In the absence of any real progress in stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has urged the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to take firmer action against the regime in Tehran.
“I think that it is important that Europe joins the United States and Israel and all responsible elements of the international community, and demand a cessation of the Iranian nuclear program,” said Netanyahu.
The Israeli PM expressed his concerns about Iran during Ms Ashton’s visit to Israel and Gaza. Her trip to the Middle East came nearly a week after the election of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who won more than 50% of the vote.
The new man in Tehran is considered a moderate but there is no evidence that Iran is about to change course. So it is no surprise that Netanyahu is warning the EU and the rest of the world not to ease pressure on Iran until Rouhani’s intentions are clear.
“The real test regarding the elections in Iran will be if Iran changes its policy and stops enriching uranium, removes the nuclear material and closes the illegal nuclear facility at Qom,” remarked Netanyahu.
But it is already evident that Rouhani is not going to roll over. In a press conference, Rouhani ruled out the possibility that Iran would reduce its uranium enrichment activity. He also said the sanctions are illegal.
Well, the sanctions are not illegal. But the sanctions are tough. Indeed, Iran has been the subject of several UN Security Council sanctions, as well as unilateral measures by the US and the EU, including asset freezes and trade restrictions on oil and gas companies. Several countries, including Australia and Japan, have also implemented sanctions. As a result, Iranians cannot make overseas payment and the country’s oil exports have dropped by a million barrels a day.
Despite hard-hitting sanctions, Tehran has pressed on regardless. Earlier this year, the regime unveiled plans to install a new generation of centrifuges, which are up to six times as powerful as the current generation. Moreover, it is fighting hard to extend its influence in Syria and Gaza, using Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies in its war against both Jews and Sunni Muslims.
It is entirely possible that Iran will have a nuclear warhead within a matter of months. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks that Iran will be capable of producing a bomb by the middle of next year. Some analysts believe Iran could be nuclear-ready by the end of this year.
Strangely, Israel’s combative rhetoric has waned in the past few months. A strike against Iran’s nuclear installations seemed highly possible last summer. But this year there has been little appetite for military action. Perhaps President Obama’s reluctance to offer military and/or diplomatic cover is the reason for Israel’s unusual hesitancy. Or perhaps Netanyahu has failed to convince ordinary Israelis that a strike would be the best solution. Or perhaps it’s because previous heads of Israel’s intelligence community have said an attack on Iran would be unsuccessful and counter-productive.
So, should Israel continue to hold its nerve and see if sanctions work? And if they don’t, does that mean a precarious policy of containment or a situation akin to the Cold War in which both sides had the capability of destroying the other?
Still, Netanyahu is painfully aware that he risks going down in history as the man who let a tyrannical anti-Semitic regime get a nuclear weapon, which is perhaps the biggest existential threat to the six million Jews in Israel.
Aware of his place in history, Netanyahu may decide that a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is the only feasible solution. Plus, there is the argument that the Iranian people themselves would be better off if Israel took action. Sanctions are affecting the lives and morale of ordinary Iranians and will eventually lead to the collapse of the middle class, thereby robbing Iran of its best chance to topple the Ayatollah regime from within.
In a situation where doing nothing only makes things worse, military action is probably the best course of action. It would alleviate Israel’s security fears and put an end to the crippling sanctions. Whether Israel will be assisted by the US remains to be seen. But if Obama refuses to lend a hand, then the Jewish state may once again have to take unilateral action to defend itself.