Late Maj. Gen. Israel Tal used to tell a story about the 1950s, when rationing was in effect and officers had to park their military vehicles at their base or in a parking lot, rather than in front of their homes, which would have been ostentatious.
One time, the police found a military vehicle parked against regulations in the middle of the night. The officer who had used the vehicle was brought up on charges. During his hearing he confessed and explained: I met a girl and we arranged for me to pick her up at her house and take her to the movies. I parked for a second, went up to her place and realized I could get what I wanted without a movie. I forgot about the car and left it there all night.
When Iran seeks to develop a military nuclear capability, what does it want? Is a nuclear capability the movie or the good time later that night? That's the question that will decide the fate of the talks with Tehran.
The officer in the anecdote was let off with a slap on the wrist, apparently paying only a small fine for his pleasure. If the Iranians' final goal is a nuclear weapon, the talks' only purpose will be to pass the time pleasantly until it becomes clear whether Barack Obama will be renewing his lease at the White House for another four years. But if Tehran's goal is political (survival of the ayatollahs' regime ) and strategic (recognition of Iran's strong standing ), its maneuverability and bargaining power is excellent. This is because the world's fervor to prevent a dangerous crisis has priced Iran's willingness to forgo its nuclear program very high.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pretension that he invented the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program recalls former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's claim that he invented the Internet. Two decades ago, when Netanyahu was an ordinary MK, albeit a leading one when Likud was in the opposition, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was also defense minister ), the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community began studying Iran's threats to develop nuclear weapons for use against Israel.
The Khomeini revolution in 1979 delayed rather than accelerated Iran's nuclear program. A secret intelligence report by the Pentagon in the summer of 1976 warned that the Shah's nuclear aspirations could by the mid-1980s give him the infrastructure to make a nuclear device. The Shah was moving ahead on every aspect of nuclear reactors, the fuel cycle, enrichment, explosives, missiles, laboratories and detonators. But with the fall of the Shah and the beginning of the eight-year war with Iraq, Tehran's nuclear program was frozen for at least a decade.
In that same American intelligence report on nuclear proliferation, Israel had a place of honor alongside Iran, but the six pages on Israel were entirely censored. The writer, Gen. Samuel Wilson, who chose the 14 countries surveyed in the report, said they had all shown a strong desire to attain nuclear weapons, already had them, or would soon have the facilities necessary to make fissionable material for nuclear weapons.
The 14 countries were Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Libya, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and West Germany. Since then, Argentina and Brazil have mutually agreed to forgo nuclear weapons, South Africa disarmed its nuclear program and India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers.
In a global chain reaction, the Americans were first to achieve nuclear weapons, against which the Soviets armed. The Soviets were feared by the Chinese, and the Chinese were feared by the Indians, whose bitter enemy is Pakistan. The Americans shared their secrets with the British; the French developed their nuclear program independently. The countries that so far have forgone a nuclear capability (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, who are facing off against China and North Korea ), have done so only in exchange for an American nuclear umbrella.
The essence of the American challenge to Tehran, subject to a Russian, Chinese and even a French veto in the UN Security Council, is to turn Tehran from an enemy into an adversary; to take its hostility down a notch to mere competition. That needs to be done without traditional partners like Saudi Arabia fearing they are being abandoned. If for the Iranians the nuclear weapons program is a means and not an end - which will become apparent in the coming months - the means can be attained.
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