The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is best known for its “Doomsday Clock,” featured on the cover of each issue and the publication’s website. It represents how close humanity is catastrophic destruction–the proverbial midnight–and “monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself.” In the 1940s and 50s, the clock symbolized man’s proximity to nuclear destruction but with the end of the Cold War, the doomsday monitor was expanded, to include the “threat” from climate change and biological weapons. The clock now sits at five minutes to midnight.
A decidedly liberal publication, the Bulletin’s articles (and its clock setting) have been the subject of vigorous debate down through the years. But there’s little doubt that the Doomsday Clock put an obscure magazine on the map, and it’s a rather convenient mechanism for depicting our proximity to potential ruin.
With that in mind, it may be time to create a second clock. This one would illustrate the likelihood of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear sites. Using the same methodology as the Bulletin, the clock would start at ten minutes before midnight. Recent events–including Iran’s expanded efforts at uranium enrichment, vows to “wipe Israel off the maps, and acquisition of the S-300 air defense system–would move the hands closer to midnight.
By that standard, we’d say the “Israeli strike clock” began 2009 at four minutes ’till midnight. As we’ve noted in recent posts, Tehran’s accelerated efforts to develop nuclear weapons (and pending deployments of the S-300) have greatly increased chances for an Israeli air strike. According to recent media reports, the Israeli government approached the Bush Administration about supporting the effort, but that request was rejected.
But the Israeli Air Force remains capable of conducting a strike on its own, and its best chance for success (with minimal losses) will occur before the S-300 arrives in Iran. That could indicate an attack during the first half of 2009, before the advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) system becomes operational around Tehran’s nuclear site.
However, it may be time to advance the hands again, based events in the past 24 hours. First, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has just released a new estimate, predicting that Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear device by the end of the year. While reaching that milestone doesn’t equal a ready-to-use weapon, it highlights Tehran’s steady march toward a nuclear capability. The IISS report also casts doubt on that infamous U.S. nuclear assessment (released in late 2007), which claimed Iran had halted work on its weapons program.
If the IISS is correct–and other analysts concur with their assessment–then Iran is at (or rapidly nearing) the point of no return in its nuclear effort. Left unchecked, Tehran can accelerate enrichment efforts and disperse the process–making future air strikes almost pointless. Creating a significant delay in the Iranian program means hitting nuclear facilities before there’s a large stockpile of fissile material–the foundation for a small arsenal of missile warheads or gravity bombs.
But there was a second event today that will also give the Israelis pause. In his first media interview since becoming President, Barack Obama sounded quite conciliatory toward Iran. Here’s his exchange with the Arab network Al-Arabiyah on Tehran and its nuclear program:
Q Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.
Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful.
But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.
Readers will note that President Obama’s remarks did not include the “tough” rhetoric of last year’s presidential campaign, when he announced that a nuclear-capable Iran would be unacceptable.
You can probably guess how this interview played in Tehran. With America firmly committed to the diplomatic track–the same approach that has yielded nothing over the past three years–the mullahs have deduced that they have nothing to fear from an Obama Administration. Crank up those centrifuges at Natanz, and see if the North Koreans have any bomb designs that we can borrow. Iran’s long dream of being a nuclear power is now within reach.
In Israel, the Obama comments had a chilling effect, although no officials have offered a public comment. The Israelis now find themselves facing Iran virtually alone, and with little time to act. Watch for the IAF to ramp up training in the coming weeks, and we wouldn’t be surprised to learn of movements by special forces platforms and other support elements.
The countdown for an Israeli strike against Iran is accelerating; it’s now two minutes until midnight, with little hope of turning back the clock.