Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Even the Saudis know something has to be done to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Weekend reports that Saudi Arabia will allow overfly rights to Israeli warplanes to strike nuclear facilities in Iran came as no surprise in these quarters. A growing Arab-Israeli detente is being driven by the shared sense of threat from Tehran. In March, a high-ranking Israeli source told us, “You’d be amazed at how we see eye-to-eye with the moderate Arab states.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. sent signals on Sunday when he stated twice that the United States cannot dictate to “another sovereign nation” — in this case Israel — what it can and cannot do with respect to launching an attack on Iran. The United States clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, as improbable as that is to succeed. But with respect to third-party military action, the United States will not cooperate with or try to prevent it. In diplomatic parlance, this is known as a green light.

Israel’s overfly deal with Saudi Arabia makes sense. So long as the agreement is not public, the Saudis can claim to have been caught unaware, which is important because Riyadh is not yet at the stage where it will be openly complicit in acts of what it is likely to denounce as “Zionist aggression.” It also gives plausible deniability to the United States, which would not be the case if Israel chose to fly over Iraq.

An Iranian atomic bomb is imminent. The recent nationwide uprising in Iran has raised the Islamic regime’s level of insecurity, and the same week the protests began, the United Nations’ chief nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, stated that he had concluded Iran was seeking nuclear weapons to send a message to the rest of the world not to “mess with” Tehran.

Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the center-left Institute for Science and International Security state that Iran will reach the nuclear threshold this year. Even the December 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated that the earliest Iran would have a nuclear capability would be in 2010, which is less than six months away.

The strategic lines can be drawn with syllogistic precision. Iran is nearing the stage where it will be in a position to test a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region. The United States has chosen a course of action that will not prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability. Therefore, other countries must take concerted action to stave off the threat. Israel has the best-equipped conventional forces to undertake the mission, though we assume that other regional actors will cooperate on covert operations that no doubt are already taking place.

It’s a shame the United States once again is relying on Israel to be the chief agent for nuclear counterproliferation in the Middle East. But so long as Washington does not get in the way, that probably is the best option.

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