This week saw the annual invasion of New York's East Side, as international big-shots flocked to the United Nations. This brief appearance of world leaders serves to lend a modicum of legitimacy to an organization that is the embodiment of waste, fraud, abuse and inertia, the proscenium of world political theater, where, for example, Nikita Krushchev banged his shoe on the podium to emphasize the Russian approach to the balance of world power.
Both Mahmood Achmedinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly, and both spoke of existential threats, not surprising at a time when the speculation is that Israel may soon launch an airstrike to slow Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Although he is a riveting public speaker, Netanyahu demonstrated his points with a crude training aid that looked as if it had been drawn by a grade-schooler, and the overall effect did not make the Israeli argument more convincing.
Netanyahu's point, however, was easy to discern, and with many people expecting an Israeli pre-emptive strike it is worth examining some of the realities of the situation.
Iran has been working on acquiring nuclear weapons for decades, and its ownership of them would be dangerous and would spawn armed conflict and further proliferation. The American position has been that an Iran with nuclear weapons can not be abided, but the real questions revolve around how best to stop the development...and when to do it.
Turning uranium into a weapon is a process that requires technology that Iran haas already acquired, and the first part of it---enriching uranium to 5%---is the most arduous. Further enrichment, to the 90% needed for a weapon, is actually easier. The concern is that Iran is already near the 5% level, but how close is a matter of some debate and informs what actions are to be taken to dissuade continued development. The American view is that Iran is not too close, and that there is a chance that economic sanctions and diplomatic means will be effective. Israel on the other hand, does not have the luxury of being wrong about this.
But as difficult as it is to influence with economic means the hardened theocrats in Teheran, a military strike may be even more difficult. Because we have all waited for decades to do something about Iran, targets are now dispersed and hardened. Smaller, simpler ordnance that would have sufficed twenty years ago will not be enough, and large numbers of big bombs, some of which Israel does not possess, will be required. Then there is the problem of getting to the targets, and all possible flight paths will require violating neighbors' airspace, mid-air refueling from tankers, and aircraft losses over Iran. There are ancillary considerations, too, not the least of which is that Israel will have only one shot at an attack and must get it right the first time. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that most of Israel's military establishment thinks a unilateral strike is a bad idea and have advised against it, and the United States---after a decade of using its military resources inexpertly and inconclusively, desperate to save money, withdrawing from the region, and fearing Muslim backlash---wants no part of it.
This mess is a cautionary tale for all those who wish to influence other actors on the world stage. Among the lessons is that, although precipitous action usually ends in tears, bad news doesn't get any better with age, and ignoring problems until they are nearly insoluble is often worse. Sometimes doing nothing is a splendid idea, but being able to make that decision requires statecraft that neither the United States nor Israel has demonstrated recently.