Waiting Also Carries a Price

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his associates in the political-security leadership promise that the American offensive against Iraq will solve Israel's problems. In the day after, we will awake to a new reality in which the Arabs fear Israel's U.S.-backed power.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his associates in the political-security leadership promise that the American offensive against Iraq will solve Israel's problems. Hostile regimes in the region will collapse, Yasser Arafat will be replaced by a more palatable leadership and dollars from the United States will end the economic crisis. If we wait for the "day after," Sharon believes, we will awaken to a new reality, one in which the Arabs fear Israel's American-backed power.

Waiting, however, comes with a price. The lengthy preparations for the war on Iraq suggest that even the world's superpower finds it hard to chew gum and talk at the same time. And there are no vacuums in the international arena: With America engaged by Saddam Hussein, others are exploiting circumstances in order to create new strategic facts. Thus the balance of power in the region is likely to change for the worse before we get to the "day after." The events of the past weeks furnish several examples of the limits of America's power as world policeman. These include North Korea's resumption of its nuclear program and Lebanon's pumping of water from the Wazzani River in contravention of America's warnings. Israel has deepened its hold on the territories; but on the other hand, it was forced to transfer frozen assets to Arafat and agree in principle to the "road map" - whose basic meaning is the internationalization of the dispute with the Palestinians on the basis of Saudi Arabia's peace initiative.

The most troubling reflection of the limits of American power involves Iran, which won a double prize. Owing to the state of waiting for a war in Iraq, Tehran has made progress toward attaining nuclear arms, and should Saddam be removed, Iran will also be liberated from the main threat to its status in the region. Iran will be stronger than ever on "the day after," and closer than it has ever been to nuclear capability. Tehran's partner is Vladimir Putin, who has emerged as a diplomatic virtuoso. Putin has made a deal with Washington: He has sacrificed Iraq, which in any event was a lost cause for Russian industry, and in exchange, Russia has won the freedom to act as it pleases vis-a-vis Iran. Washington needs the Kremlin as a partner in the war on Saddam and the war on terror, so pressure against the "leakage" of weapons technology to Iran has today become a low priority in relations between the old Cold War superpowers. Sharon also wants to move closer to Putin, who is one of the few major leaders in the world who is willing to host and meet with him. In exchange, Sharon granted the Russians an official "certificate of kashrut" confirming a reduction in the "leakage" of arms and know-how to Iran.

Last week, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev visited Iran in an unprecedented display of political commitment toward the completion of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which caps Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Rumyantsev wrapped his visit in ambiguous declarations - but after he returned to Moscow, he admitted that he had failed to deliver on his promise to attain an agreement under which nuclear materials produced by the Iranian plant would be transferred to Russia for storage.

Control of the nuclear fuel produced by the plant is the key to converting the reactor into a nuclear weapons factory, since irradiated fuel rods can be used to make plutonium. The Russians have not insisted that such fuel be transferred to their country, and when their failure to make such a demand was disclosed last summer, the Kremlin promised the U.S. and Israel that it would straighten out the issue. Since then, the Russians and the Iranians have still not signed an agreement for the transfer of the fuel, despite Rumyantsev's promise that such a pact would be a precondition for the shipment of uranium to the nuclear plant. The Russian minister is now citing a new target date, in January, for the forging of such an agreement.

Iran's nuclear project is being kept low-profile, below the level of activity that would be likely to provoke genuine American action. Recent disclosures about secret Iranian nuclear facilities and about arms purchasing efforts conducted via straw companies have been overshadowed in Washington by the urgent crises with Iraq and North Korea. The third member of the "axis of evil," Iran, is exploiting the period of waiting and strengthening its hand under the diplomatic cloud cover.