Opinion: Splitting Atomic Hairs

Radiation Warning Symbol. Public Domain.

Despite the intense media speculation on what Israel will do about Iran’s nuclear program—will they attack militarily and if so, when?—the reality is that Israel and its allies are keeping their actual plans close to the vest. No one really knows. They are dropping some small hints and painting a corner of the picture publicly, but one really has to pay attention.

The only way to figure out how Israel and the West plan to curb Iran’s efforts to split atoms is to split hairs.

Detail No. 1—Israel’s Timeframe

A small detail likely missed from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Iran at the United Nations is that he not only implied that there is still time to handle the Iranian crisis diplomatically, he outlined at a timeframe. In discussing how far Iran has come towards a nuclear weapon, he said the second stage of nuclear fuel enrichment is where the West needs to draw its red line.

He argued they cannot allow Iran to finish that second-stage process for enough enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, which then could be further enriched to weapon’s grade in a few months or less.

In describing this red line, he noted that Iran will finish this stage by “next spring, at most by next summer.” In other words, it’s closing in on that red line—but it’s not there yet. In fact, depending on how close to the red line is acceptable, Iran might be still months and months away from reaching it.

Netanyahu’s need to portray urgency but not make it sound helpless are twofold: On the one hand, he needs the West to ramp up its rhetoric, sanctions and military preparations to convince Iran to stop, and soon. On the other hand, he doesn’t want the West to presume that it’s too late for that and Israel is going to do their dirty work for them. So there’s a balancing act to portray that there’s still time, but not much.

As a result, it does indeed look as though Israel might be willing to hold back until at least next spring on a military strike on Iran, and perhaps even longer if the West can somehow slow down Tehran’s nuclear progress. In other words, there’s still time for the West to act non-militarily, it just needs to do it now.

Detail No. 2—the West’s Non-Response

The lack of a public rejection of Netanyahu’s red lines is interesting. Just recently the US and Israel got into a public dispute over whether or not red lines are helpful. But when offered the chance to do so again, the US has basically dodged the question. It’s not simply election-year politics at work here. Europe also is quieter this time than they were previously.

Perhaps the leaks of private leader-to-leader talks just haven’t hit the media yet, but it appears that while the West isn’t embracing Netanyahu’s call for red lines, they are allowing Israel to play the snarling attack dog at this point. The West isn’t prepped to go as far as Netanyahu believes is necessary, but they look to see some value in letting the Israeli threat play out against Iran.

Essentially, Israel’s rhetoric and the West’s silence raises a question in Tehran—how close is the West to actually acting on Israel’s concerns? And might it come as a surprise? The threat is there, even if it’s implied. That’s probably not enough to make Iran pause or decide to negotiate. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

Detail No. 3—the West’s Response

The actual West response in recent weeks has been to discuss new sanctions on Iran. For Europe that’s intriguing since the harshest ones to date only took effect in July. It shows that Europe’s cautious approach to the matter is coming to an end. They realize something needs to be done, and done soon.

It’s unclear if they’re ready to go far enough, unless the next round of sanctions is truly blistering. But at least they’re moving. Again, it’s a faint hope, but it’s still hope.

For the US, they too have not gone far enough yet. There is a need to place more ominous military units in the region—such as additional bombers—and setting a red line would put Iran in a true corner. That being said, at least they aren’t yet resorting to the anti-war rhetoric of the last couple months that effectively undermined Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis Iran.

And the way they did move last week was quite interesting.

Detail No. 4—The MEK

The US this past week announced they have removed the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (known as the MEK or MKO) from their terror list. The step is eye-catching since the MEK has attacked Americans in the past. But what’s really fascinating is that this group is suspected of terrorism in Iran.

The Americans’ timing was in part mandated by a legal deadline to make a decision on the MEK’s status by October 1. But the decision to actually de-list the MEK may have been a subtle threat to Iran.

The Fars News Agency reported that Iran was not happy about the move. And considering that the MEK has been suspected of terror attacks in Iran, that makes sense. Yet it’s the media reports the MEK may have helped Israel and the West by assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist that really stand out.

The removal from the terror list means that Americans can now more easily fund and support the MEK. In other words, private US money can be put towards a group that could be part of the clandestine efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

That’s a subtle, but potentially real threat to Iran. The US is effectively saying that the covert operations against Tehran are from over. Instead, they might be ramping up.

Now, it’s true that an American senior official who spoke to reporters about the MEK said the US believes the MEK’s renunciation of terrorism to be “credible,” according to transcript released by the State Department. The official said the MEK has not committed a “confirmed” act of terrorism in over a decade, and said the US has never said that the MEK was behind the assassination of Iranian scientists.

Despite all that, what Iran thinks about the MEK is more important than what the US says about them. If Iran believes the MEK is dangerous, they will view this step as more of a threat from the US. Again, it’s subtle, and the US is even downplaying it, but it’s still a message.

So while it’s not a red line, an implied military threat or even a new sanction—all of which are needed at this point—it’s another indication that the US, like Europe, see the need to do more. Will it be enough in time?

The Conclusion

The details in the current news reports on Iran are easy to miss and might very well not be in line with what’s really going on behind the scenes. Smokescreens are an essential part of politics and war. But so far it appears that all the major players have an interest in hinting publicly at their intentions. This enables them to send messages to the different sides as part of this nuclear chess match.

So Israel is trying to urge the West to do more without implying it’s hopeless and offering to “save the day.” Europe is trying to nudge Iran into at least some small concessions to buy more time. And the US is trying to make threats, without making them loudly, in an effort to do the same thing.

The danger is that the West will be too subtle, too implied and too cautious in their approach—and then it will be too late.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com), September 30, 2012)