Have the latest revelations about a secret uranium-enrichment plant made an Israeli attack in Iran more probable, imminent even? Not necessarily. Such a plant might indeed mean that Iran is getting ever closer to obtaining nuclear weapons. But since all indications are that the Israeli intelligence already knew about this plant a couple of months ago, the genuinely significant development, in Israeli eyes, is Barack Obama’s, Gordon Brown’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s signalling that this time they really mean business when it comes to the Iranian regime.
For years, Israeli officials have argued that an Iranian nuclear bomb is not like any other country’s nuclear bomb. According to most Middle Eastern analysts – Israeli, Arab and western – Iran’s official attempts to export the Islamic Revolution around the region have turned it into a source of great instability. Taking into account Israel’s tiny territory (75 times smaller than Iran’s), and the latter’s open and ongoing threats to “wipe Israel off the map”, it is not surprising that Israel considers a Iranian nuclear bomb as such a paramount concern.
As the months and years have gone by, the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear project has seemed hesitant and slow. A fragmented Security Council, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American intelligence failure leading up to the Iraq war, have repeatedly let Iran off the hook. Despite a few rounds of sanctions, Iranian leaders have sounded defiant as ever, firm in their quest to achieve nuclear capabilities.
And Israel has felt more and more cornered, with no real alternative but to act independently. While for most countries around the world believe that an Iranian nuclear bomb might pose theoretical questions about the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime, for Israel it’s a question of life and death.
“This latest disclosure shows that the Israeli assessments were right,” says Avner Cohen, a University of Maryland professor and author of the book Israel and the Bomb. “The Israeli intelligence did not believe the American assessment of 2007, according to which Iran had halted its nuclear programme. Now it appears that Israel wasn’t just pessimistic or war-mongering. It is a game-changer as to future negotiations with Iran, especially those that will start just this coming Thursday [Group of Six meeting with Iran in Geneva].”
Therefore, Israel had been encouraged to see a decisive Obama and a grumpier-than-ever Sarkozy in Pittsburgh. An international commitment vis-à-vis Iran will probably yield better results than any other possibility, given the carrots and sticks Iran’s trading partners can offer and the difficulties in carrying out any military action. This is why ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s attitude was that Israel has to keep a low profile in matters concerning Iran.
So now the ball is again in the international community’s court. It remains to be seen if this is a serious attempt to solve the problem or just another photo-op. The EU, after all, is still Iran’s largest trading partner (with $25bn worth of trade in 2008). Maybe instead of waiting for Chinese approval of new sanctions, Germany, Italy, France and other European countries should start by giving their own example.