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US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen was here yesterday on the first such visit in years from America's top general. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive soon, preceding President George W. Bush's first visit to Israel as president next month. In addition, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates just made headlines with his defense of Israel's reported possession of nuclear weapons.
This whirl of activity seems connected with the recent release of the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which claims "moderate confidence" that Iran has ceased its nuclear weapons program. The dramatic reversal of the US position - after claiming as late as January this year that Iran was "determined" to build a bomb - is widely understood as taking any US military option toward Iran off the table. This would leave Israel, in the event that sanctions are not effective against Iran, facing a possible existential threat from Teheran alone.
Hence the string of visits and speech - an exercise in hand-holding. Bush, Rice, Gates and Mullen have all emphasized in recent days that Iran remains a serious threat, that sanctions must be tightened, and that the NIE should not be misinterpreted.
Speaking on Saturday in Manama, Bahrain, Gates pointed out that the same NIE that Iran has joyfully embraced also described Iran's "continued research and development of medium-range ballistic missiles that are not particularly cost-effective unless equipped with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction."
"Everywhere you turn," Gates continued, "it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing."
Gates concludes that the international community must "intensify" its "economic, financial and diplomatic pressures on Iran to suspend enrichment and to agree to verifiable arrangements that can prevent that country from resuming its nuclear weapons program at a moment's notice."
It is not possible, however, to sound and turn off the alarm at the same time. If the US indeed wants sanctions to be intensified, it must undo the self-inflicted damage it has caused to its own diplomacy. It is not enough to say that Iran is "still dangerous," as Bush and his team have been doing. Rather, the NIE's bizarre attempt to distinguish between Iran's "military" and "civilian" nuclear program must be effectively reversed.
In his own response, Bush started to do this by pointing out the obvious, as the NIE itself did: that achieving the ability to reliably enrich uranium is the key hurdle en route to building a bomb, and Iran is desperately working, in defiance of the international community, to overcome it. In other words, the Iranians' "civilian" enrichment program is fundamentally military in nature, and their race to build a bomb, therefore, does not have to be "resumed." It is continuing right now.
The Bush administration, if it is to achieve its declared policy goal of increasing pressure on Iran, must find a way to drive this point home, as difficult as this has become following the NIE's twisted analysis. Israel, for its part, needs to issue the equivalent of its own NIE, in whatever form, restating the largely agreed-upon facts: Iran has and continues to single-mindedly pursue nuclear weapons and is doing so overtly and perhaps also covertly.
Further, both the US and Israel need to do a better job of explaining that the Iranian threat does not begin with, nor is it limited to, the prospect of obtaining and using a nuclear weapon. As Gates began to point out in Manama, Iran has been destabilizing governments through terrorism for decades and can be expected to greatly expand its campaign of proxy aggression if it enjoys nuclear-backed immunity. Without ever detonating a nuclear weapon, Iran could wreak havoc both in terms of international security and the world economy.
For some time, Israel has tried to keep a somewhat low profile on the Iranian issue, in the hopes that the world would act appropriately on its own. This reticence may have been misinterpreted as a lack of urgency on Israel's part. And if Israel sees no urgency, why should any other country? This impression needs to be corrected quickly, or the year ahead will be marked by Iranian advances rather than by increasing pressure on the world's most dangerous terrorist regime.
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