"Believe me, I know what I'm talking about," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted to the Israeli public, referring to the choice of actions the state can take against Iran. But even as he spoke, the Iranian nuclear reactor was being inaugurated in Bushehr. Within a year, the reactor will be operative and begin supplying electricity. The same day also saw the Iranian president proclaim that his country intended to significantly increase the number of centrifuges working on uranium enrichment.
This is no coincidence. Iran has its own schedule and agenda to pursue, to develop nuclear technology - probably for military use as well - as quickly as possible. The Western intelligence community's guesswork on just how long this may take - two years, maybe three - is of little interest to the Iranians. These guesses are only there to signal until when, if at all, it is still possible to act against Iran by either diplomatic or military means.
"Time is slipping away and we need a combination of the sternest possible sanctions along with a readiness to consider other options, should the sanctions fail," Defense Minister Ehud Barak says. But with no decision being made, time is meaningless, and there's no use staring at the clock ticking away. Iran will achieve a nuclear threat, so we don't need a pre-nuclear policy, but a post-nuclear one.
Israel has been serving as the town crier, keeping the authorities alert. But Israel cannot keep up for much longer the role of managing the global coalition against Iran. Its term is running out, not least because, in the wake of the Gaza war, it has lost its status as a country under threat. It may seem that the two fronts are unconnected, but it's hard not to notice how less qualified Israel is to cry wolf as it prevents pasta trucks from entering the Gaza Strip.
Unfortunately, this erosion is spreading. You can't be perceived as a bully on one front and a righteous nation on the other. It's not that the Iranian threat has weakened, it's that the shine of its potential victim has dimmed.
And so, as Israel's leaders compete over the scale and volume of threats against Iran, the issue passes into the personal care of the American president. The European Union is waiting for him to flesh out his policy, the Arab states expect a show of force, and Israel is being shown the bench. It watches forlornly as Washington prepares to engage in dialogue with Iran, tightens its relationship with Syria and supports a Palestinian unity government that will include Hamas, another of Tehran's proxies.
If Israel wants to join the anti-Iranian ensemble it can either roll its eyes, foam at the mouth and strain to prove that it can run amok, or it can work to lessen Iranian influence in the region. It could, for instance, encourage the establishment of a Hamas-Fatah government to run the territories; it could also step up the talks with Syria. The threats of Hezbollah and Hamas are not existential ones to Israel, but they have already dragged it into two wars. Israel can neutralize both through diplomacy. This would secure it a place in an unspoken alliance with the Arab states, which are also petrified by Iran's nuclear progress. This would also provide Barack Obama with the diplomatic ammunition to prove that he can achieve peace, rather than wars like his predecessor. This is essential leverage for those who wish not only to block the Iranian expansion, but to encourage it to improve its relationship with the United States.
Constantly depicting Iran as a threat need not become an alternative policy to removing other threats, both closer and more dangerous. It is, in fact, no policy at all. Without the diplomatic aid Israel can provide to reduce Iran's influence, it is just another slogan, dubious and empty. And it is certainly no reason to rush for a national unity government.
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