Iran, Israel, and the Bomb

Written on November 8, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Foreign Policy, International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East

By David Remnick

Around a year ago, I visited the Hatzor Air Force Base in central Israel. While interviewing a high-ranking officer about the training that was going on there for a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, I noticed a large picture on the wall of Israeli fighter jets flying over the territory of Auschwitz. The planes were there to participate in a commemoration, in 2003, of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Polish Air Force. The photograph, the officer told me, was a gift from a leading Israeli Air Force official. It came with the caption, “Israeli warplanes over Auschwitz. Remember and do not forget. Always rely on ourselves.”

The officer did not express an opinion about whether Israel should launch a strike against Iran. That was not his job, he said. “What we’re trying to do is to give the political level a choice,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s a leadership decision, probably the biggest such decision since the establishment of the state of Israel. We are building the opportunity, the capability.”

Later this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog outfit, will issue a report to its member states on Iran’s nuclear program. According to various press accounts, Western diplomats who have been briefed describe the report as finding, more explicitly than before, that Iran, despite its own denials and despite international sanctions, has been developing capabilities that appear intended for the production of a nuclear weapon. The I.A.E.A.’s evidence, the BBC reported, will include “intelligence that Iran made computer models of a nuclear warhead,” and satellite images of a steel container that could potentially be used to test explosives “related to nuclear arms.” The Guardians account of developing events, by Julian Borger, is truly alarming.

The details will emerge—and they, inevitably, will be denied in Tehran. At a group interview that I attended in New York two months ago, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted yet again that Iran’s nuclear program was solely for civilian purposes, and, in advance of the new I.A.E.A. report, Iranian officials have declared the evidence that has leaked false, part of an overall fabrication.

An important article by Seymour M. Hersh published in The New Yorker last June, “Iran and the Bomb,” has made plain the complexity—and the potential perils—of trying to assess the nature and the pace of Iran’s nuclear program. Hersh quoted Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the I.A.E.A., as saying, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.” The article, while taking into account the contradictions in Iranian statements and the nature of the regime (including its vicious crackdown on dissidents last year), began by reminding the reader of where hasty, exaggerated, and even manipulated intelligence led the Bush Administration, and the country, in 2003. (In that spirit, we should wait to read the I.A.E.A. report itself before coming to premature conclusions via diplomatic leaks. ElBaradei’s successor is less sanguine about evidence of Iranian intentions.)

From talking to American officials, I get the clear sense that President Barack Obama is deeply concerned about the I.A.E.A. report and the Iranian situation in general, but is hardly eager to lead, or even sanction, a military strike on Tehran. Hawks like Dick Cheney say that this is because Obama is weak and allergic to the use of military strength—a Republican talking point rendered ridiculous, time and again, by the President’s actions, from the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen to his actions in Libya. In Cannes this week, Obama discussed with Nicolas Sarkozy of France and others ways to further isolate Iran in the U.N. and tighten sanctions, possibly making moves on Iranian financial institutions, including its central bank. On a trip to Asia later this week, Obama will try to persuade the Russians and Chinese, who are slower to act against Iran, to cooperate. The tension here is marked: The I.A.E.A. report comes not long after the United States accused Iran of hatching a plot to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Read more…

David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker.

As published in www.newyorker.com on November 6, 2011.


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