Analysis: Shadow boxing with Iran

Herzliya conference participants tried to outflank the clich that time is running out.

bibi global dinner 88 29 (photo credit: Ben Gurion Airport Photographers)
bibi global dinner 88 29
(photo credit: Ben Gurion Airport Photographers)
All six Herzliya conferences to date have dealt extensively with the Iranian threat, but as the founder-chairman of the conference, Prof. Uzi Arad, says, "In the past we took care to amplify the issue and explain why it's more serious than all the other threats around. This year, we're getting close to the tachlis (practical details)." That seemed to be the thread running through all the lectures on the subject, with each participant trying outflank the clich that time is running out. Original neo-con Richard Perle, now of the American Enterprise Institute, went straight to the point when he pointed to the stopwatch limiting each speaker's time. "Whose time is over, ours or Iran's?" he asked. The speakers were equally divided between Americans and Israeli, and they all were singing from the same hymn-sheet: There's no time to waste anymore dissecting the Iranians' ideology and intentions, there are no more question marks. Everyone seemed to be echoing Binyamin Netanyahu's now familiar refrain, "It's 1938, Iran is Germany, and it's arming itself with nuclear weapons." Perhaps it was the choice of speakers, but there seemed to be very little variation in the overall message. It began with the modulated diplomatic tones of US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, who, without actually saying how, assured that under no circumstance would the US allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, rising in pitch and decibels to the crescendos of Perle and Maj.- Gen. (res.) Prof. Itzik Ben-Yisrael, who left few illusions that the US and Israel would soon be launching their attacks. But the consensus that Iran is well on its way to the bomb turned out to be less clear-cut than most newspaper headlines would lead you to believe. Gary Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who analyzed the advances being made in Iran on the various fronts necessary for reaching full weapons capability, concluded that it was still quite a few more years off. Not the usual scare that they're all but there, and no one contradicted him. In a rare public appearance, Ariel Levite, deputy director-general of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, spoke about 2011 as the estimated end of the current nuclear age. So why all this sudden urgency? Perhaps the most important message that underlined the lectures was it doesn't really matter all that much when Iran actually reaches the point when it can arm a Shihab-3 with a nuclear warhead. As Prof. Paul Bracken of Yale University said, "You don't have to detonate a nuclear weapon to use it. North Korea has been using nuclear weapons for year, that's how it's got more foreign aid than any country in Africa." There's a lot Iran can do without actually firing a nuclear missile, without even having a complete weapon. "We might have a few more years," said Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, head of the political-military department at the Defense Ministry, but "there are also psychological events. The Iranian president can announce a major advance and it will have a huge influence over the Middle East. "For decades, the Arab countries thought we have a nuclear weapon and knew they couldn't beat Israel, so there was no coalition forming against us. The Iranians could create a belief that they can beat us, and under their umbrella create an axis that will destabilize the Middle East." Dr. Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who set out the various courses of action open to the US and Israel, recommended a much larger investment in antimissile defenses, not only to defend America and its allies from actual attack but also from any use of nuclear blackmail. To different degrees, all the speakers made it clear that while diplomatic options still have to be used, they are no longer nearly enough. Even Burns, from behind his silk glove of diplomacy, acknowledged that efforts so far had only left Iran emboldened. "It has to learn to respect the power of the international security." he said. And there don't seem to be too many ways to teach them that respect. The previously fashionable solution of regime change hasn't gone away, but it will take too long. As Bracken said, "It's probably true that globalization will take care of the regime in Iran, but that's not good advice to give a US president, that there will be democracy in Iran by 2300." Perle didn't mince words. "Iran with nuclear weapons will not be that easily deterred or detained. The threat to destroy a large civilian population in a second-strike is not an easy threat to make, and anyway, by then it's too late. So when will Iran have a nuclear weapon? You can't wait for all the evidence to take a decision." His solution was clear: "Precision attacks to critically damage the nuclear facilities, efficiently and quickly. B-2 bombers and cruise missiles can carry it out. Israel will have to do it if it's clear that there is a existential threat. Israel must do it and this president will join in. We have to make sure we don't fail, the worst thing would be a failed effort. "If he is told on his last day in office that this is the point of no return and if you don't [act] you will have been the president to allow Iran to go nuclear, he will give the order."