January 10, 2011

Iran's nuclear threat distracts us from daily dangers

The intelligence dance on Iran continues. Last week, Israel's outgoing Mossad chief pushed back the projected date of Iran’s nuclear debut to 2015. The most recent assessment had been a year or less, but presumably the Stuxnet computer worm and a couple of well-placed motorcycle bombs have set things back a bit. 

But... 2015?
For years now, U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates on Iran's nuclear program have alternated between imminent threat and distant possibility, just over the horizon. Part of this may reflect an honest assessment of technical, strategic and military capabilities and intentions.
Political calculations also factor into such back and forth. If "sanctions fatigue" begins to undermine support for new sanctions or enforcement of existing measures, because the assumption is Iran already has a nuclear capability or it's inevitable, then projections can be changed to show there's still time to act. If the nuclear threshold seems too distant and inconsequential, data can be repackaged to suggest greater urgency and emphasize ongoing progress.

Within the domestic politics of either the United States or Israel, there's presumably an added opportunity to undermine or embarrass the competition -- intelligence vs. military vs. diplomats, Democrats vs. Republicans, Labor vs. Likud. If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was thinking to use Iran's nuclear program as an alibi for stalling substantive peace negotiations with the Palestinians, then this probably hurts his plan.
But 2015 is four years away, which in Twitter time is forever. That's ten new iPad releases from now. It sounds unrealistic and without basis -- how can anyone predict such a development more than two years out? What is to be gained by such information? How could any Israeli official paint a picture that suggests reducing -- or effectively eliminating -- the threat assessment?
If the analysis is solid, of course, there is still good reason to continue deterring and denying Iran's unacceptable quest for an illicit nuclear capability. It shows that international efforts are working. It also fits the fears of those living closer to Iran, that the real threat is Tehran's subversion and military encroachment in Iraq, the Gulf, and Lebanon. Israelis are in daily danger from Hezbollah to the north and Hamas to the south.
If we take the unthinkable nuclear page off the board for a moment, the other priorities become real again and we can get down to business with guns, tanks, drones, and night-vision goggles.
Gaming Iran's goals in the region is as difficult as discerning the true motivations behind a spymaster's public statements. But in all likelihood, Iran seeks nuclear weapons not in order to actually deploy them. Iran seeks regional domination and global status -- the fulfillment of Persian destiny. If these are its motivations, we may prefer a more balanced focus on all its manifestations. But will that impress the member states of the United Nations Security Council?

1 comment:

  1. Any threat or issue that can be manipulated to hang around the political consciousness long enough eventually evolves into a long-term institution, especially when money – and lots of it – is thrown into the game. To think it has been 40 years since we have been losing the “War on Drugs,” despite President Obama’s preference to lose that name. Some might say it even goes back 90 years. Let’s see how long the Iranian nuclear threat can be played. A trillion dollars? Two trillion dollars?