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reflections

Oct 20, 2008 | 01:56 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The World on Hold

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Sunday details of what it said was an official foreign ministry document stating that Israel does not intend to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the near future. At the same time, an Israeli Knesset member, Isaac Ben-Israel, told the newspaper Maariv that incoming Prime Minister Tzipi Livni "believes that if Iran's nuclear project is not stopped by the world, Israel will have to attack." Ben-Israel also stated that Iran will need another two to three years to attain a crude nuclear device, and did not discuss how long it would take to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon (as opposed to a device that can be detonated in a controlled environment). Ben-Israel, a reserve major general, had been involved in planning the strike on the Iraqi reactor in 1981, was close to outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and does not tend to speak on these matters without authorization. The leak and the statement taken together indicates the state of current Israeli thinking on Iran and represents a substantial shift from the Israelis' public position in the early summer, when they ostentatiously executed exercises in Greece that were intended as a signal of Israeli capabilities against Iran. Since then, U.S. rhetoric against Iran has cooled substantially; the Russo-Georgia war supplanted it first, followed by the global financial crisis. U.S. interest in Iran subsided, as the Russians and Chinese blocked any chance of new sanctions against Iran, and with it any chance of meaningful diplomatic inroads. In effect, the Bush administration is over and Israel is expecting to deal with Barack Obama for the next four years. Obviously, a strike against Iran in the last few months of a Bush administration would not endear Israel to Obama, nor do the Israelis regard such an attack as an urgent necessity. Since their national security is actually not in immediate jeopardy, the Israelis are signaling Obama that they will hold and wait for his strategy to be revealed. They are holding open the option to attack, but showing that they do not need to attack before Obama is anchored. Certainly, they do not plan to create a crisis prior to the election. What we are seeing here is Israel resetting its clock — both in terms of its own change of leadership and, more importantly, in terms of the American change of leadership. Obama, if elected, will not be in office until late January and — in accordance with standard operating procedures for new administrations — will not have a functioning foreign policy team in place until late spring. What the Israelis have done with the leak and Ben-Israel's statement is reset the clock on the Iranian nuclear program as well. They are letting Obama know that they don't plan to deliver a crisis to his doorstep as soon as he takes office. The message might have been very different if it looked like John McCain would win, but at the moment that's not what the polls show. Hence, a new insight into the Iranian threat. This is interesting in its own right. But it is even more interesting as a harbinger of the world resetting its clock based on the new election. The French have asked for a series of global summits to deal with the global financial crisis, with the first to begin after the U.S. election — and the last and most important to be held after inauguration day, one may be certain. Everything is being recalibrated to the expectation of a new American president. It is interesting to see whether the Russians, for example, will see this as a time for caution or boldness. Either way, it is a special time. This shows two things. The first is how flexible many international crises are. They can wait for changes in political leadership. The second is how important the United States remains. If the United States had lost its leadership role, as many Europeans fantasize, French President Nicolas Sarkozy would not be in Washington getting the Americans to agree to a summit. The rest of the world, far more important than the United States, would proceed by itself. But of course, that isn't going to happen. The Europeans and Asians meeting by themselves would not be in a position to make any decisions. For that, the Americans need to be there. And since the Americans won't have a new leader until February, the world financial crisis will just have to wait until then. As will the Israel-Iranian crisis. Until the United States has a new president and he has his team in place, the world will simply have to wait. That irritates the world greatly, but it reaffirms the realities of global power, with or without Lehman Brothers.

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