Legions of senior American officials have descended on Jerusalem recently, but the most important of them has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His central objective was to dissuade Israel from carrying out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Under the guise of counseling “patience,” Mr. Gates again conveyed President Barack Obama’s emphatic thumbs down on military force.
The public outcome of Mr. Gates’s visit appeared polite but inconclusive. Yet Iran’s progress with nuclear weapons and air defenses means Israel’s military option is declining over time. It will have to make a decision soon, and it will be no surprise if Israel strikes by year’s end. Israel’s choice could determine whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.
Mr. Obama’s approach to Tehran has been his “open hand,” yet his gesture has not only been ignored by Iran but deemed irrelevant as the country looks inward to resolve the aftermath of its fraudulent election. The hardliner “winner” of that election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was recently forced to fire a deputy who once said something vaguely soothing about Israel. Clearly, negotiations with the White House are not exactly topping the Iranian agenda.
Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s negotiation strategy faces insuperable time pressure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed that Iran must re-start negotiations with the West by September’s G-20 summit. But this means little when, with each passing day, Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile laboratories, production facilities and military bases are all churning. Israel is focused on these facts, not the illusion of “tough” diplomacy.
Israel rejects another feature of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic stance. The Israelis do not believe that progress with the Palestinians will facilitate a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Though Mr. Gates and others have pressed this fanciful analysis, Israel will not be moved.
Worse, Mr. Obama has no new strategic thinking on Iran. He vaguely promises to offer the country the carrot of diplomacy-followed by an empty threat of sanctions down the road if Iran does not comply with the U.S.’s requests. This is precisely the European Union’s approach, which has failed for over six years.
There’s no reason Iran would suddenly now bow to Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts, especially after its embarrassing election in June. So with diplomacy out the door, how will Iran be tamed?
Mr. Gates’ mission had extraordinary significance. Israel sees the political and military landscape in a very inauspicious light. It also worries that, once ensnared in negotiations, the Obama administration will find it very hard to extricate itself. The Israelis are probably right. To prove the success of his “open hand,” Mr. Obama will declare victory for “diplomacy” even if it means little to no gains on Iran’s nuclear program.
Under the worst-case scenario, Iran will continue improving its nuclear facilities and Mr. Obama will become the first U.S. president to tie the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities into negotiations about Iran’s.
Israel understands that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent commitment to extend the U.S. “defense umbrella” to Israel is not a guarantee of nuclear retaliation, and that it is wholly insufficient to deter Iran from obliterating Israel if it so decides. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s comment tacitly concedes that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, exactly the wrong message. Since Israel, like the U.S., is well aware its missile defense system is imperfect, whatever Mr. Gates said about the “defense umbrella” will be politely ignored.
Relations between the U.S. and Israel are more strained now than at any time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Mr. Gates’s message for Israel not to act on Iran, and the U.S. pressure he brought to bear, highlight the weight of Israel’s lonely burden.
Striking Iran’s nuclear program will not be precipitous or poorly thought out. Israel’s attack, if it happens, will have followed enormously difficult deliberation over terrible imponderables, and years of patiently waiting on innumerable failed diplomatic efforts. Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).