The Era of Sanctions Has Ended

Should Israel accept that its era of nuclear monopoly in the Middle East has ended, and assume a new role as passive witness to a regional arms race?

The UN's sanctions on Iran have collapsed. That is the only conclusion one can draw from Russia's announcement earlier this week that it is no longer willing to support the Security Council's permanent members' proposal for a new set of sanctions, the fourth of its kind, against Iran.

Though no funeral has been held or death certificate issued, Moscow has rendered clinically dead the joint international efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The sanctions imposed two years ago were not strong, as they were the result of a compromise between the U.S., EU, Russia and China. But they expressed a moral stand by the international community that it would not come to terms with a nuclear Iran.

Russia, which will complete constructing a nuclear power plant in the Iranian city of Bushehr this year, was never enthused by the idea of sanctions. It did everything it could to stall and weaken them. Eventually, it always agreed on watered-down versions while exploiting U.S. weaknesses such as its involvement in Iraq, the presidential elections and its severe economic crisis. Thus, Russia is strengthening the Iranian regime and signaling to it that the basic, though superficial, international consensus against it has ceased to exist.

This new development could not have come at a worse time. Though the former sanctions were weak, their impact has only now begun to yield results and raise concern among Tehran's ayatollahs. The country's economy has taken a plunge despite the steady flow from its main source of income, oil. Iran's inflation has risen to over 30 percent; unemployment, especially among the youth and university graduates, is also spreading. A drought has harmed agriculture to such an extent that the country has been forced to import wheat from the Great Satan. Its major cities suffer from power outages every week, which in turn disrupt water supplies.

Refined oil is also in short supply because of the lack of refineries. As a result, many of Iran's citizens have accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who faces reelection in nine months' time, of creating an economic crisis.

Now, thanks to support from Moscow, the Iranian president and his patron, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, can feel more relaxed and claim that the international sanctions will soon be lifted, deflecting criticism against them.

All this at a time when Iran is "galloping" - as the head of Military Intelligence's research department, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, said earlier this week - toward the technological threshold where it can produce its first atomic bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency last week released a report in line with Israel Defense Forces' estimates that Iran now has a third of the enriched uranium needed to produce the fissile material for an atomic bomb. In addition, recent revelations have shown that Iran is trying to design a nuclear warhead to be fitted on its Shihab missiles.

Iran is only months away from crossing the technological threshold of building an atomic bomb.

After attempts by western intelligence agencies to foil Iran's program failed, the U.S., U.K., France and mostly Israel (and secretly the Arab states too) placed their hopes on sanctions. They hoped Iran will decide to comply with the UN's demands and stop enriching uranium, but that hope is now gone.

Because there is great doubt if the new U.S. presidential administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will okay a military strike against Iran, Israel - which is itself in a deep political crisis - faces a huge dilemma. Should it launch a military strike, limited as it may be, on Iran's nuclear facilities in order to set its nuclear program back a few years and risk Iranian retribution; or should Israel accept that its era of nuclear monopoly in the Middle East has ended, and assume a new role as passive witness to a regional nuclear arms race.