Israel’s alarm over Iran: alarmist or prescient?

Israel’s alarm over Iran: alarmist or prescient?

The Strait of Hormuz is the latest hotspot related to Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons.

The strait is the major maritime link between the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the rest of the world. About a fifth of the world’s oil supply passes through the channel every day. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates rely on the waterway for their oil exports.

Iran threatened to shut the shipping channel if the United States or Europe tightened economic sanctions in response to its nuclear program. The United States and Europe just did.

The EU has imposed restrictions on cooperation with Iran in foreign trade, financial services, energy sectors, and technologies  and banned the provision of insurance and reinsurance by insurers in member states to Iran and Iranian-owned companies. On Jan. 23, the EU imposed an oil embargo on Iran.

The United States has imposed an arms ban and an almost total economic embargo on Iran. This includes sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, a ban on all Iranian-origin imports, sanctions on Iranian financial institutions, and an almost total ban on selling aircraft or repair parts to Iranian aviation companies. Last week, the U.S. sanctioned Iran’s third-largest bank, eliminating one of Iran’s few remaining conduits for trade with the West. This follows the move last month to ban any American dealings with Iran’s central bank.

However, sanctions and embargoes are only as effective as their participants. India, the world’s fourth-largest oil consumer, has announced it will not take steps to cut petroleum imports from Iran despite U.S. and European sanctions.

On Jan. 29, Iran sent conflicting signals to the West, vowing to stop oil exports soon to “some” countries but postponing a parliamentary debate on a proposed halt to crude sales to the EU. Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are in Iran once again to determine Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Back in September 2009, Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the IAEA, said there was no concrete evidence that Iran had an ongoing nuclear weapons program, therefore Iran was not going to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon, and the threat posed by its atomic program was exaggerated.

A year later, under a new director-general, Yukiya Amano, the IAEA issued a report that since 2002, Iran may have been working on research for a nuclear bomb to arm one of its long-range missiles. The report stated that Iran has 4.9 metric tons of low-enriched uranium. According to one think tank, this uranium, if further enriched to weapon grade, is enough to make four nuclear weapons.

Until recently, the world has been rather nonchalant about a nuclear Iran, preferring to believe such a scenario was years away on a continually sliding scale. Only Israel has consistently warned that a nuclear Iran is closer than world powers choose to believe.

Israel’s view has been treated as alarmist because Iran’s threats against the “Little Satan” are deemed existential to Israel. However, the November 2010 IAEA report conferred a degree of legitimacy on Israel’s Cassandra-like warnings. By the way, although her curse was to have her warnings about the fall of Troy not believed, Cassandra was correct.

The latest Israeli warning came from Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week at the World Economic Forum. “It seems to us to be urgent, because the Iranians are deliberately drifting into what we call an immunity zone where practically no surgical operation could block them,” he said.

What now? The international community worries about an Israeli military strike on Iran and fears that such action could lead to a regional war and global economic chaos. Also, some pundits believe, at best, such a strike would only postpone a nuclear Iran by a few years.

Meanwhile, there was some significant military news from the U.S. Apparently, the Pentagon is unsure whether current bunker-buster bombs are sufficient to penetrate hardened Iranian facilities and is looking to develop bombs that can. Furthermore, the U.S. will station a ship in the Strait of Hormuz to act as a minesweeper and a SEAL operations “mother ship.”

It seems military options are increasingly under consideration. According to the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Ronen Bergman, an analyst for Yediot Ahronot, Barak believes, for the first time, the three preconditions for Israel attacking Iran have been met: that Israel has the ability to inflict severe damage on Iran and withstand counterattack, that Israel has the support of the U.S., and that all other possibilities have been exhausted. Bergman concludes Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.

If you would like to know more, attend a high-level briefing, “Will Iran Get a Bomb,” sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ. The speaker will be Patrick Clawson, director of research and head of the Iran Security Initiative at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The briefing, which is free and open to the public, will be held Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.

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