Now the results of both of those efforts are in. They are a dismal failure. The new economic sanctions on Iran have turned out to be full of holes, and though they have slowed Iran’s oil trade somewhat, primarily in Europe, Iran is still shipping huge quantities of oil to eager customers in Asia.
The new round of diplomatic talks have been a complete fiasco, with Iran going back to its old stalling tactics and refusing to even talk about serious concessions on its nuclear program.
To make matters worse, Iran’s leaders are not at all convinced that Obama’s threats to use military means to stop Iran’s nuclear program as a last resort should be taken seriously. While administration officials continue to insist that “all options are on the table,” that is usually just a preamble to their arguments about why Israel should not attack now, and that Israel should simply trust Obama’s promise that the US will act to stop Iran’s nuclear program at the very last minute.
The Israeli government, under Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has stopped waiting for the US to keep its promises on Iran. It has begun taking visible actions to ready the country for an imminent war. It is making grim preparations for the likelihood that Israel’s population centers will, chas v’sholom, come under intense missile attack from Iran and its allies in retaliation for a pre-emptive strike. It has issued new gas masks, outfitted underground bomb shelters across the country with supplies, and conducted tests of the country’s missile early warning system.
Israel’s leaders are well aware of the dangers and difficulties of launching a successful attack on Iran and the subsequent danger to all Jews who live in Israel. However, they are convinced that as bad as the consequences of starting a war with Iran are likely to be, allowing Iran to gain nuclear capability would be even more dangerous to Israel in the long run.
IS ISRAEL READY TO GO TO WAR?
Matan Vilnai, the outgoing Israeli home-front defense minister, boasted last week that Israel is now ready for a month-long war “on multiple fronts,” and well-prepared to deal with the expected bombardment of its cities and resulting civilian casualties.
War fears have prompted increasingly hysterical statements against a pre-emptive Israeli attack from a variety of Israeli political figures, including President Shimon Peres. In a surprisingly blunt statement, he said regarding an attack on Iran that the Israeli military “cannot do it alone,” and stated flatly that, “it is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.”
Media analysts and retired security and foreign policy experts in both the US and Israel are warning of the likely failure of a first strike by the Israeli military, and dire consequences if Israel launches it before the November election, against Obama’s wishes.
The failure of Obama’s Iran policy has also become an issue in the US presidential campaign. It was highlighted by the Romney campaign during his recent visit to Israel, and in his attempts to win the support of disappointed American Jews who voted for Obama in 2008..
Speculation that an attack might be imminent was further fueled by reports of a meeting Friday between Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor, Yaakov Amidror, and Rav Ovadia Yosef, the head of the Shas Party. Presumably, Netanyahu sent Amidror to seek Shas’ support in the inner security cabinet for a decision to attack Iran. Reportedly, Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who is one of its nine members, has been opposed to launching an attack on Iran at this time.
A VIGOROUS DEBATE
Israel’s Channel 10 military reporter Alon Ben-David claims that Netanyahu is now “closer than ever” to ordering an attack before the November presidential election. Ben David does not believe that Netanyahu will delay his decision until after a possible meeting between him and Obama on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting next month in New York City.
The report is part of a vigorous debate now going on in Israel, publicly, in the media, and behind the scenes, over whether the Iranian nuclear threat is sufficiently dire as to justify the risks of making a pre-emptive strike on Iran before the November election, when Obama’s support would still be assured.
An editorial in USA Today notes that the debate in Israel is a reflection of the health of its democracy, adding with some concern that a similar public debate over policy toward Iran has been missing in the United States, which would be deeply affected by the Israeli decision either way.
MORE IRANIAN THREATS
On Friday, the atmosphere grew even more tense due to the latest threats against Israel’s survival by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel’s continued existence an “insult to all humanity.”
There were also comments by a general in Iran’s air force and the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon that Iran would “welcome” an attack by Israel because it would give Iran the excuse that it has long been looking for to attack and “get rid of” Israel, forever.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s air force, said that in the event of an Israeli strike, Iran’s response would be “swift, decisive and destructive.”
