Analysis: The military option is now on the table

The growing US-Russia rift explains the difficulty in forging a solid int'l front against Teheran.

October 19, 2007 00:29
4 minute read.
fighter jets airborne 88

fighter jets 88. (photo credit: )

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sat in a green-gilded room in the Kremlin on October 18 and told Russian President Vladimir Putin the Iranians needed to fear that if they continued with their nuclear march, "something will happen to them that they don't want." Putin listened. That was on October 18, 2006. Exactly a year later, one during which - in the words of former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh - the diplomats talked and the Iranian centrifuges spun, Olmert was back in the Kremlin. In the intervening 365 days the Iranians continued to press on with their nuclear plans as the world fiddled with diplomacy and as Russian-US tensions soared to levels not felt in years. The growing Washington-Moscow rift is not an insignificant factor in explaining the difficulty in forging a solid international front against Teheran. The urgent manner in which Olmert dropped everything and jetted off to Moscow Thursday for a three-hour meeting with Putin indicates that Israel has changed phases. It has gone from treating the Iranian problem as an international one, that the world has to deal with, to taking steps indicating that it sees it increasingly as an Israeli problem, that might necessitate an Israeli solution. Olmert could have shrouded his visit to Moscow on Thursday in complete darkness. He very easily could have disappeared for a few hours, as he has done in the past when he reportedly met Saudi officials in Jordan, gone to Russia, returned for a late dinner, and no one would have known the difference. But he didn't. The Prime Minister's Office made a conscious decision to alert the press to the visit, and it did so just 24 hours prior to the trip, creating an air of drama and adding to the excitement. While Olmert, at his October 2006 meeting with Putin, said the issue of military action was not raised, it is safe to assume that it was raised - and how - during Thursday's meeting, most of which was held in private. Nobody is tiptoeing around the possibility of military action against Iran any more. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner raised the possibility of war a few weeks ago. Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown didn't rule anything out in comments he made in October, and US President George W. Bush said Wednesday a nuclear Iran could trigger World War III. Putin, for his part, warned against a military attack on Iran during his recent visit there. Israel's raid on an alleged nuclear installation in Syria last month was widely interpreted as a clear message to the Iranians. The military option is not only out there, but is now very much a part of the discourse. While details of Thursday's meeting were obviously sparse, certain assumptions can be made. The first is that the Russians do not need any more information about what the Iranians are doing. The hesitancy of Russia, and China as well, to join the US and France in full-court sanctions against the Iranian program is not because they need to be convinced that the Iranians are interested in nuclear arms. Regardless of comments Putin made in Iran that there was no concrete evidence Teheran is after nuclear weapons (what else was he going to say during the first visit by a Russian leader in more than 60 years), the former KGB man knows full well what the Iranians want. Israel should not delude itself into thinking, therefore, that all it will take is for Olmert to sit down with Putin and show him the facts. Putin knows the facts, and the problem is not with Moscow's intel. The problem is with Russia's own interpretation of its interests. While Russia knows what Iran is after, the Russians also see it in their geopolitical interest to stand opposed to the US. They have a huge economic interest in not slapping sanctions on Iran, and they have a neighborhood interest in maintaining good relations in the Caspian basin with Iran. Olmert didn't go to Russia to convince Putin; he went to underscore Israel's sense of urgency in taking real action now. This was necessary because as discussions about a third round of sanctions in the United Nations Security Council drag on, diplomatic momentum is waning. It is safe to assume that Olmert discussed with Putin the remaining options if the New York-based UN track fails, just as the International Atomic Energy Agency track failed before that. But in addition to sending a message to Putin, Olmert also wanted to hear something in return. He wanted to know what deal Putin offered Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, during their meeting on Wednesday. According to media reports, Putin proposed a new way to end the standoff during the meeting, though no details were provided. Israel is keen on getting a handle on those details, as this could conceivably represent one of the last chances to stop Iran through nonmilitary means.

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