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Would Israel Go It Alone if Sanctions on Iran Fail?

September 29, 2004
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After months of high-profile lobbying against Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli officials are confident that the international community will impose sanctions on Tehran if it fails to meet a Nov. 25 deadline to halt its nuclear weapons program. They base their optimism on a series of meetings with American and European officials, mainly during the recent U.N. General Assembly session in New York. They say they detect a major shift in the European position, which could lead to the Europeans joining a U.S.-led move on sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.

If the sanctions fail, Israeli analysts believe the United States has the capacity to stop Iran going nuclear by military means. They are also not ruling out a strike by Israel, if the Iranians go past the point of no return in nuclear bomb manufacturing and the international community fails to take effective action.

Israeli officials, however, make it clear that Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as a global rather than an Israeli problem, and would much prefer to see the international community dealing with it.

The hardening of the European line came after the Iranians rejected a mid-September demand from the International Atomic Energy Agency not to produce the enriched uranium from which nuclear bombs are made.

The defiant Iranian response was to announce that it had begun converting large amounts of raw uranium and that it had test-fired a new version of the Shihab-3 missile, capable of reaching Israel and most European capitals.

A few days later, at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he was encouraged by the new European stance.

The time, he said, was now ripe “to move the Iranian case to the Security Council in order to put an end to this nightmare.”

At the same time, Israel’s national security council chief, Giora Eiland, came away from talks with American officials convinced that they realized the gravity of the situation and would be ready to act.

November, Eiland stressed in his talks, would be the very last chance to do something effective to halt the Iranian nuclear drive without having to resort to force.

Gerald Steinberg, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Bar Ilan University’s BESA Institute, asserts that the Europeans, tired of Iran’s double game, will now be ready to follow an American lead.

“The British, the Germans and to some degree the French now realize that their approach, holding various kinds of dialogue with Iran, has failed,” he said.

Nor does he expect Russia or China to oppose a move for U.N. sanctions against Iran. “Russia, given its troubles in Chechnya, will find it difficult to condone a nuclear build-up in terror-supporting Iran,” he said.

“And China won’t want to be the only permanent member of the Security Council to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

Steinberg estimates that the Iranians are at least six months and perhaps some years away from producing a bomb, so that there is time to test whether a sanctions strategy works.

If it doesn’t, the next step could be an American-led military strike. Spelling out U.S. policy in late September, President Bush said he would prefer to use diplomacy, including sanctions, to stop the Iranian nuclear drive, but if necessary he would not shy away from the use of force.

A leak in Newsweek magazine that American contingency plans to hit Iran were being updated seemed to underline the president’s message.

Both the president’s tough talk and the Newsweek leak seemed calculated at the very least to put more pressure on Iran ahead of the November deadline, by presenting a credible U.S. military threat.

Although Iranian nuclear facilities are spread out across the country, and in some cases protected by thick concrete bunkers, Steinberg believes that if sanctions don’t work and the Iranians get very close to producing a bomb, the Americans would be capable of destroying Iran’s entire nuclear program.

“The U.S. certainly has the military capability to destroy the key facilities of the Iranian program,” he said. “Iran could always reconstitute its capabilities, but it would take years. Two decades after the Israeli strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, the Iraqis were still not as close to producing a weapon as they had been then.”

As for the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities if sanctions fail and the international community does not take military action, Steinberg said he does not rule it out, “nor does anyone in the Israeli establishment.”

But he said the imminent supply of 500 one-ton “bunker buster” bombs to Israel from the United States should not be seen as directly connected to any operational policy vis-a-vis Iran, “although it does enhance the credibility of the Israeli threat to Iran’s nuclear program.”

Senior Israeli officials warn that the international community should not count on Israel to remove the Iranian nuclear threat. Israeli policy, they say, has been geared to convincing the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is an international and not an Israeli problem, and that it should be dealt with by the international community, not by Israel.

“The world should not wait for us to do its ‘dirty work,’ ” by taking out the Iranian nuclear threat, Yoav Biran, the outgoing director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, warned in a recent interview in the mass circulation Yediot Achronot daily.

“No one in the world has any doubts about Iran’s intentions, which remain to achieve full military nuclear capability with long-range missiles,” he said, alluding to the goal of delivering nuclear warheads.

“It’s not solely an Israeli problem. First and foremost, it’s a problem for the stability of the Middle East and the whole international order. Only persistent international pressure, which must include Europe, the United States and others, will prevent Iran from achieving its goal,” he declared.

Now, after years in which the Americans pressed for a hard line and the Europeans for “constructive dialogue” with Iran, the international community seems to be ready to take the kind of concerted action Biran had in mind.

But whether sanctions or the threat of sanctions will be enough to convince the Iranians to drop their nuclear ambitions remains an open question.

And, despite President Bush’s tough talk and the new optimism in Israel, there is an even bigger question: If sanctions fail, will the international community really take military action, or wait for Israel, armed with long-range bombers and “bunker busting” bombs, to do so — and risk the consequences?

(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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