Ahmadinejad told tens of thousands of Iranians who marched in Teheran during an annual anti-Israel celebration called Quds Day that, “the presence of the Zionist on even one inch of Palestine land is dangerous.” He predicted that there would be an “American Spring” in which US citizens would rise up against their government in the same way that Arabs have in Tunisia and Egypt.
Speaking in Beirut to mark Quds Day, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said that in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran or Lebanon, Hezbollah would retaliate by launching missiles that would inflict”tens of thousands of Israeli deaths. . . We will not hesitate to use these missiles against these targets and the Israelis should know that the cost of aggression against Lebanon will be high and cannot be compared to the cost of the 2006 war.”
IS NETANYAHU BLUFFING?
Some Israeli commentators, who believe that Iran and its allies have the ability to carry out these threats, hope that Netanyahu and Barak are only bluffing in the hope of pressuring Obama to issue a more explicit and credible ultimatum to Iran that it must halt its nuclear weapons program now or suffer an American attack some time after the November election to do the job itself more effectively than the Israeli military could.
They say Israel’s leaders are using the leverage of the US presidential election to force Obama to make an explicit commitment to launch an attack on Iran as early as next year if the Iranian nuclear program continues.
“They are aiming for a specific thing,” said Georgetown University scholar Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon policy adviser for the Obama administration on the Mideast. “They may be trying to push the Obama administration into a declaration of red lines, an even more declarative statement about the use of force.”
According to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been interviewing Obama’s and reporting on his policies towards Israel since 2008, administration officials are taking current signs that an attack on Iran is imminent “a bit too much in stride.” He said that one senior White House official told him that Israeli leaders “tend to do this from time to time. It’s something we’ve learned to live with.”
Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies agreed, saying, “If the United States makes such a statement, that would allow the Israelis to relax somewhat.”
Israel’s leaders do not think they can afford to delay a pre-emptive strike much longer without a much more explicit American commitment.
“We can’t wait to find out one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn’t act in the end,” an unnamed senior Israeli official told Haaretz last week.
THE LIMITS OF ISRAEL’S MILITARY
The limits of Israel’s military capabilities are at the heart of the debate over the necessity to launch a strike now. The Israeli military is concerned that Iran will use more time to move its most critical nuclear facilities out of the reach of Israel’s arsenal, leaving only the US military with the unquestioned ability to destroy Iran’s deeply buried nuclear facilities.
A report by the UN’s nuclear weapons watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) due out soon, is expected to provide evidence of further progress by Iran in expanding its formerly secret uranium enrichment facility known as Fordow, built deep under a mountaintop near the town of Qum. It is immune to attack from all but the most advanced bunker busting bombs in the US arsenal, whose destructive capacity exceeds anything in Israel’s arsenal. Fordow already contains hundreds of advanced centrifuges for producing highly-enriched uranium, which Iran could quickly convert into the raw material for a nuclear weapon.
But others take the statements and actions by Netanyahu and Barak at face value. Having made the case for a unilateral Israeli attack, regardless of the acknowledged risk of failure, they are determined to go forward over the objections of the Obama administration and Israelis with cold feet. They are convinced that Israel has no choice but to try to cripple Iran’s nuclear capacity while it still has the military capacity to do so.
US DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS FAILED
Fears of an Israeli first strike subsided in March, following the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in Washington, and the prospect that increased economic sanctions by the US and its European allies would force Iran to agree to slow down, if not halt, its nuclear program in a new round of EU-led negotiations.
But as we predicted, Iran refused to make any concessions. In addition, the US and Europe have allowed many of Iran’s major international clients to continue their oil imports, albeit with some inconveniences and at a somewhat reduced level.
Iran has decided that it can withstand the economic consequences, and is convinced that Obama lacks the will to take the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program from reaching the next level.
At the same time, Iran has stepped up its threats of dire consequences to both Israel and the West should it be attacked.
Nevertheless, Israel is going forward with public preparations for an attack, although no firm time limit has been specified. Political and weather considerations would indicate that the attack would be launched before the election, probably no later than mid-October. Israeli nuclear weapons experts warn that if the attack is delayed any longer, it might not be able to inflict enough damage to delay the Iranian nuclear program significantly.
