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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, had quite the week when he visited New York to address, as he has done in past years, the United Nations General Assembly. Having landed a room at the venerable Warwick Hotel on Manhattan’s west side—incidentally, readers, if you’re planning a visit to this great city, make sure you stay somewhere else—Ahmadinejad ran the gauntlet of angry demonstrators every time he made the short trip to the UN building on First Avenue.
On one memorable occasion, Ahmadinejad’s spokesman received a well-aimed kick in the backside from a protestor. And each day, the New York press made it crystal clear that the Iranian tyrant was not welcome. The New York Daily News, for example, poked fun at the sight of Ahmadinejad’s underlings going on shopping trips to outlets like Costco and Duane Reed to stock up on shampoo and vitamins. Even the normally anemic New York Times reported on Ahmadinejad’s remarks—“he has no fear of an Israeli attack on his country’s nuclear facilities, regards the Israelis as fleeting aberrations in Middle East history, is neutral in the Syria conflict, and considers homosexuality an ugly crime” —with a modicum of disgust. But the winner of the “Bait Ahmadinejad” competition was hands-down the New York Post, which ran the legend “Peace of Sh!t” across a photo of a grinning Ahmadinejad in its Tuesday, Sept. 25 edition.
All this, of course, was a fitting riposte to the continued tolerance of Ahmadinejad’s annual jaunt to New York, particularly as, this year, his speech to General Assembly took place on Yom Kippur. Yet again, the UN disgraced itself by allowing its podium to be used for a viciously anti-Semitic speech—Ahmadinejad referenced “uncivilized Zionists” and denied the historic Jewish connection to the Land of Israel—on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, no less. Those looking for some comfort in the face of this insult may wish to consider that—in theory at least—this should be the last time we have to put with Ahmadinejad on our soil, as his term as president ends in nine months.
However, away from the circus that the UN General Assembly has become, there is precious little comfort to be had on the vital issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Relations between the mullahs who rule in Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA,) the global body with the thankless task of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program respects international agreements, have reached their lowest point. Iran has accused the IAEA of being infiltrated by “terrorists” and of passing its nuclear secrets to Israel. At this juncture, the most pressing item on IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s desk is how to secure safe passage out of Iran for his inspectors in the event of an Israeli attack on the country’s nuclear facilities.
Skeptics will counter, not without good reason, that this is nothing new under the sun. Every few months, the rhetoric around Iran’s nuclear program ratchets up: Iran makes belligerent statements, some Israeli officials warn that a pre-emptive attack is inevitable while others play this prospect down, and the United States wearily appeals for calm while restating the mantra that “all options are on the table.” Yet there are equally good reasons to believe that the bluff is over.
For one thing, the diplomatic process resembles a corpse in search of a decent funeral. Over the summer, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, heralded a new round of talks with Iran as the unveiling of a serious offer to cooperate on Tehran’s part. But the Iranian offer remains the same: Tehran will suspend its uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, well below the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon, in exchange for a substantive easing of sanctions. Given Iran’s record of deceiving the IAEA inspectors, and the lack of certainty about how many of its facilities are open and how many are concealed, there is really no reason to take the regime seriously.
Additionally, sanctions appear to have impacted nearly every area of Iranian life except for the one where they are most needed: the nuclear program. Over the past few months, the little glimpses we have had into Iran’s nuclear facilities have shown that Tehran is making progress at alarming speed. Its uranium enrichment facility at the Fordow plant— a site that we only know about because western intelligence agencies revealed its existence in September 2009—has doubled its capability. Moreover, Iran is proceeding with the construction of a heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak, which scientists believe could produce plutonium for nuclear arms if the spent fuel is reprocessed.
Small wonder, then, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own speech to the UN General Assembly focused on the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. The danger, recall, lies not just in their potential use, but in their actual ownership. Countries armed with nuclear weapons have a remarkable ability to change their balance of power in their regions. At stake in the Middle East is the prospect that Israel’s military edge—the main reason why the region has avoided a full-scale conflagration for the past several decades—might be blunted by an Iranian bomb.
Netanyahu is rightly frustrated that the Obama Administration remains unwilling to define a red line for Iran. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” Netanyahu declared recently. Perhaps this wasn’t the most diplomatic formulation, but it’s an opportunity for the Obama Administration to understand a truth about Israel that it hasn’t yet grasped: no Israeli government, least of all Netanyahu’s, wants to go down in history as having fatally compromised the security of the Jewish state. And this isn’t Bibi interfering in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, as some left-wing pundits have argued. It’s about preserving his reputation in the Israeli domestic arena and, beyond that, dealing effectively with a genuine existential threat.
In dismissing Israeli alarm as “noise,” President Obama overlooks the fact that it’s hard to think of another responsible leader who would behave differently in the face of such a threat. Like it or not, Israel really does mean business. Better that we should allow Iran policy to be determined by the imperatives of our closest ally than by our worst enemy.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.