The big question in the Middle East these days is: Who has time on their side?
As Iran races to develop its nuclear bomb-making capacity, we have always assumed that time was on the Ayatollah’s side. The Iranian strategy of delay and obfuscation in its negotiations with the West seems to have succeeded in buying Teheran the time it needs for its spinning Centrifuges to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. The possibility that Iran may acquire advanced anti-aircraft systems from Russia – even though the Kremlin denies it – seems to make the military option of an air strike on Iranian nuclear plants harder and harder for Israel.
But on the West Bank and Gaza, time has always seemed to be on Israel’s side. Time to build settlements, time to expand those already there, and – most important – time to wait out Obama’s four year term in office all work for Netanyahu.
Then the worm turned! The Stuxnet worm, a Windows-specific computer worm that spies on and reprograms industrial systems. Iran has acknowledged that its nuclear program – the target of the worm – has been damaged significantly. In fact, some speculate that the worm may take a year for Iran to work through. But, since this is the most important use of cyber warfare thus far in history, nobody can really know its full impact.
When one considers the worm in the context of a cruder form of secret war – the targeted assassination of three Iranian nuclear scientists in recent weeks, the agents of the Mossad may have been very busy! And effective! Who knows?
And the United States has finally gotten focused on real sanctions against Iran. Doing what Bush should have done but didn’t, Obama and Hillary (yes – words of praise) have gotten the international community to sanction Iran where it hurts by undermining their capacity to produce oil, reducing their access to gasoline, and curtailing their ability to borrow money.
When we worked for Netanyahu as he approached his election as prime minister last year, we were both deeply impressed by his understanding of the danger an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose to Israel. “It is 1938,” were his prophetic first words when we met in a Manhattan hotel to begin our work. 1938. The war, the holocaust, the slaughter of the Jews seemed to be approaching.
That’s why Bibi’s seeming willingness to play the clock has been puzzling. By waltzing Hillary and Obama around the dance floor of Middle East negotiations, an on-again, off-again settlement building policy, and making noises about peace without actually giving anything up, he appears to be playing for time. And, given Obama’s and Hillary’s inexperience and incompetence in first demanding a settlement freeze and then deciding it had been a mistake to do so, Netanyahu is dancing rings around the pair.
But wasn’t time on Iran’s side? Maybe not.
Perhaps what Bibi is doing – we have had no contact with him since his election – is influenced by the progress he sees in undermining Iran’s nuclear program on the one hand and in keeping Obama to a single term on the other.
Netanyahu watches American politics very, very closely. He probably understands that Obama is inimical to Israel’s interests and likely fully grasps his pro-Arab tendencies. But he also realizes the magnitude of the defeat inflicted upon the president in the midterm elections and sees the probability of his replacement by a staunch Republican friend of Israel in the offing.
So between the worm and the Tea Party, he may figure that time is on his side, after all.
And it may be!