Barack Obama's arrival in the White House substantially reduces the likelihood of Israel using military force to thwart Iran's nuclear program and accelerates the possibility that within a year the regime of ayatollahs will possess atomic bombs, according to the assessment of experts in Israel and the United States.
Obama may have referred in his inauguration speech to the challenge of "the nuclear threat," but before that he had already made clear his plan of pursuing a sharp turnaround from George Bush's policy on all matters related to Iran. The policy Obama is formulating is one of engagement and negotiation. He hopes the Iranians will be tempted to respond to the generous proposals he intends to offer them, diplomatic relations, lifting sanctions, improved commercial ties, and in return a halt or at least suspend uranium enrichment.
Iran, the experts believe, will ostensibly respond favorably to the American courtship and will even reciprocate with some gestures of its own, but in practice, Iran will accelerate its nuclear program and there are already signs of this. Even leading U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that Iran is likely to produce its first nuclear bomb as early as this year.
Remarks to this effect were made last week by CIA Director Michael Hayden, and the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, who said he is concerned Iran would continue along a path that will end with nuclear weapons. The comments were made during a press conference last week as he prepares to leave office.
This assessment, that Iran is likely to produce its first bomb during the course of 2009 or in early 2010 was expressed, and is now also reaffirmed, by Israel's military intelligence and the Mossad but was viewed skeptically by other intelligence agencies around the world, who considered Israel's approach to be panic mongering and "alarmist." Hayden and McConnell are the ones who only a year ago, to Israel's dismay, released a national intelligence assessment stating that Iran abandoned its intention to develop nuclear weapons as far back as 2003.
However, there are clear indications that Iran is enhancing its nuclear program. In recent weeks, the U.S. media and some research institutes there have published articles about attempts by clandestine acquisition networks and entities working on behalf of Iran to obtain materiel, equipment and technology for Tehran's nuclear and missile programs.
Because the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iranian companies related to these two ventures, they have difficulties operating openly and are forced to set up shell companies and use intermediaries and front companies.
In one case, in 2006 a trading company from China submitted a request to purchase vacuum pumps from a European company. These pumps have a dual use: for purely civilian purposes in industrial plants, but they are also vital for maintaining gas centrifuges which are used to enrich uranium. The pumps are meant to be used to repair or replace damaged centrifuges.
Information from an European agency led to the thwarting of the deal. The suspicion that surfaced was that the Chinese commercial company served as a "front" and in effect was operating on behalf of and was dispatched by an Iranian company, which sought to purchase the pumps for the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, where Iran engages in uranium enrichment.
In another case, officials were able to stop Iran from smuggling around 30,000 kilograms of tungsten copper, a metal that has a dual use: in the aviation industry, and also can be used in missile guidance systems.Aban, an Iranian company contracted a Chinese firm to purchase the metal for it and sent it to Dubai.
It is no secret that Dubai serves as an important base for Iran's secret acquisitions in its effort to bypass the sanctions' regime. Iranian companies, including some controlled by the Revolutionary Guards' economic empire, have opened branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But this time, the United Arab Emirates' authorities acted swiftly and efficiently ,relaying the information to U.S. authorities and collaborating with them to prevent the shipment.
Another bit of Iran's clandestine operations was revealed in an investigation being conducted by the U.S. Treasury and its Justice Department against European banks that agreed to serve as a front for Iranian banks and funnel funds to finance the purchase deals for the nuclear and missile projects.
The British bank Lloyds agreed to pay the U.S. authorities a $350 million fine to avoid being tried for violating the sanctions against Iran. In another case, there is a continuing investigation of the Italian bank, Intesa San Paolo, which worked with the Rome branch of the Iranian bank, Safa, in order to camouflage the source of funds in accounts that were used to finance the acquisitions.
These and other examples that were not published attest to two parallel processes: the international cooperation among intelligence agencies where the Mossad is an important link in the efforts to locate, and expose the Iranian purchasing companies and thwart their attempts to purchase essential equipment for the nuclear and missiles program; and the Iranians' feverish efforts to obtain what they need and reach a situation where they will be able, within a short time, to produce the first bomb.
This is a race against the clock for all parties involved, Israel foremost among them, which may be obstructed by Obama's policy, even though his intention to negotiate with Iran is good. It is clear to all the experts that Israel will be unable to attack without coordinating it on one way or another - probably tacitly with the American administration. And such coordination will be difficult, certainly a decision to let Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities so long as negotiations are underway between Washington and Tehran.
The concern in Israel is that if the negotiations end in failure and even if Obama's administration reaches the conclusion that Iran was toying with it and never intended to reach a compromise and suspend its uranium enrichment, it might already be too late. Iran might have nuclear weapons and then it will be too late and too dangerous to attack it.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now