OBAMA’S POLITICAL POSITION
To keep the issue from impacting Obama’s re-election campaign, the White House has tried to say as little as possible about the prospect of an Israeli first strike or what it might do after the election should Iran continue its nuclear pursuit.
Obama administration officials say they believe that Israeli leaders are sincere about the need to act quickly, but they do not think Netanyahu has yet made a final decision to strike.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday that, “Israel sees the Iranian threat more seriously than the US sees it, because a nuclear Iran poses a threat to Israel’s very existence. You can take two countries, give them the same intelligence and reach two different conclusions. I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Dempsey also said that he confers regularly on Iran with the Israeli army Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz. “We speak at least once every two weeks, we compare intelligence reports, we discuss the security implications of the events in the region. At the same time, we admit that our clocks are ticking at different paces. We have to understand that the Israelis live with a constant suspicion with which we do not have to deal.”
Another senior US official said of Israel, “They are deadly serious, as is the president (Obama), about the need to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But there has been far too much talking – background leaks and fabrications – that hurt the cause.”
Obama has publicly declared that the United States will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon. He has vowed to use “all options” if need be, but has not set a deadline or spelled out what those options would be.
HOW FAR CAN OBAMA BE TRUSTED?
Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence for the Israeli army, in an op-ed published in the Washington Post, laid out a series of five steps that Obama should take in order to convince Israeli leaders that they could rely on his commitment to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
“Israel cannot afford to outsource its security to another country,” Yadlin wrote. “But if the United States wants Israel to give sanctions and diplomacy more time, Israelis must know that they will not be left high and dry if these options fail.”
First, he said, Obama “should visit Israel and tell its leadership — and, more important, its people — that preventing a nuclear Iran is a US interest, and if we have to resort to military action, we will.”
Other commentators, like Goldberg, agree with Yadlin that an Obama visit to Israel now, during the election campaign, to assure the Israeli people of his support for them against the Iranian nuclear threat, would be the most powerful single thing he could do to restore confidence and alleviate the pressure to launch an attack now.
Other steps that Yadlin recommended included a written notification from Obama to Congress reserving the right to use military force against Iran; an increased US military presence in the Persian Gulf; and a public US commitment to the security of other US allies in the region which oppose Iran.
Yadlin also suggests that the US provide Israel with more advanced military technology and intelligence to make it less vulnerable to the Iranian threat.
WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?
There is a fundamental disagreement between the White House and the Israeli government on where to draw the line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have stated flatly that the US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period.” But it would appear from that statement and others made by administration officials that they are willing to allow Iran to walk right up to that line, including preparing all of the components that would allow Iran to assemble a functioning nuclear weapon in a short period of time — a matter of weeks, or perhaps even few days.
US officials say that American intelligence capabilities would allow them to detect an Iranian effort to put together a bomb out of ready components in time to stop them before they could complete the task.
NO ROOM FOR ERROR
Obama said in March that “we will know that they are making that attempt.” The past 70 years, however, are filled with examples of the US being caught by surprise by the nuclear progress of its potential enemies.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed and tested an atomic bomb in 1949, 4 years before the US expected it to, because its spies had been so successful in stealing US nuclear secrets from the Manhattan Project.
More recently, US intelligence was caught by surprise by India’s nuclear test in 1998. The US was embarrassed in 2003 by its inability to find evidence of an active nuclear weapons program which it believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding. That failure has been offered as one of the reasons why more recent US intelligence estimates of Iran’s nuclear weapons program have been so much more conservative than Israel’s.
The US record in monitoring Iran’s nuclear progress is similarly uninspiring. Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz went entirely undetected for a decade until they were exposed by an announcement by an Iranian dissident group in 2002. Since then, there have been recurring reports in the media about how US nuclear weapons experts have been “surprised” by the amount of progress the Iranians have made in their nuclear program. Now that the Iranians are busy moving those nuclear facilities deep underground, it is not at all clear why the US is so confident it can keep track of their progress, or detect an Iranian “break out” attempt to quickly finish their nuclear weapon in time to prevent them from achieving their goal.
