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The Relativity of Time

The Relativity of Time
Roger Cohen, a reliable critic of Israel’s policies, particularly under the Netanyahu administration, argues against attacking Iran in a New York Times op-ed today. This issue has regained momentum in light of the recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which concluded that in six months Iran will have enriched uranium to the level needed to produce a nuclear bomb. The report also notes that Iran is actively developing warheads and triggering mechanisms. The findings seemingly lay to rest any notion that Iran, as it has claimed for years, is developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. However, the report also posits that Iran is still in the early stages of building ballistic missiles to which it would attach its bombs.

Cohen lists a number of repercussions in the event that Israel and/or America attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, among them a near-certain attack on Israel by Hizbollah and Hamas, which would force Israel to fight its first two-front war in decades; a sharp rise in oil prices, which would hamper an already shaky global economy; and a marked escalation of resentment toward Israel and America in the Muslim world, with an attendant risk of increased terrorism.

Cohen is not wrong on these counts, and the Obama administration must cautiously weigh these factors as it plots its strategy toward Iran. However, after this introduction Cohen proceeds to argue that because Supreme Leader Khamenei is aging, the leadership is divided, and the Iranian regime is unpopular domestically, the best course of action for the West is to impose sanctions and let Iran implode.

Cohen’s unspoken premise is that the Iranian people do not approve of their leaders’ nuclear ambitions. While it may be true that the general public does not want to pick a fight with the West, it is certainly plausible that the Iranian people have always felt threatened and accordingly want to have nuclear insurance. The current theocracy was attacked in its infancy and fought a particularly brutal eight-year war with Iraq that included the use of chemical bombs by Iraq. After the war, Iran initiated and expanded its nuclear program under the more “moderate” regimes of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Kahatami. Its insecurity in the region may not have abated, as it constantly jockeys with Saudi Arabia for regional clout. In fact, its unease may have intensified in light of Saudi Arabia’s iron-fisted repression of Shiite uprisings in Bahrain last spring. It is noteworthy that leaders of the Green Revolution in 2009 did not actively protest the ongoing nuclear program. The Iranian people may well look to beleaguered countries like Israel and Pakistan as examples of how nuclear power can serve as an efficient deterrent against longstanding enemies.

Given this backdrop, Cohen’s assertion that “[t]ime is not on the Islamic Republic’s side” may prove irrelevant. Once nuclear capability is within reach, the populace may strongly support its completion, regardless of any changes in leadership personnel or political system. Given that Iran still appears to have significant hurdles to overcome in its nuclear program, the merits of a military attack by Israel or America on Iran’s nuclear sites at this stage are debatable. Even Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are publicly downplaying the military option in favor of harsher economic sanctions (admittedly in a somewhat cursory and insincere manner). While Israel’s optimal near-term strategy may be tricky, a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly pose an existential threat to Israel. Given this reality, Cohen’s takeaway from the IAEA report-that time is working against Iran, rather than Israel-probably sounds bizarre to most Israelis, and must read like the ramblings of a madman to the Netanyahu administration.



Zev Wexler

Zev Wexler is an associate at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP, where he represents investment managers. In 2009, he took a sabbatical year and volunteered as a strategic consultant in Malawi for Millennium Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Zev is a board member of American Jewish Committee's ACCESS young leadership program, and serves on the Committee's International Relations Commission. Zev is also a board member of the Microfinance Club of New York. Prior to working at Vinson & Elkins LLP, Zev worked at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, and at the asset manager BlackRock Financial Management. He received a BA in Public Policy from Princeton University and a JD from New York University School of Law, and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). Zev currently lives in New York.