The prospect of conflict with Iran has eclipsed Afghanistan as the key national security issue with head-spinning speed. After years of bad blood and an international impasse over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, why does the threat of war seem so suddenly upon us?
The short answer is that Iran has used the years of deadlock over whether it was pursuing a bomb to get within roughly 12 months of being able to build one. Iran claims its nuclear program is not aimed at building a bomb, but it has refused to drop suspect elements of the program.
Time is running short for Iran to back down without a fight. Time is also running short for either the US or Israel to mount a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, something that seemed far-fetched until fairly recently. It is still unlikely, and for the US represents the last worst option to stop an Iranian bomb.
The US has a “very good estimate” of when Iran could produce a weapon, US President Barack Obama said this week. He said that while he believes the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program can still be resolved through diplomacy, the US has done extensive planning on a range of options.
“We are prepared to exercise these options should they arise,” Obama said during an interview with NBC.
He said Israel has not made a decision about whether to launch its own strike.
Diplomacy and economic coercion are the main focus for the US and its allies, and the preferred option, but the increasingly strong warnings from Obama and other leaders reflect a global consensus that Iran is closer than ever to joining the nuclear club.
In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a scathing assessment of the Iranian nuclear program, calling it disturbing and possibly dangerous.
The IAEA, a UN body, said it had “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions” of a program Iran claims is not intended to guild a weapon.
Close US ally Israel is driving much of the burst of international attention now focused on the likelihood of an Iranian bomb and what to do about it.
“When a country that refers to you as a ‘cancerous tumor’ is inching, however slowly, toward a nuclear weapons capability, it’s understandably difficult to relax and keep quiet,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran exert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently draws parallels between modern-day Iran and Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said there was a growing global understanding that military action might be necessary.
For Obama, the threat that the US might use military force must ring true to Iranian leaders while not sounding alarmist to Americans or jittery oil markets. He has been very cautious, which is why his recent, blunter words are notable.
With the clock in mind, the Obama administration is moving much faster than expected to apply the heaviest economic penalties yet on Iran and the oil trade it relies on. This week came a surprise announcement of new sanctions on Iran’s central bank, a key to the regime’s oil profits.
Previous rounds of penalties have not changed Iran’s course, but the US and Europe, which just approved a first-ever oil embargo, argue that they finally have Iran’s attention. The new oil-focused sanctions are intended to cut the revenue Iran’s rulers can collect from the country’s oil business without roiling oil markets.