david horovitz 224.88.
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It is probably unwise to overly analyze vague remarks casually made by politicians at glitzy receptions and fundraisers. But when the man doing the remarking is the leader of the free world, the subject matter is Iran, and the comments seem to have shifted a little over the months, they may be worth noting.
Two individuals told me at the very beginning of this calendar year that, in response to praise from guests at a White House reception for his firm position on Iraq, President George Bush said he intended to "take care" of Iran as well. But asked at a fundraiser much more recently how he planned to tackle Iran's drive to a nuclear capability, the US president was markedly less definitive, now saying only "we'll see."
In his interview with The Jerusalem Post early this month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed categorical confidence that Bush would thwart Teheran one way or another. But Bush is being dragged through the mud at home as casualties mount in Iraq; his popularity is low; his party is facing heavy midterm electoral losses.
I was in the United States last week, and when I reminded several Jewish audiences of our prime minister's public faith in their president's capacity and intention to stop Iran, I was met only very occasionally with nods of agreement. The more common responses ranged from heavy skepticism to outright ridicule. "That's just not going to happen," said a wise Washington insider with half a lifetime's experience in the US capital, a man whose opinions I respect in part because he is usually so much more reticent in giving them.
Even a majority of US Jews would rather Bush not intervene militarily to prevent Iran getting the bomb, according to a new American Jewish Committee poll reported in the Post this week. (Charmingly, the survey indicated, a majority of similar proportions would back Israel taking military measures for the same goal.)
And it may be that Olmert, too, is coming to doubt the degree to which he can afford to rely on the US president's undoubted good intentions. After all, the prime minister was uncharacteristically outspoken on the issue during his recent trip to Russia, warning the Iranians that "something will happen to them that they don't want" if they proceeded with their nuclear program, stressing that Israel could not reconcile itself to a nuclear Teheran, and speaking of there coming "a time when you have to do damage control."
With President Vladimir Putin alongside him, Olmert declared that "Israel does not have the luxury to allow the creation of a situation where a country like Iran has nonconventional potential. Israel can never abide this type of situation. For us, when the head of a country says he wants to destroy us, it does not sound like an empty declaration, but something we must prepare to prevent through all acceptable and possible ways."
If rhetoric is our guide, there is no question as to what our newest incoming minister Avigdor Lieberman, the man curiously awarded cabinet responsibility for "strategizing" on the Iranian nuclear threat, would advocate to deter the ayatollahs. (Quite how Lieberman's responsibilities on the subject interact with those of such minor cabinet players as our ministers of defense and of foreign affairs is anyone's guess...)
In an interview here ahead of the elections, Lieberman lamented the loss of Israel's deterrent capability on every frontier. He advocated that Hamas and other terror groups be warned that, if they dared carry out a further terror attack, "Every factory, every headquarters, every base, every office of theirs, we just wipe them out," and that the threat be implemented if the warning went unheeded. He was speaking about bombing Teheran as far back as 2001.
MILITARY INTERVENTION is not a good option for Israel. The only thing worse, as the increasingly well-worn truism has it, would be inaction and a nuclear Iran.
But the international community is hopelessly dragging its feet over meaningful sanctions. ("Reports from Iran do not indicate a real threat to peace and security," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reassured us all the other day.) And with time running out on the always faint possibility of domestic dissent unseating the regime, the stark choice is looking increasingly inescapable: It's a case of tackle Teheran or face A-bomb Ahmadinejad. The Chinas and Russias, who have resisted concerted diplomatic and economic measures with their determined softly-softly approach, in a misconceived assessment of their own self-interest, are closing the door on anything else.
As he has watched North Korea blithely ignore international bleatings and proceed inexorably toward the bomb, the Iranian president has seen absolutely nothing that would deter him from holding to the same course. Indeed, on Wednesday, Teheran delightedly announced the establishment of a second network of uranium-enrichment centrifuges, days after Ahmadinejad had hailed the tenfold expansion of his nuclear program over the past year, shrugged off the UN Security Council as "illegitimate," and asserted that Israel had "lost the reason for its existence" and would "disappear."
If the Bush administration is unwilling or incapable of acting to stop him, then the choice will rest with Israel - by no means the only goal of Ahmadinejad's ambitions, but certainly his initial potential target.
Incidentally, as James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, pointed out to me last week, there is nothing to stop a nuclear North Korea simply flying in a bomb at Teheran's behest. The necessary materiel is neither bulky nor especially difficult to transport, he noted, and there's nobody checking the cargoes flying back and forth between the two countries.
THE AYATOLLAHS' nuclear program is, unfortunately, no Osirak. There's no single facility that, if destroyed, utterly cripples the effort. The installations are numerous and well-protected. There's expertise to correct any damage done, raw materials to restart affected processes. And there are all those global tentacles of terror to strike back at any attacker.
What of the consequences of not stopping Iran? The regime could wreak havoc without ever pressing the button, abusing the terrifying clout it would muster in the Middle East and beyond, not to mention prompting a regional arms race, as other nations rushed to strengthen themselves and even the playing field.
Already, Ahmadinejad's very pursuit of the bomb, combined with his relentless assertions that Israel will soon be swept aside, have reversed the process under which Middle Eastern regimes and their peoples, however grudgingly, were gradually coming to terms with the fact of Israel's permanence. The notion of destroying Israel, reduced to a dream or dismissed altogether, is again now widely regarded as feasible, even realistic.
Given the perceived religious imperatives of Teheran's fundamentalist Islamic leaders, would they aim for Israel and press the button? Would the prospect of "mutually assured destruction" stay their empowered hands, or do the ayatollahs share what former National Security Council director Giora Eiland has argued in these pages is Ahmadinejad's readiness to sacrifice half his country to destroy ours?
Still more chillingly, what would deter them from covertly supplying their nuclear capability, carefully concealing their culpability, to one of the innumerable terrorist organizations they encourage, fund and arm? Suicide bombers and their dispatchers, unlike nation states, have nothing to fear from a sovereign enemy's second-strike capability.
A much-admired IDF major-general (res.) this week suggested to me that, if all else failed, a limited Israeli air assault on Iran - not necessarily focused on the nuclear facilities - might "signal" to the leadership there that Israel means what Olmert says about not being able to "reconcile" itself to a nuclear Iran. A bitter hint of much worse to come, he said, might prove sobering. It would be a high-risk strategy, he acknowledged, and he wasn't sure, he added in response to my next question, that Israel had a leadership capable of implementing it.
But amid President Bush's troubles back home, is the co-option to the Israeli cabinet of Avigdor Lieberman, and that curious job-title he's been given, itself a first, small signal to Teheran?