Open Zion

03.04.13

Netanyahu Concedes Iran Hasn't Yet Decided To Dash For A Bomb

The first point in Benjamin Netanyahu's video address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference was, of course, the threat posed by Iran. "Diplomacy has not worked. Iran ignores all these offers. It's running out the clocks. It uses negotiations, including the most recent ones, to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program. So thus far, sanctions haven't stopped Iran's nuclear program either," Netanyahu said, seeming to make an implicit case for an Israeli preventative strike. "Words alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail."

The Obama administration, for its part, has formulated a three-pronged Iran policy that consists of pressure, diplomacy and the threat of force, should those fail. The American preference, as Vice President Joe Biden said at AIPAC today, remains a diplomatic deal—and the last round of talks that Netanyahu pooh-poohed actually kept the possibility of a deal alive. While Obama's threats have probably been less frequent and more oblique than the Israeli prime minister might like, what was most remarkable about Netanyahu's speech was that he dismissed the first two prongs of Barack Obama's approach almost entirely, leaving the threat of a military strike as the only remaining prong. That only ends one way: having to carry out the strike. Look at the jumbled way Netanyahu constructed this sentence: "Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail." Actually, more sanctions won't be coupled with anything once the tactic of sanctions have failed. Nor, at that point, will it merely be the threat of strikes.

Another of Netanyahu's remarks was most telling: he said, Iran has "still not crossed the red line I drew at the United Nations last September, but Iran is getting closer to that red line, and it's putting itself in a position to cross that line very quickly once it decides to do so." That red line confused many observers, but the most important takeaway from Netanyahu's remark at AIPAC today was the part about Iran deciding to cross red lines. Contra the image of a country hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons at any cost, Iran's strategy has been one of deliberate hedging, maintaining an ambiguity about its nuclear program that simultaneously provokes the international community, but also withholds from it a casus belli. The prime examples of this duality are, of course, Iran's continued enrichment at its fortified, underground Fordow complex and, on the hedging side, its reconversion of high-enriched uranium into medical reactor fuel plates that are effectively useless for enriching to weapons-grade. Just in February, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog again verified that Iran had re-converted some of its stockpile. That suggests that American and Israeli intelligence assessments that Iran hasn't, indeed, decided to build a bomb still hold true. Deciding to actually produce a weapon, incidentally, is one of Obama's established red lines.

What Netanyahu—and, for that matter, Obama—often elide is that there is likely no way to "stop" or "prevent" Iran from building a bomb. That view, among other skeptical views about a strike, is held by many current and former top-ranking Israeli security officials, as ThinkProgress helpfully reminds us today. But don't expect Bibi to do anything but ignore their views as he does Obama's.