Once again, Iran, Israel, and the United States are in the forefront of the news. The common denominator of the coverage this time — is time.
The cover of The Week Magazine, a news summary publication, declared “Running out of time,” with a caricature of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a bomber on a runway. A New York Times article was captioned “Netanyahu Says U.S. and Israeli ‘Clocks’ Differ on Iran’s Threat.”
After a week notable for speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee by President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and for a White House meeting between the two, the Guardian declared “the American president emerged with a precious commodity: time.”
When talking about time and Iran, we are in a world of political relativity, for the United States has one view of time, Israel another. Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence and one of eight Israeli pilots who bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, is quoted by the Guardian: “The timeline of the U.S. is not the same as the timeline of Israel. Israel is very close to the time when a tough decision has to be made.”
The countries’ perspectives are different. For the United States, the determining factor is Iran deciding to make a nuclear bomb. For Israel, it is Iran entering into the “zone of immunity,” on the verge of the capability of shielding its nuclear facilities from a successful attack. The dilemma is that Iran can enter into the zone of immunity, in effect triggering Israel’s red line, without meeting what constitutes America’s red-line criterion: Iran actually assembling a bomb. Iran may well be capable of assembling a device on several hours’ notice, but this would not meet the stated U.S. criterion.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel One, Netanyahu stated, “The American clock regarding preventing Iranian nuclearization is not the Israeli one. The Israeli clock works, obviously, according to a different schedule.” Elaborating on Channel Two, he said stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability was “not a matter of days or weeks,” adding, “It is also not a matter of years.” I interpret this statement as indicating that Israel believes the waiting period is one of months — which would coincide with the time leading up to the U.S. presidential election, when Israel can assert maximum pressure on the Obama administration.
In a Times op-ed, Yadlin argues that a nuclear Iran could lead to far worse than a strike on Iran; it could, he says, trigger “a regional nuclear arms race without a red phone to defuse an escalating crisis, Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, more confident Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah, and the threat of nuclear materials being transferred to terrorist organizations.”
Like Netanyahu, Yadlin points out that Israel doesn’t have the safety of distance, nor the United States’ air power. He argues that Obama has to shift Israeli defense establishment thinking from a focus on the “zone of immunity” to a “zone of trust.” “What is needed is an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity — and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest — Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so.”
Others have argued similarly.
One of the most notable voices arguing for Israeli restraint is ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Dagan said, “The issue of Iran armed with a nuclear capability is not an Israeli problem; it’s an international problem.” He said he prefers America take care of this problem. He said to be effective, a military strike would have to hit dozens of targets and that would only delay the Iranian nuclear project, not stop it.
Dagan maintains that Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are rational, but acknowledges that that evaluation is qualified. “No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational, based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.” Additionally, ”the Iranians are masters at negotiation.” He said the best solution is to foment regime change within Iran.
However, strategists need to look beyond Ahmadinejad. In the recent parliamentary elections, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gained the ironclad majority he needed not just to bring Ahmadinejad to heel, but to eliminate the presidency entirely. This would consolidate Khamenei’s decision-making authority. Thus, the issue will be not whether Ahmadinejad is rational, but rather whether Khamenei is.
Regarding American-Israeli relations, last week Khamenei praised Obama for trying to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran, cautioning “there would be consequences for the United States…if a premature strike is launched on Iran.”
Taking the Obama administration at its word — that it will not allow Iran to go nuclear — requires faith in U.S. intelligence and its ability to know when Iran crosses the line. The Los Angeles Times says Iran’s record of deceit fuels worry over Obama’s assurances that he will know if Tehran starts trying to actually build a nuclear weapon. One expert said he was reasonably confident Iran would get caught if it launched a covert enrichment effort. But, he added, “reasonably confident is not the same thing as certain.”
Moreover, there is the Obama Doctrine. Testifying before Congress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Martin Dempsey indicated that “international permission,” rather than congressional approval, provides a ‘legal basis’ for military action by the United States. Thus, any U.S. action against Iran would, under this view, require international approval, a very unlikely event.
Under such circumstances, it is likely that Israel and the United States will keep to their own timetables when it comes to Iran.