclear Iran as a manageable problem, something to be contained and deterred like the Soviet Union. “Inside the Pentagon and the National Security Council,” the Times reports, “there is a lot of work—all of it unacknowledged—about what a parallel containment strategy for Iran might look like.”
That’s a risky course of action, perhaps riskier than a counter-proliferation strike, because the Soviet Union was run by people who wanted to preserve the Soviet state. Such a regime could be deterred and contained. Iran, on the other hand, is run by people who preach martyrdom and have apocalyptic visions. Such a regime, when armed with apocalyptic weapons, may be beyond deterrence or containment.
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