Iran’s nuclear ambitions: a matter of trust

Iran’s nuclear ambitions: a matter of trust

In the 1989 movie Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, says, “And now, folks, it’s time for ‘Who do you trust?’”

That question has been asked in the Middle East for decades. Last week, with the release by the International Atomic Energy Agency of its report on the Iranian nuclear program, the importance of trust became a front burner item.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warnings that a nuclear Iran was an existential threat to Israel and could not be trusted, the Obama administration proceeded on a path of engagement with Iran, optimistically hoping that negotiations would cause Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions, only to be slapped in the face by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at every turn.

Then there is French President Nicholas Sarkozy. In an embarrassing open mike moment at the G-20 conference last week, Sarkozy said of Netanyahu to President Obama, “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.” To which Obama responded, “You’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

International Business Daily editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez captured the implication of the moment, with showing Sarkozy and Obama making their statements with Ahmadinejad, his arms around them, saying “I’m with you guys.”

For some reason, both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to downplay both the possibility and the effects of a nuclear Iran.

The Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded, with “high confidence,” that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen, contradicting a prior report.

This view carried over to the Obama administration, which emphasized negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

The NIE view was reiterated in 2009 by then IAEA director general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who stated in an interview that Iran was not going to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon and the threat posed by its atomic program had been exaggerated.

Is it any wonder that the new IAEA report came as a shock to all but the Israelis?

The IAEA now believes, based on credible information, that, since 2002, Iran may have been working on research for a nuclear bomb to arm one of its long-range missiles. The heart of the report is set forth in a 12-page annex. Never before has the agency set out the case against Iran in such detail.

The report stated that Iran has 4.9 metric tons of low-enriched uranium, which it is moving to an underground facility. “This amount of low-enriched uranium if further enriched to weapon grade is enough to make four nuclear weapons,” said the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank.

The IAEA implicated Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea in the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program.

On Nov. 13, Netanyahu said the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program was not reflected in the IAEA report.

Iran characterized the report as “baseless.”

What to do?

The knee-jerk reaction is to increase sanctions on Iran. This would involve action by the UN Security Council. Two permanent members with veto power, Russia, an Iran enabler, and China, have blocked this route in the past. Obama has requested both countries to help put pressure on Iran, but neither country has signaled any support for this approach.

Iran has effectively taken sanctions or compromise off the table. Iran’s Foreign Minister has said he sees no more room for compromise.

This leaves the military option. There has been much speculation that either Israel or the United States, or both in a joint operation, will go after the Iranian nuclear facilities.

After the release of the IAEA report, Dan Williams, a Reuters columnist, wrote about the apparent restraint being shown by the Netanyahu government. He harkened back to Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osiris reactor and the “Begin Doctrine”: “the best defense is forceful preemption.” Williams noted that now Israel’s message is more guarded and Netanyahu’s office declined to comment whether he felt bound by the Begin Doctrine.

The Begin Doctrine may not be dead, but modified. The Stuxnet computer worm, which, in January, wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms, has been attributed to Israel and the United States.

And this weekend, it was reported that an explosion at a Revolutionary Guard base in Iran killed a senior commander in charge of its missile inventory and development program, prompting speculation that Mossad was involved.

Iran thinks something is coming. The head of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission said that Iran would start a “street war” in Tel Aviv if its nuclear program was attacked. He warned the battlefield won’t be in Iran, but “the entirety of Europe and the U.S.”

On the other side, the Daily Mail reports, the British government believes that Israel will attempt to strike against the nuclear sites “sooner rather than later” — with logistical support from the United States.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports Israel has refused to reassure President Obama that it would warn him in advance of any preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, raising fears that it may be planning a go-it-alone attack as early as next summer.

In this environment, whom would you trust?

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