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If this year's Herzliya Conference is any indication, the Israeli establishment, though reeling from one political scandal to another, has only one thing on its mind: Iran.
Panel after panel declaimed, ad nauseum, the "existential threat" emanating from the "messianic totalitarian" government in Teheran. Cabinet ministers, IDF representatives, the usual cadre of former generals, policy analysts and even the handful of ex-Mossad officials discussed both openly and privately the nuclear threat, its geo-strategic and psychological implications and methods for its removal.
And, apart from initial remarks relating to President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert devoted his entire address at the close of the conference to this topic.
The focus on Iran was not unique to the Israelis present, however. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns came to Herzliya this week to tell attendees that the Iranian threat "may be the most important challenge that we face today."
Thomas Pickering, who used to hold Burns's job, warned that "nuclear proliferation is indeed the characteristic of this nuclear age and its major problem."
Peter MacKay, Canada's Foreign Minister, asserted that his country "is deeply concerned about Iran," insisting that "Teheran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons."
So it went with German parliamentarians, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Canadian Opposition MP and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and others.
All of which begs the obvious question: What - specifically - does the Israeli security establishment, and those Americans and other foreigners attending the conference, believe can and should be done about it?
All agreed that the threat from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government was real and immediate. According to renowned Princeton Scholar of Islamic History professor Bernard Lewis, "Ahmadinejad truly believes in the apocalyptic message he is bringing [of the imminent return of the Messianic Mahdi]. This makes him very dangerous. 'Mutually Assured Destruction' is not a deterrent, but an inducement to him."
In addition, according to Haifa University's Dr. Dan Schueftan, a highly regarded expert on Israeli security issues, a "Shi'ite bomb" would lead the Sunni Arab states to build their own "Sunni bomb," turning the conflict-ridden Middle East into an unmanageable and spectacularly more dangerous environment.
Yet there are good reasons to be extremely wary of any Western strike meant to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. According to Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center analyst Shmuel Bar, who served in the Israeli intelligence community for three decades, an American strike would trigger the Iranian regime's primordial survival impulse. This would almost certainly result in a full-scale Iranian assault on Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields, in an attempt to exact a price that would dissuade the West from carrying its assault to the point of regime change, he told The Jerusalem Post.
In addition, there is a "real danger" that the Iranian regime could instigate labor strikes among the Shi'ites of southern Iraq, said Dr. Ian Bremer, president of the risk consultancy firm, Eurasia Group. This could drop oil production from over a million barrels per day, "even to zero for short periods of time," he warned.
Furthermore, as several analysts pointed out, any strike that was not dramatic enough to bring down the regime and discredit Ahmadinejad outright would trigger a surge of popular support for Ahmadinejad's faction in the regime, giving him a decisive advantage in the complex power struggles that characterize Iranian politics.
For all these reasons, Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that "regarding Iran, the majority of US diplomatic analysis advances deterrents and not prevention. If Israel was not focusing on prevention, the US policy elite would slide into deterrents and the focus would be on Israel and not Iran."
Indeed, many spoke of - and reflected in their own views - an American preference for encouraging regime change.
"Ahmadinejad has alienated many Iranians, and even the leader Khamenei is beginning to think of him as a liability," Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post. "Six months ago the Iranians were proud their country was seen as a leader [of the Muslim world] even in the Sunni Arab street. Today, he's being publicly criticized for bringing about the UN resolutions [criticizing Iran's nuclear program]," he explained, adding that the Iranian government "may feel it is in their interest to jettison this lightning rod for criticism."
Asked how he understood the recent deployment of two US Navy aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, and whether this signaled an American preparation for an assault on Iran, conference chairman Uzi Arad, who is a former head of Mossad intelligence, told the Post: "I asked some American friends about that."
These "friends" admonished him "not to be so ethnocentric," he said with a smile. "America has one or two interests in the Middle East besides protecting Israel," he added, and the American deployment was meant fully to calm a few frayed nerves among American allies in the Persian Gulf.
Most Herzliya Conference attendees, however, did not see regime change as a likely outcome of international pressure, and predicted an utter failure of the diplomatic initiative. They pointed to the recent naval deployment as a sign that this perspective was shared by the Bush administration.
As Bar explained to the conference, Ahmadinejad was unlikely to fall due to international criticism, because the Revolutionary Guard section of the regime that he heads controls some 30 percent of Iran's economy "and all the guns."
One veteran analyst told the Post that while Arad may have good friends in the civilian intelligence community, the Bush administration relies on the Defense Department for strategic planning.
SEVERAL OBSERVERS at Herzliya assessed the American administration's intentions with a sense that the deployment in the Gulf had a broader purpose.
"I smell the fog of war," said Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, former chief strategic analyst in the IDF's intelligence directorate, summing up the feelings of others who refused to go on record.
Burns himself noted that "Iran, through its policies, has caused a severe reaction throughout the United States, which has since caused an increase in the US's seeking out intelligence and paramilitary information regarding the state."
He even declared from the podium that "Iran is no longer on the offensive, but is rather on the defensive."
Was this a hint that Iran's enemies were on the offensive? And what did Olmert mean when he asserted Israel's "right to full freedom of action" and declared that there is a moment when "none of the rules of standard diplomacy are relevant"?
The preparation for a US or Israeli strike on Iran, both in military-logistic terms and diplomatically and psychologically, is moving forward.
In the words of Bremer: "There are two clocks ticking," that of regime reform or change, and that of the Iranian regime's race to acquire a nuclear weapon.
The general consensus at Herzliya was that if the latter is perceived in the West as outpacing the former, an overwhelming military strike by the US, despite the terrible risks involved, will become inevitable.