Decision makers, be warned!
Beyond some tough-sounding rhetoric about the need for more severe and targeted steps against Iran, nothing very serious is actually on the international agenda - certainly not the so-called crippling sanctions.
As repeated deadlines related to Iran pass, and evidence of its military nuclear program mounts, it might appear that the world has woken up to the problem, and is ready to adopt a tougher stance. Yet, beyond some tough-sounding rhetoric about the need for more severe and targeted steps, nothing very serious is actually on the international agenda - certainly not the so-called crippling sanctions. Indeed, China is expressing a new and more adamant opposition to sanctions, Russia too is dragging its feet, and the new EU foreign minister - well, she seems to have not even realized that the latest round of diplomacy has already failed.
But perhaps more troubling are two additional themes that have become increasingly evident as the international community becomes more and more aware that it is powerless to stop Iran from progressing toward its goal. Both themes reflect the dangerous cynicism that characterizes international attitudes today on this topic, at both official and unofficial levels.
The first theme is manifested in a growing tendency among analysts who were previously dubious that Iran was even seeking nuclear weapons, to forget the problem-ridden efforts of the past seven years that were meant to check Iran's advances, and to focus instead on the idea that a nuclear Iran is now a fait accompli. The tenor of this blase approach is: So what if Iran acquires nuclear weapons? It's no different from other states that have built a bomb. Suddenly, the lack of a smoking gun, and/or the clear evidence of Iran's noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; challenges that plagued efforts to constrain Tehran for years; are brushed aside. And Iran's advance toward the bomb - which the same parties once considered unsubstantiated U.S. or Israeli paranoia - is now treated as an undisputable and unavoidable fact. And who cares if Iran cheated to get to where it is? All is fair in love and balance of power. At least for Iran.
The second, and more implicit, theme is also the more cynical and dangerous one in terms of its implications. It involves the option of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Officials whose statements were previously in the vein of, "Oh no, Israel cannot be allowed to attack!" are now beginning to sound as if they mean: "Israel cannot refrain from attacking." Sometimes the feeling is that the speaker is actually hoping that Israel will decide to go ahead and attack Iran.
Think about it. At this stage, even in light of official American rhetoric to the contrary, an Israeli attack would actually have some clear advantages for the Western states confronting Iran.
First, it would immediately take the heat off the West, and divert attention from the fact that its efforts to stop Iran have failed. It would have the added benefit of releasing the United States from the need to follow through on its own threats of "consequences."
Second, an attack would most likely cause at least some damage to Iranian facilities, which would be positive in and of itself. It would also shake things up enough so that the United States could then sweep in and try to restrain Israel (after it has attacked), while working to restore stability in the region more generally, possibly shoring up desperately needed foreign policy points for the Obama administration.
Finally, all blame for aggression would be conveniently directed at Israel. Although the United States cannot escape being implicated to some degree, the strong rhetorical position it has taken against an Israeli attack can be expected to minimize the fallout.
Indeed, even Iran may secretly harbor a desire for an Israeli attack on its facilities. This idea is fueling an odd speculation making the rounds in Washington these days, as analysts struggle to explain why Iran has moved almost all of its low enriched uranium (just short of 2,000 kg) to an above-ground facility that can enrich to 20 percent. Doing so exposes the LEU to attack, hence the theory that Iran actually intends to lure Israel to make a move, in order to spur Iranians to rally around the regime, as well as to allow their country to look like the victim rather than the aggressor.
The fact that an Israeli attack on Iran could actually serve the interests of both Iran and the countries that confront it is an unnerving idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand. The highly cynical benefits that others could gain at Israel's expense should make Israeli decision-makers even more wary of contemplating military action against Iran, which would in effect let the international community off the hook.
Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.