One thing is certain. With Iran so close to its goal, there is no room for error. Once the Iranian nuclear genie breaks free, it will be all but impossible for the US or anyone else to put it back into the bottle.
Obama’s stated goal is to prevent Iran from “developing a nuclear weapon,” but Netanyahu and Barak say that Israel’s security demands that Iran be denied a “nuclear-weapons capability.” The difference between the two is crucial.
THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR BLACKMAIL
Israel believes that once Iran has enough fissionable material and weapons technology to build a bomb, then it will be able to use that capability to carry out nuclear blackmail even without an actual weapon in hand. Iran’s leaders would then be free to use their credible nuclear deterrent to protect its terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah or to threaten the Gulf states supporting the effort to overthrow Iran’s key ally in the region, Syrian President Bashar Assad. As Ehud Barak has often said, while an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be very difficult, Israel would find itself in a much more difficult security position once Iran achieves a nuclear capability. For example, its leaders would be forced to think twice before retaliating to another Hezbollah missile attack from Lebanon, or even one of the Iranian-sponsored terror groups operating in Gaza.
Friends of Israel in Congress understand this difference, which is why it passed a 2010 sanctions law which committed the US to doing “everything possible . . . to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.” But the Obama administration has not yet adopted that position. Even though Obama has publicly said that containment of an Iranian nuclear threat is not an option, his policy does not reflect such a determination.
The White House likes to say that its commitment to halting the Iranian nuclear program is tough and unequivocal, but it seems to be willing to tolerate an Iranian nuclear capability as long as nuclear tipped missiles capable of reaching Israel aren’t paraded through downtown Teheran. It appears that Obama’s top priority is to avoid any confrontation with Iran between now and Election Day, even if that means bullying Israel into waiting longer to strike than its leaders feel is safe.
ROMNEY BLASTS OBAMA FOR IRAN POLICY FAILURES
The reason why Iran’s leaders do not believe Obama’s half-hearted threats of military action against its nuclear facilities is clear. His foreign policy is based upon the conviction that , “the tide of war is receding,” and he is content to allow Syria to burn and Iraq and Afghanistan to slide back under the influence of Islamic terrorists while he systematically removes US military forces from the region.
Obama’s GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, blasted the president for his failure to prevent Iran’s “genocidal regime from obtaining nuclear weapons capability,” deliberately seconding the Israeli demand on US policy.”
Romney called Ahmadinejad’s latest threat against Israel “outrageous. . . As I said recently when visiting Jerusalem, ‘We have seen the horrors of history. We will not stand by. We will not watch them play out again’.”
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that Ahmadinejad has been spewing such hatred against Israel for years, and that, “the Obama Administration wasted precious time during some of those years trying to reason with the ayatollahs and it delayed for too long in imposing sanctions that would truly bite. Now, as Iran marches forward in its race to gain the capability to build a nuclear bomb, we find ourselves in need of strong leadership in the White House. We don’t have that leadership now.”
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE SANCTIONS?
The United States argues that there is still time for sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran to halt its effort to build a nuclear weapon.
Obama claims that Iran has been internationally isolated and economically crippled by the latest rounds of US and European sanctions, and just needs more time to come to its senses and abandon its nuclear program. This line has been promoted by a stream of top Obama administration officials who went to Israel this summer to deliver US warnings that any attack on Iran now would be dangerous, premature and unnecessary.
But according David Feith, the son of a Bush administration undersecretary of defense, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Iran is not suffering much from the sanctions. Neither is it in a hurry to comply with Western demands in order to get them lifted, nor does it believe that Obama will allow Israel to attack its now, regardless of how much its leaders may want to.
The economic sanctions imposed upon Iran over the past year have been much harsher than previous slaps on the wrist from the UN Security Council, but they are not yet economically crippling. The Iranian rial has lost half its value over that period and Iran’s oil exports have been cut by about half. But Iran still has an estimated $60 billion to $100 billion in foreign currency reserves to help it ride out the storm.
