The revelation that Iran had a secret nuclear site deep in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom and protected by anti-aircraft missile batteries has dramatically increased the likelihood of strong sanctions against the Tehran regime, but it is unlikely to change a strategic calculus that does not favor U.S. or Israeli military action.
The stunning revelations may also accelerate the lurch to more hawkish views on Iran cited in this week’s American Jewish Committee Survey of Jewish Public Opinion (see accompanying story).
While Iranian actions, including this week’s missile tests, seem an almost deliberate provocation aimed at Israel, most analysts continue to believe military action is unlikely.
Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said he
believes the disclosure announced Friday by President Barack Obama has “diminished” the chances of an Israeli military attack.
“You had the president of the United States, the Security Council and the UN General Assembly — everyone focused on the reality of finding a combination of sanctions and dialogue [with Iran],” he said.
Miller suggested that it would now be best for Israel to lie low because “everything” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought seems to be happening.
Were Israel to launch a military strike, “it might delay but not end Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” he said.
And such an attack, Miller warned, might give Iran the opportunity to garner international support in its quest for nuclear weapons on the grounds it has a legitimate need to protect itself from Israel.
The decision by Obama to disclose that the U.S. was aware of the secret site “was one of the best moves” the U.S. has made, according to David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute.
“He turned the tables on Iran and used it as a galvanizing force to get a lot of countries angry about the deception,” he said. “It makes sanctions more likely. I don’t know anybody who expects an Israeli military strike in the next three months. This is a period that has to play itself out.”
The administration has said it will limit talks with Iran, starting this week, to three months.
Many other observers agree that the military option has been placed on the backburner for now ahead of preparations for six-party talks with Iran in Geneva. Joining the U.S. and Iran at the talks will be France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.
The U.S. was expected to demand that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have quick and complete access to the newly disclosed nuclear site and the complete blueprints of it.
But before the U.S. had a chance to do that, Iran did some saber rattling of its own by launching both short-range and medium-range missiles Sunday and Monday.
“It was to strengthen their bargaining position,” explained Shaul Bakhash, a leading expert in Iranian studies at George Mason University.
“Just as the U.S. decided to reveal Iran’s clandestine nuclear site to put Iran on the defensive [at the talks], this was a way for Iran to show its muscle.”
Trita Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, agreed that the Iranians were “doing as much posturing as possible before coming to the table.
“It was an act of bravado,” he said. “But too much posturing could turn the atmosphere sour and undermine the chances of successful diplomacy. They have to be careful not to walk past the line that makes their actions threatening.”
Parsi said all the parties view the negotiations as a “final chance to resolve this peacefully, and as a result they are going in as strong as possible.”
He added that he did not believe the missile tests were designed to draw Israel into a military confrontation because the Iranians believe such an “Israeli attack would be a prelude to an American attack.
“They don’t believe Israel could do significant damage, but they believe it would only suck in the U.S.,” he said, adding that Iran does not want a confrontation with the U.S.
Eldad Pardo, an Iranian expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he believes that for the moment “there is no military option on the table.”
Netanyahu said as much last week when he reportedly placed phone calls to influential U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to lobby for “crippling sanctions” against Iran. That was the same phrase Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used.
But Pardo said the keys to effective sanctions are Russia and China, which until now have been reluctant to impose them.
“The question now is what is going on behind the scenes between the U.S. and Russia,” he said, adding that if Russia agrees to full sanctions China would go along.
Pardo said that although China has large investments in Iran’s petroleum industry, it is relatively “negligible.”
“They don’t really need Iran,” he said.
“They have other sources of energy. … And uniting the Islamic world, bringing about an Islamic economy and stopping capitalism is not something the Chinese would like to see.”
Netanyahu made the calls to U.S. lawmakers just hours after telling the United Nations General Assembly here last Thursday that the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the “most urgent challenge” facing the UN.
“The people of Iran are courageously standing up to this regime,” he said.
“People of goodwill around the world stand with them, as do the thousands who have been protesting outside this hall.”
At a Jewish community-sponsored rally held last Thursday at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, politicians, ethnic leaders, religious leaders, a union official and moderate Iranians all railed against the Iranian regime for its human rights abuses and threats to destroy Israel.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel asked how delegates could have remained in the hall when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched into an attack on “Zionists.” The United States and many European delegations left in protest; Israel had left before the speech began.
“How could you sit next to a brutal, anti-Semitic dictator who preaches hatred and has jailed and tortured opponents?” Wiesel asked. “He has repeatedly declared his intention to destroy the Jewish state of Israel, therefore his threats must be taken seriously.
“It is your responsibility as leaders of the world to prevent Ahmadinejad’s Iran from becoming nuclear. … His place should not be among you.”
And Dore Gold, Israel’s former United Nations ambassador, pointed out that Iran has not just threatened Israel but another neighbor as well, Bahrain, an Arabic island country in the Persian Gulf. He said Iran claims Bahrain as one of its provinces and threatens to “absorb” it.
Although speakers and rally participants denounced Iran’s nuclear plans, Parsi of the National Iranian American Council said he has detected a shift in Western thinking.
“Until recently the objective had been to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program,” he said. “But now people don’t believe that can be achieved, so they want instead inspections and verification.”
“Based on the comments of some in the Obama administration, we are preparing ourselves for a solution that will include Iranian enrichment but will make sure there is a firewall that would be as thick and impenetrable as possible between having uranium enrichment” and nuclear weapons.
Sanctions would only be sought if this approach were rebuffed by Iran, Parsi said.
as telling a press conference that Iran would not discuss any issues at the initial meeting related to its nuclear “rights” – including the recently disclosed uranium enrichment plant. But he said his country would discuss when IAEA inspectors could visit the plant.
“We are working on a timetable for the inspection and we will soon be writing a letter to them about the location of the facility and others,” he said.
Salehi did not elaborate, but Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said there have been hints of other secret nuclear sites that are known to Israel and the U.S.
“For years there has been an arrogance in Iran, a belief that it can get away with anything,” he said.
“They don’t understand that the U.S. and Israel can monitor what is going on [in their country]. You would think that in this day and age, they would understand that everything they do is visible to satellites and other intelligence. … This latest revelation shows we probably know” the location of all Iran’s nuclear sites.
Although many analysts said a military option should be seen as a last resort if sanctions fail, Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said she does not believe the military option should ever be considered. Instead, she said, efforts should be made to help the Iranian people overthrow the government.
“This is an illegitimate government that arrests and tortures its own people and does things that are very bad for the U.S. and Israel,” she said.
“It supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, and the person who orchestrated the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina is now Iran’s defense minister.”
Bryen questioned why the U.S. is “beating up” Hamid Karzai over the recent disputed election in Afghanistan but has called Iran’s questionable election “an internal matter.”
“We have failed to promote regime change in an appropriate way,” she said. “I’m not saying we should invade Iran, but they had millions on the streets last weekend demonstrating for the opposition.”