Storm Clouds on the Horizon

It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to Iran and the existential threat it poses to Israel.

After all, meetings are being held between the sides every few weeks, in places like New York and Vienna, with the goal of reaching a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by July 20. Participating in these meetings are the top experts and political leaders of the six world powers — the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia — on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.

Most reassuring is that this is not the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of “wipe Israel off the map” notoriety, but of Hassan Rouhani, who uses Western terms like “win-win” to describe the agreement he seeks and flashes his photogenic smile at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, the reality is much more ominous. As Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of political-military affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministry, put it at a security conference in Tel Aviv on Monday: “Today is a pleasant day. But there are clouds, and a storm, on the horizon. People don’t believe it until it comes.”

The clouds are an elaborate system of underground reactors that are producing enriched uranium. The storm is a nuclear bomb that is only two months away from being in Iran’s possession and an arsenal of 100,000 missiles that Iran purchased for Hizbullah at a cost of billions of dollars.

The instability that the Middle East has seen in recent years, with upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Syria, pales in comparison to that created by the nuclear arms race that would be launched the minute Iran obtains these weapons of mass destruction.

To be fair, the six world powers, especially the United States, understand the nature of the threat. Hopefully, they also understand that while Israel may be the immediate target, the long-range ballistic missiles being developed by Iran mean it’s only a matter of time before their turn comes, R”l.

Israel has from the start had its doubts about these negotiations. It has taken the position that the goal must be to completely rid Iran of any enrichment capabilities; that anything less would leave Iran “a threshold nuclear power” capable of obtaining a bomb within a few months, when the world is preoccupied with some other crisis.

The West believes that the Iranians will never agree to such a deal, as it would offend their national pride. More realistic, goes the thinking, is to limit enrichment so that the Iranians can’t stockpile large amounts of purified uranium, the core of atomic bombs if enriched to a high level. The enrichment will be closely monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that it is geared solely for civilian use.

But even this much more modest goal appears to be unrealistic.

As one journalist put it, the talks so far have been three months of comparing expectations rather than negotiating compromises. Iran has brushed off American attempts to discuss its ballistic missile program. “We believe there needs to be some additional realism,” a U.S. official said, speaking in polite Diplomat-ese.

The clearest sign that no progress is being made is that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the six powers, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif chose not to appear for a joint news conference at the end of last week’s talks in Vienna. This was a first since the latest round of talks began.

As the deadline for an agreement draws near, it is important that the six powers adopt the view that no agreement is better than a bad agreement. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated last week, American negotiators “will have to be tough, clear-eyed and ready to walk away and increase the pressure if need be.”

To its credit, the Obama administration has been consulting with Israel on these critically important talks and taking into account its concerns. Recent weeks have seen visits to Israel by National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who reiterated Washington’s commitment to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. Hagel even added, in a hint that the military option hasn’t been taken off the table, that “America will do what we must to live up to that commitment.”

Israel is not pushing for military action. On the contrary, it will likely pay a high price if there is a military strike, even one launched by the United States, with Hizbullah and Hamas missiles raining down on every corner of the country.

It would accept, and even rejoice at, a diplomatic agreement that rids the region of the threat of a nuclear Iran (as would Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and others in the region). Its concern, however, is that the West, in its desire to avoid a military confrontation, will be content with a deal that leaves Iran five months away from having the bomb, instead of two.

The “clear-eyed” strategy that Clinton calls for requires that Western negotiators see through Iran’s stalling tactics (it hopes that the longer the talks drag on, the harder it will be for Washington to organize crippling international sanctions). It means making it clear to the Iranians that all options, including military action, are very much on the table.

More than anything else, it means seeing the clouds in the sky and doing everything possible, with Hashem’s help, to prevent the storm.