“Israel’s attack on Osirak was a major mistake,” the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, told me a while back. Mr. Blix, a Swede, had then just ended his stint as top United Nations arms inspector in Iraq.
While Israel’s storied Operation Opera destroyed Saddam Hussein’s atomic plant In 1981, he said, it then motivated the Iraqi strongman to vigorously renew efforts to obtain a bomb, a headache for the non-proliferation community.
There is, though, a counter argument, one that is highly relevant right now. “To this day Iraq doesn’t have a nuclear weapon,” says Ephraim Asculai, an Israeli who had worked as an IAEA official in the 1980s. Saddam, Mr. Asculai told me, tried to revive his nuclear program, but he then got sidetracked, invading Kuwait and getting bogged down in confrontations that led to his demise — with no nukes in hand.
The pursuit of a bomb by the Assad clan at Syria ended similarly, never to be rebuilt, after Israel, in 2007, bombed its nascent nuclear facility in Deir ez-Zor. Iran’s nuclear program suffered a setback in 2010, after a joint Israeli-American cyber attack, Stuxnet, slowed its centrifuge production.
Five years ago, America changed its own strategy, collaborating with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, in negotiating with the Islamic Republic the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal’s promise — stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions via diplomacy — is now fizzling. At the same time, the non-diplomatic approach once again looks promising.
To a degree that is hard to ignore, Tehran is blaming Israel and America for a series of explosions and fires that have shaken the country in the last couple of weeks. Jerusalem, as customary, won’t comment. An anonymous Mideastern intelligence source, though, is making the rounds, telling American reporters that Israel is responsible for, if nothing else, a July 2 explosion at Natanz that targeted a factory where Iran is building a new generation of centrifuges to speed up its enrichment capabilities.
There were other mishaps, including a June 22 explosion that damaged an Iranian missile production factory. And on Wednesday fire erupted at a port in Bushehr, setting ablaze at least four ships. Israel’s press reports that the target was vessels Iran uses to ship illicitly missiles and other arms to its regional proxies.
The Natanz explosion reportedly delayed the advanced centrifuge project by at least two years. The project, Mr. Asculai reckons, would have given Iran the ability to produce up to four bombs a year. He warns, however, that the bombing was far from a decisive blow.
Iran might rely on the older generation of centrifuges while it tries to reinstate faster enrichment capabilities. Yet as the past attacks on Iraqi and Syrian facilities show, and contrary to Mr. Blix’s objection to non-proliferation by military means, destroyed facilities are hard to rebuild.
Yes, Tehran turns to China for help, but besieged by crumbling infrastructure, a collapsed economy and increasingly angry Iranian people, the clerical regime’s survival is far from guaranteed.
For now, Tehran officials await the November election before deciding on their next moves. If Vice President Biden wins the presidency, America should “immediately re-engage in nuclear diplomacy with Iran,” a top foreign policy adviser to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Jacob Sullivan, said in May. Mr. Sullivan, formerly a top JCPOA negotiator, added, however, that a Biden administration may first keep the sanctions President Trump reinstated after dropping out of the deal, and renegotiate the JCPOA’s “sunset” clauses that, at the moment, gradually remove restrictions.
While in the primaries the former veep campaigned as a foreign policy centrist, Mr. Biden is now under constant pressure from Democrats to his left. That means his Iran policy, for now, remains a mystery. Current events suggest that, if elected, Mr. Biden should ignore those who push him for Iran appeasement.
The Obama administration tried to end Iran's race to the bomb by negotiations. Anything else, they warned, means “war.” Yet Israel’s pinpoint attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear projects haven’t lead to an all-out war. They did deprive the region’s worst actors from obtaining the worst weapons.