Lost in the intense focus on the financial crisis was a report in the British Guardian newspaper that the Bush administration had turned down an Israeli request that Washington green-light an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
According to the report, Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites but was told by President Bush that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for the rest of his presidency, senior European diplomatic sources have told the Guardian.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented the request to Bush in a one-on-one meeting on May 14 during the president's trip to Israel for the 60th anniversary of the state's founding.
The Guardian's sources, who work for a European head of government who was later briefed about the exchange, said Olmert had concluded that the American position was unlikely to change during the remaining months of the Bush administration's tenure.
If the report is true, we can stop wondering about whether America will approve, or participate in an attack aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Fearing the pressure of a third front, the administration has apparently decided to kick the can down the road for the next president to pick up. In turn, that would reflect an assessment that Iran is insufficiently close to the finish line to justify an attack anytime soon, if at all. There are also signs of a gathering consensus that the West will just have to learn to live with an Iranian bomb.
The irony is that this report, which states that a military option has been taken off the table, comes as the world is ever more convinced that the Islamic republic is proceeding with its nuclear military plans. In a report released earlier this month, the United Nations' nuclear weapons watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran tried to refit a long-distance missile to carry a nuclear payload.
The IAEA report states that Iran has increased the number of centrifuges to 3,800 and increased their speed and efficiency, and doubled its production of low-enriched uranium over the past four months, a pace that would allow it to accelerate the production of a nuclear bomb.
Most disturbing, Western intelligence officials told the Daily Telegraph that 50 to 60 tons of uranium — which at weapons-grade level would be enough to produce five to six atom bombs — has disappeared from the main production facility at Isfahan.
The new information convinced Russia and China, the veto-wielding powers on the U.N. Security Council least inclined towards confrontation with Iran, to agree to a new declaration reaffirming the previous sanctions — although not to a new round of intensified sanctions as proposed by France. That may be a grossly inadequate response, but it underscores the near-unanimity with which Western leaders, at least, regard Iran as a dangerous regime about to get far more dangerous unless stopped.
That's easier said than done. Sanctions which could leverage successful diplomacy so that Iran stands down can only work if they are cast more widely and intensify. It's unfortunate, then, that last week Democrats in the House Foreign Affairs Committee shelved a nonbinding "statement of policy" proposed by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) that would urge the president to work with other countries to impose "stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran."
Notwithstanding an assurance that "nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran," the Ackerman statement was seen as opening a back door for war, since Iran might take what amounts to a naval blockade as a casus belli, a justification for war.
This reprised the battle last year over Sen. Hillary Clinton's vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. For this, Clinton was roundly attacked by Sen. Barack Obama, on the grounds that the amendment could be used by the administration "to justify an attack on Iran as a part of the ongoing war in Iraq." Kyl-Lieberman had the same assurance found wanting this time.
The presidential candidates should tell the American people the truth: We are either going to have to live with an Iranian bomb and make the adjustments that will require, or press for sanctions intense enough to risk being understood as an act of war by the Iranians. There are no other alternatives.
David Twersky is a veteran journalist based in New York City.