The new aspect of the dramatic report released Tuesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Iranian nuclear program lies less in its contents, and more in who is making these statements for the first time. The vast majority of the information in the report has been in the hands of Western intelligence agencies for a relatively long time. A not inconsiderable portion of it has even been leaked in recent years to media outlets around the world by those same agencies. Until Tuesday, the IAEA had refrained from saying similar things publicly.
In the West, in the middle of the last decade, they were already toeing the line of the Israeli view of the Iranian nuclear program and its dangers. Then, however, at the end of 2007, along came a National Intelligence Estimate from the American intelligence community that shuffled the deck. Senior intelligence officials in the United States who regarded President George W. Bush as having entangled their country in an unnecessary war in Iraq, based on a mistaken analysis of partial information they themelves had provided, sought to avoid a replay of the case in the Iranian context.
American intelligence determined at the time that in 2003 Iran had abandoned the military channel (meaning translating their nuclear capability into the development of a nuclear warhead and then fitting it onto a ballistic missile).
The intelligence indeed foiled implementation of any plans for an American attack on Iranian nuclear sites, if such an idea was under consideration by Bush, but at the same time it caused real damage to the effort to halt Iran's progress toward a bomb through diplomatic means. If there was no proof that Iran was seeking to attain nuclear weapons, whence the haste in stopping the Islamic republic? The IAEA was a dubious partner to that same approach, primarily because of the man who was then at its helm, the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei. He intentionally downplayed - apparently with advance coordination with the Iranians - the incriminating evidence discovered by his inspectors.
Under current IAEA head Yukiya Amano, of Japan, the agency's approach has been totally different. In a nutshell, the new report states that Iran has carried out secret experiments whose only rational purpose could be the development of nuclear weaponry. The proof of this is the research it carried out relating to the arming of a Shihab-3 missile (which can reach Israel) with a nuclear warhead, and the possibility that a portion of these activities continued beyond 2003. All of this is stated more broadly and comprehensively than before.
These findings could currently serve the Obama administration in an attempt to leverage a broad drive to impose tougher sanctions on Iran through the United Nations Security Council. In Israel, it is hoped that this time the sanctions will be paralyzing, delivering a deadly blow to the Iranian banking system as well as to the country's oil industry. Such sanctions could also have the indirect, cumulative effect of deterring any other foreign firms from trading with Iran. The report equips the administration in Washington with official evidence that is sharper than any it previously had to justify its position. The extent to which it will convince Russia and China, which up to now disrupted many of the American initiatives against Iran, will only be clear in the coming months.
Against the backdrop of the harsh IAEA report, it is easier to understand the stream of leaks from Israel in recent weeks regarding the possibility of a military strike on Iran. The leaks in fact gave expression to a real debate being carried out within Israel's leadership. But their strength and timing will also help return the Iranian threat to the top of the international agenda.
In this context, attention should be given to the unusual interview Defense Minister gave to Israel Radio on Tuesday. Barak has become a fan lately of long radio interviews in which he presents his doctrine in an expansive manner and even relative candor. What in the passed had been whispered to journalists with Barak's adamant demand that it be an American-style off the record, meaning that it was not to be quoted directly nor attributed to him, is now being said publicly on the radio.
The defense minister doesn't believe that a war with Iran after a hypothetical Israeli bombing of the country would end "with even 500 dead." He refuses to be impressed by American opposition to an attack ("a complicated matter, and Israel is a sovereign country"). He mentions that the decision over whether to attack rests with the political echelon, not the military, and casts doubt over whether even now, strong sanctions will be imposed. The undeclared bottom line from his comments: Barak apparently is expected to support an attack in the future, despite the sweeping opposition of the heads of the various branches of the military and about half of the ministers in the forum of eight senior cabinet members.
But all of this is apparently for future discussion. In the coming weeks, the issue of American efforts at stiffening sanctions will be the major focus, not the controversy over a military strike. According to various assessments in the West, there is still a window of about a year in which it will be possible to stop the Iranian program. The question is to what extent the Israel government will be able to coordinate this with the international community, which lacks trust in Netanyahu.
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