'It's 1938, and Iran Is Germany' Israel's Patience with Tehran Wearing Thin

Iran's leaders continue to reject compromises over their nuclear program and are rebuffing the IAEA. The West is likely to respond with tighter sanctions, but that is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which has attack plans already drawn up.


By , Erich Follath and

Six men are sitting around a table, deciding the future of the world. The men, who represent the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Iran, are considering questions such as: Is Tehran really building a nuclear bomb? Do sanctions work, and if they do, how should they be intensified? Will bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities end up being the only real solution, and what would be the consequences?

The men are not politicians, but scientists and diplomats involved in a role-playing scenario. They are all Israeli citizens. That doesn't make the experiment, which took place two weeks ago at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, any less spectacular. The participants in this role-playing exercise, all of whom were very familiar with the issues involved, were capable of taking a completely different approach to what-if scenarios than politicians, because they cannot be held responsible for anything -- good or bad -- that results from their decisions.

The outcome of the experiment was supposed to be kept secret, but this much was leaked: The participant playing the United States emphasized negotiations and shunned confrontation for a long time, while "Iran" was convinced that it had excellent cards and viewed the risk of truly hard-hitting sanctions as slim. "Israel" initially pushed for international isolation and crippling economic sanctions by the United Nations, but then -- as a last resort -- threatened to attack.

Plans at the Ready

The results probably pleased Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, because they reflected the way he thinks. Although the premier is not yet prepared to deploy Israeli fighter jets to conduct targeted air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, the military has plans at the ready.

Netanyahu has said often enough that he will never accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. He doesn't believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he insists that Iran's nuclear program is intended solely for civilian purposes. But he does take Ahmadinejad -- a notorious Holocaust denier -- at his word when he repeatedly threatens to wipe out Israel. Netanyahu draws parallels between Europe's appeasement of Hitler and the current situation. "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," he says. This time, however, says Netanyahu, the Jews will not allow themselves to be the "sacrificial lamb."

But even politicians who normally take a less extreme view, like Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Israel's minister of intelligence and atomic energy, are now realizing that the situation is coming to a head. A narrow majority of the Israeli population currently favors bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities, while 11 percent would consider leaving Israel if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons.

Meridor says that his counterparts in the US government are reporting a sharp increase in the level of concern among Iran's moderate Arab neighbors. "Ninety percent of the conversations between the United States and countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now revolve around Iran, while 10 percent relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he says.

Decisive Stage

This concern is not limited to the region. In Washington and in the European Union -- and, more recently, in Moscow --, the focus has shifted dramatically toward Iran. After years of maneuvering and deception, and after a long period of missed opportunities, including on the part of the West, the conflict is moving toward a decisive stage.

In a SPIEGEL interview in mid-November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she had no intention of taking the military option "off the table." Her German counterpart, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, attended a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Ministry last Tuesday, where he was briefed on the latest Israeli intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. The next day in Vienna, while standing next to Nobel Peace Prize winner and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who is leaving office this week after heading the UN nuclear watchdog agency for 12 years, Westerwelle said that the international community's "patience with Iran" is "not infinite."

Tehran played a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA for a long time. However, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has both privileges -- such as technical assistance in the civilian use of nuclear energy -- and clearly defined obligations. The regime has repeatedly failed to live up to these obligations, despite many efforts to build bridges, particularly on the part of ElBaradei. This incurred the wrath of the administration of former US President George W. Bush, who even had ElBaradei's telephone conversations tapped.

In its most recent internal report, dated Nov. 16, 2009 and marked "for official use only," the IAEA has adopted an unusually sharp tone. According to the report, the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom in northwestern Iran, which the UN inspectors only discovered in September, was "clearly reportable," because it had apparently been under construction for much longer than the Iranians had indicated. A possible military nuclear program, which the Iranian leadership has consistently denied, raises "alarming" questions, according to the report, while Tehran continues to refuse to permit unannounced inspections. In summary, the report states: "Iran has not fulfilled its obligations. Its behavior is not conducive to the establishment of trust."


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