Because of the economic impact of the sanctions, Iran’s already unpopular government has had to deal with the impact of an inflation rate that is above 20%, and a 13% unemployment rate. That is no worse than some of the economies in southern Europe today and poses no immediate threat to the continued hold of Iran’s Islamic regime over its people.
The reality is that the sanctions have had a limited impact, and waivers granted by the Obama administration to many of Iran’s primary oil clients has weakened them even further.
When friends of Israel in Congress reacted to reports by the IAEA last year of the discovery of new evidence that Iran was building a nuclear weapon by drawing up harsh sanctions on Iran’s central bank for the first time, the White House initially opposed the effort. But after the Senate endorsed the proposal by a 100-0 vote, the administration dropped its open opposition, and focused on writing loopholes into the law before final passage to give them a way out of enforcing them.
One of those loopholes has allowed the State Department to exempt all 20 of Iran’s major international oil clients from the sanctions based upon its determination that they each had “significantly reduced” their imports of Iranian oil. The problem is that the provision does not include hard and fast definition of what amounts to a “significant reduction.” Japan earned an exemption by cutting its imports by 22%. China has been playing its own games on the issue, cutting its overall imports by 25% from January to May, and then increasing them again by 35% over the past two months, after Iran cut its price. India earned its exemption by cutting its imports by only 11%.
President Obama said in March that “the world is as united as we’ve ever seen it around the need for Iran to take a different path on its nuclear program.” Yet countries like China, India, Japan continue to conduct business as usual with Iran, especially when the price is right.
GETTING AROUND THE SANCTIONS
The new financial restrictions on Iran’s oil deals have turned out to be a minor inconvenience. Those with a thirst for cheap Iranian oil have gotten around the international banking restrictions by bartering rice and steel for oil.
Last year, China, South Korea, Japan and India bought about 1.4 million barrels a day from Iran, a little more than half of its daily exports of 2.5 million barrels. One third of Iran’s oil went to Europe.
So far, Iranian oil cut off by the sanctions has been easily replaced by new wells coming on line in Iraq and Libya, and the oil shale regions of the United States, and increased production by Saudi Arabia.
The European Union’s sanctions on Iranian oil went into effect on July 1, and the new US trade and financial sanctions became effective on June 28.
BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR IRAN’S ASIAN FRIENDS
Iran has also found a way to get around the latest trade impediment, a ban on insurance coverage for tankers carrying its oil by the major London-based maritime insurance agencies. Instead Iran and its trading partners are now self-insuring the ships.
As a result, Iran’s oil exports to Asia are set to rise 19 percent this month after India and China agreed to insure the tankers. At least 16 tankers which took on oil at Iranian terminals will deliver their cargoes to Asian destinations by the end of August. South Korea’s biggest oil refiner said last week it will resume importing Iranian crude in September, and the first Indian- insured tanker loaded up at an Iranian oil terminal this week.
In yet another embarrassment for the US, President Obama announced last week that he is extending sanctions to one of the biggest banks in Iraq for helping Iran to get around the international financial restrictions imposed on its central bank.
BETRAYAL BY IRAQ
According to those tracking Iran’s international financial dealings, the Elaf Islamic Bank, is only part of a network of Iraqi financial institutions which have evaded or ignored sanctions to provide Iran with billions of dollars at a time when its economy is being squeezed. The reaction of the Iraqi government, under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to Obama’s announcement suggests that not only has it looked the other way while Iraqi companies and individuals circumvent the sanctions but it has also refused to enforce the penalties for noncompliance.
Even after Obama named Elaf Islamic Bank as a sanctions violator, Iraq’s Central Bank allowed it to participate in a daily auction at which it could sell Iraqi dinars for US dollars. This allows the bank’s Iranian customers to gain access to large amounts of dollars and then move them through regional financial centers into the international banking system.
Just as blood is thicker than water, Iranian oil is apparently thicker than compliance with US and European oil and financial sanctions. Thus, in the sphere of international trade and finance, Iran is not nearly as “isolated” as Obama would like us to believe.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story