The International Atomic Energy Agency is set to release a new report this week that, by all accounts, will provide more detailed information than ever before about alleged Iranian work to militarize its nuclear research program. Iran has for its part dismissed the report even before it was issued as “forgeries similar to faked notes,” and warning that it’s all just a rehash of the so-called Green Salt documents that have been behind IAEA reports for the past several years. But others say that the November IAEA report could be a game-changer that ratchets up international pressure on Iran. And, even if there’s nothing new, the rumors have still triggered yet another round of reports that Israel is planning to launch a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The IAEA report is certain to cause a storm of controversy. It isn’t clear, however, if the IAEA has genuinely new information to report, or whether it simply plans to elaborate on evidence it’s had since 2004. At least one new wrinkle, though, is almost guaranteed to revive memories of the flawed and fabricated intelligence about what turned out to be a nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program, namely, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 testimony to the United Nations Security Council, in which he revealed photographs of what he said were mobile biological weapons labs that turned out to be bogus. In this case, according to the Washington Post, the IAEA has “acquired satellite photos of a bus-size steel container” used to field test “the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.”
In Washington, there’s a moderately heightened level of worry that Israel, this time, might actually be ready to carry out an attack, but most analysts believe that the saber-rattling in Jerusalem is yet another effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take advantage of the new IAEA report by creating conditions for yet tougher sanctions on Iran. For two decades, the whole issue has been a propaganda gold mine. Like clockwork, each year since 2004, there have been regular predictions that Iran was just a year or so removed from deploying an atomic bomb, yet no bomb exists. Similarly, there has been a steady drumbeat of reports over the same period that either Israel or the United States was just months away from a military strike against Iran.
Is it different this time? At least one report, by CNN, quoted a senior U.S. Pentagon official saying that the United States is “absolutely” concerned that Israel might be preparing to go to war against Iran, and previously ironclad assurances by Israel that it wouldn’t carry out such an attack without informing the United States are being questioned. “Now that doesn’t seem so ironclad,” a Department of Defense official told CNN.
Over the past four years, both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have told the Israelis, in no uncertain terms, that an attack on Iran is unacceptable to Washington. Top U.S. military leaders, including most notably just-retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, have personally delivered the same message to Israeli military commanders. That’s because an attack by Israel against Iran would inevitably draw the United States into the war, and the conflict would likely spread as Iran struck back against the United States, Israel, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, either directly or through proxies in Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Presumably, those warnings to Israel still stand, and it’s likely they’ve been reiterated this month, although the White House spokesman last week refused to comment one way or the other when asked if the United States had communicated to Israel on the issue.
The question gained new urgency at the end of October when Nahum Barnea, a veteran writer at the daily Yediot Aharanot, wrote a column suggesting that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have agreed among themselves that Israel must take action against Iran. “Have the prime minister and defense minister settled on a decision, just between the two of them, to launch a military attack on the nuclear facilities in Iran?” he asked. Days later, the liberal daily Haaretz reported that Netanyahu and Barak had taken the issue to Israel’s cabinet to rally support. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are trying to muster a majority in the cabinet in favor of military action against Iran, a senior Israeli official has said,” reported Haaretz. “According to the official, there’s a ‘small advantage’ in the cabinet for the opponents of such an attack.” Soon, Israel was abuzz with rumors and counter-rumors that something was in the offing.
In the United States, the Obama administration – already riled up over the indictment of an alleged Iranian-American agent of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for a bizarre plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington – says that it will seek to tighten the screws against Iran by seeking additional economic sanctions. In fact, though, there’s little more that Washington can do. The administration is reluctant to place sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, because by so doing it could shut down much of Iran’s day-to-day commerce and impose unwanted hardships on the Iranian public and businesses. And, according to nearly all analysts, the Obama administration has ruled out an attempt to impose an embargo on Iran’s oil exports, since that would drive up the price of oil and might lead to a naval confrontation over a blockade. At the same time, both China and Russia are firmly opposed to another round of sanctions against Iran by the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, both Russia and China are intent on lowering the level of rhetoric on Iran and avoiding a new confrontation. The Russians, in particular, are lobbying strongly against a new UNSC resolution on Iran, and since last spring they’ve been supporting the idea of a step-by-step process aimed at easing sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iranian concessions. In advance of the IAEA’s new report, Russia warned strongly that it will be counterproductive if the goal is a negotiated solution to the issue. “It would without a doubt strain the atmosphere and may hinder the start of serious negotiations,” said the Russian foreign ministry.
Unlike 2002-2003, when the Bush administration was determined to go to war against Iraq and thus distorted the intelligence to inflate the threat from Iraq, so far the Obama administration is not showing any intent to go to war against Iran. Still, the White House is careful to reiterate over and over against that military action is “on the table.” So, it’s not likely that Obama’s team is misusing or exaggerating the intelligence it has on Iran’s nuclear program. By the same token, Obama has declared his decision to withdraw the last remaining U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and to begin the start of a significant drawdown in Afghanistan, too, leading to a planned handover of security to Afghan forces by 2014. In that context, it’s almost a certainty that Obama won’t want to add a war with Iran into his reelection program in 2012.
But where Obama is cautious on Iran, his Republican rivals aren’t. Most of the leading Republican candidates, and many hawkish analysts and neoconservatives who support them, are calling for tough military actions against Iran. Rick Perry, the Texas governor, says that he’s prepared to support Israel if it goes to war against Iran. “We will support Israel in every way that we can, whether it's diplomatic, whether it's economic sanctions, whether it’s overt or covert operations, up to and including military action,” he said. “We cannot afford to allow that madman in Iran to get his hands on a nuclear weapon, period.” Perry has plenty of company on the right.