PARIS - The file will be at the top of the pile on the president's desk. It is the singular priority for the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA - a political hot potato, a diplomatic puzzle, and a strategic nightmare. It is stamped "danger," "highly explosive," and could mean a new war in the Middle East. It is titled: Iran.
The prospect of the Islamic Republic of Iran owning nuclear weapons haunts Washington. The issue is part of a complex game with three protagonists: the United States; Israel-- one of its closest allies; and Iran-- one of the countries most hostile to the U.S.
In this delicate matter, there is no certainty. The ally has its own problems and is not always cooperative. The enemy, if it can save face, might be amenable to an arrangement. Among the players, some are very good in the dirty-tricks department. And to add a little spice to the story, the Israelis do not seem to agree among themselves, nor do the Iranians.
Washington's position - at least its public position- hardened during the U.S. political campaign. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both took the same line, and share the same phrase. The United States asserts it will not allow Iran to obtain the bomb.
The U.S. sees an Iranian bomb as an open door to proliferation across the Middle East, which would turn the region into a nuclear arsenal. It is convinced that Arab countries and Turkey would not allow Iran to have a monopoly on the ultimate weapon. The Middle East with three or four nuclear powers? Avoid it if at all possible in Washington .... or London, or Paris.
The Israel component
Obama will be sworn in to his second term on Jan. 20. Two days later, Israel votes. The probable result is that Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, will be reelected. He has linked his Likud party, the old Israeli right, with Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultranationalist party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
In Jerusalem, where everyone is as passionate about politics as they are about the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions, the press spreads rumors and counter-rumors. Netanyahu would choose Lieberman, an extremist with xenophobe tendencies, as his defense minister because Lieberman is firmly on the side of unilateral strikes against Iran. The prime minister would dismiss Ehud Barak, the former labor party leader, who is convinced that Israel cannot act without the United States.
Things are not so simple, noted Israeli television Channel 2 this week. Netanyahu would be blocked by opposition from the army and the intelligence services, whose chiefs believe that Israel is not in a position to carry out major strikes alone against Iranian nuclear sites.
"It is a simple problem of physics," says Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank. Israel has American-made GBU-27 and GBU-28 bombs, which can penetrate bunkers, but no airplanes capable of carrying the most powerful kind, the GBU-57. But a large proportion of Iranian centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium, are buried deep in mountainsides at Fordow, near the city of Qom.
Tertrais says that in order to destroy the centrifuge room, GBU-57s would be needed, unless a much more ambitious operation were envisaged, combining bombardments with Special Forces operations.
Netanyahu has given himself a few months. At the United Nations on Sept. 27, he said that Iran was enriching uranium so quickly that it would cross what Israel calls its “red line” by next summer.
Iran, which swears it does not want the bomb, will be in the middle of an election campaign by then. The presidential election is planned for June, and is already giving rise to one of the ferocious clan battles that Iran knows so well. The dominant group of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plans to crush the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot be a candidate but hopes to have a champion on the ballot.
Ahmadinejad was just summoned by the Parliament - three-quarters belongs to Khamenei's faction - to explain his poor management of the economy. The president, who might be threatened with dismissal, defended himself by blaming the country's problems on American and European sanctions. Khamenei's entourage suspects Ahmadinejad of being favorable to direct talks with the "Great Satan."
The United States will probably not use force if Iran remains on the "threshold," with the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon but with no intention to do so. The American "red line," as defined by Obama, is the production of a weapon. If sanctions do not force Iran to stop its nuclear program, the president has said, the military option is on the table. If so, Iran would most probably respond. That would mean war, guaranteed to spread in the region.
How much room to maneuver does Obama have? "He is the one who will have to define precisely what 'production of a nuclear weapon' means," says Tertrais, "and it is to be hoped that the Iranians understand clearly what this American 'red line' is."
The two nations have been ignoring each other for 33 years. They have had practically no contact since Nov. 4, 1979, the day the American embassy in Teheran was invaded and hostages captured. The United States has a rather clear idea of what Iran is like. There are many well-informed Iran specialists in Washington. But the Ayatollah has visited only three foreign countries, not exactly models of democracy: Iraq, China and his favorite, North Korea.