Preparing for a Nuclear Iran

It comes to this: Iran will get the bomb. America and/or Israel will have to stop them.

The subject of the recent tête-à-tête between U.S. president Barack Obama and Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak in the White House was clear: Iran. But what was said?

The meeting itself was unusual—only rarely does the American president receive visiting defense ministers and almost never in a one-on-one meeting. Barak, a former Israeli Labor Party leader who was welcome during the Clinton administration, is now Israel's liaison to the current Democratic White House, given the antipathy toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Washington—not to mention in almost all other Western capitals.

But the meeting was still unusual, perhaps even historic. Did Obama give Israel a green (or yellow) light to attack Iran's nuclear installations? Or did he add his own personal caution against such a move, following similar public warnings recently issued by the U.S. secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff?

Or was the outcome of the meeting something in between: An American assurance that it would give Israel the green light or, better still, take out the Iranian installations itself or with Israel within a specified time frame, provided the current sanctions campaign bears no visible fruit?

What divides America and Israel over Iran is the apparent, immediate readiness to take military action. The United States, having just wound up its nine-year war in Iraq and still mired in the Afghani bog, has lost the will to fight another war in the Middle East—though it is not inconceivable that a second-term Obama, persuaded of Iran's potential lethality, regional and global, would be willing to override American public opinion on this issue. Still, Israel feels existentially, mortally threatened while America is a two- or three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile away.

And apparently Israel and the United States differ in their chronological appreciations: how soon Iran will get the bomb, if left unimpeded. Barak has been speaking in recent weeks of a window of opportunity of "months"; the Americans seem to believe that there are still between one and two years.

The Iranians, for their part, have been displaying a growing nervousness and appear to be speeding up the completion of their underground enrichment facility inside a mountain outside Qom, which rumor says is designed for carrying out the final "sprint," enriching the uranium produced at the outdoor Natanz facility from 20 percent to a weapons-grade 90 percent. At the same time, they have been issuing forthright warnings that, if attacked, they will hit American targets and shut the Straits of Hormuz between Iran and Arabia, through which 60 percent of the West's oil imports are channeled.

Israel, too, seems not to be wasting these final months before a prospective showdown. Last week it announced that the IDF is at last setting up a "long-range operations command," something debated for decades in the defense establishment without upshot. Barak even brought back from a ten-year retirement a leading commando general, Shai Avital, to head the command. (Both Barak and Avital in their day commanded the country's most elite unit, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, sayeret matcal, of 1976 Entebbe Raid fame. Foreign reports have it that the unit has been operating in Iran, at least in an intelligence-gathering role, for years.)

And over the past month, three mysterious explosions have rocked major Iranian installations: a rocket-development base forty kilometers southwest of Tehran, an unidentified site in or near Isfahan, which has a large nuclear facility, and at a "special steel" production plant in Yazd. While neither Israel nor the United States has claimed responsibility, a smiling Barak said: "May such explosions continue."

The recent American and EU upgrades of sanctions against Iran have left Israelis—and, apparently, the Iranians—unimpressed. The sanctions do not include a total ban on oil exports and refined fuel imports or a blanket boycott of Iran's central bank. Moreover, so long as Russia, China, India and some European countries, not to mention Turkey and the Arab world, continue to trade massively with Iran, expect Tehran to continue its push toward nuclear weaponry.

So what it boils down to is simple: Iran will get the bomb—or Israel and/or America will have to stop them militarily. But the fallout from a military strike—an Iranian counterassault on Israel and Western interests in the Middle East and Iranian-orchestrated terrorism worldwide—will be anything but simple.

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His most recent book is One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).