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An Iranian flag is pictured next to missiles during a war exhibition to mark the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war at Baharestan square near the Iranian Parliament in southern Tehran

Israel did not bomb Iran last year. Why should it happen this year?

Because it did not happen last year. The Iranians are proceeding apace with their nuclear program. The Americans are determined to stop them. Sanctions are biting, but the diplomatic process produced nothing visible in 2012. Knowledgeable observers believe there is no “zone of possible agreement.” Both the United States and Iran may believe that they have viable alternatives to a negotiated agreement.

While Israel has signaled that its “red line” (no nuclear weapons capability) won’t be reached before mid-2013, it seems likely it will be reached before the end of the year. President Barack Obama has refused to specify his red line, but he has made it amply clear that he prefers intensified sanctions and eventual military action to a nuclear Iran that needs to be contained and provides incentives for other countries to go nuclear. If and when he takes the decision for war, there is little doubt about a bipartisan majority in Congress supporting the effort.

Still, attitudes on the subject have shifted in the past year. Some have concluded that the consequences of war with Iran are so bad and uncertain that every attempt should be made to avoid it. Most have also concluded that Israel could do relatively little damage to the Iranian nuclear program. It might even be counter-productive, as the Iranians would redouble their efforts. The military responsibility lies with President Obama.

“Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the United States will target it. Israel will launch on warning. This hair trigger situation will be more perilous than the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War…” – Daniel Serwer

There has been a recent flurry of hope that the Iranians are preparing to come clean on their past nuclear weapons activities, which could be a prelude to progress on the diplomatic track. The issue is allegedly one of timing and sequencing: the Iranians want sanctions relief up front. The Americans want to see enrichment to 20 percent stopped and the enriched material shipped out of the country, as well as a full accounting for past activities, before considering any but minor sanctions relief. Some would also like to see dismantling of the hardened enrichment plant at Fordow.

Iranian workers paint a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on a wall in Tehran. (Reuters file photo)

But the fundamental issue is whether Iran is prepared to give up its nuclear weapon ambitions, or whether it is determined to forge ahead. Iranian behavior in the last year suggests no let-up in the country’s regional (and wider) pretensions. It has supported Bashar al-Assad to the hilt in Syria, armed Hamas for its confrontation with Israel, continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, assisted North Korea’s ballistic missile satellite launch and made trouble in Iraq. Why would it not also seek nuclear weapons, which would make it immune (or so many in the Iranian regime seem to think) from American regime change efforts?

There are not a lot of good answers to that question, except this: a reasonable man in Tehran might well conclude that Iranian national security is better served by stopping the nuclear program before it actually produces weapons. Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the United States will target it. Israel will launch on warning. This hair trigger situation will be more perilous than the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, when each side assumed the rationality of the other and communications between them were good. Neither Iran nor Israel assumes the other will behave rationally, making deterrence unreliable, and communications between the two governments are virtually non-existent. The distance between Tehran and Jerusalem makes quick decisions necessary.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility south of Tehran. (Reuters file photo)

Two big political uncertainties loom over the nuclear issue next year: Iran is scheduled to hold presidential elections in June and the Supreme Leader is thought to be ill. The identity of neither Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor as president nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s as Supreme Leader is clear. While it may be too much to hope that the successors will be any better than the incumbents, any transition introduces diplomatic delays and uncertainties, even though the nuclear program should be expected to proceed. But will the transitions be orderly, or will the Greens who roiled Iran’s political sphere last time around revive? Iran’s regime has deep roots in revolutionary fervor, which has made it more resilient than Egypt’s. But that does not mean it will last forever.

There is still a slim hope for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The prospects are not good, but the consequences of failure are dreadful. The Obama Administration has managed to avoid overt commentary on Iran in the last couple of months. Candidate Romney was cautious during the campaign. The door is clearly open to the Iranians, if they want to come in from the cold of sanctions and isolation. If they fail to do so, and continue to buck the international community, war in 2013 is likely. Not because it is a good solution, but because President Obama might regard it as the only solution, albeit a temporary and highly uncertain one.

This post was originally published under a similar headline by Reuters.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Daniel Serwer

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at and tweets at @DanielSerwer


  1. Bill Fix

    March 8, 2013

    Russia and China are playing with fire. By allowing thier Crazy junkyard dog bark and howl and the Iranian issues. Is this what you want? Total nuclear war? We will have no choice but to retaliate in messured responce and watch what happens. Its brinkmanship politics all over the world tonight…

    • Charles Amos

      March 8, 2013

      Bill, the Demagogs want us to turn in our weapons first. Plan might be to turn us over without any shots being fired?

  2. Persianwrath

    January 16, 2013


    again You are very down beat and proud about the USA atrocities across this planet , bullying, ignoring the right of democracy of other nations.
     What is the most commonly word associated with AMERICA ? No its not failure but it could be
    “IT`S UPHOLDING THE AMERICAN VALUES “ isn’t it ? Exactly what monstrous USA brought ? Well I suggest a decade on what USA brought is chaos , discord, misery for millions of people across the world.
    After a decade of exhausting and demoralizing , immoral conflict between the Despotic   US  and two of the weakest, most impoverished countries in the world, Iraq and Afghanistan, many Zionist like “Joe Lieberman” within the US political establishment are calling for the country to engage in yet another conflict.

    I The US has no morality as a Nation , The vast majority of the 350m people live in The US are greedy, self-centred, demanding, non-reflective harpies. They have been demonstrated & manifested their egotistical and a predatory behavior toward each other and far worth against THE REST OF THE SOVEREIGN NATION . In the US There are few minorities who have been defending Humanity, but they have been strangulated gradually by the majority of Godless ,materialistic Citizen in the US )

    The USA Locked in deception, The US Citizen like yourself have been supporting the treacherous plans that Octopus Washington with the its Hidden agencies and the institutions are hatching for a decades in Middle East.

  3. JKF2

    January 7, 2013

    This is not about the “Jews”, as the anti-semitic poster, below, would make us believe; this is about the entire Middle East, especially the Gulf states, that provide the motive energy for most of the world. Already we see elements of instability in Kuwait, Dubhai, Quatar, and even Saudi Arabia. The sit in Yemen is very explosive. All opinions, indicate that Iran continues to attempt to expand its grip on the region, from Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon, and now to the Gulf states. The latest Iranian naval excersises in the Gulf, clearly and beyond any question indicates that Iran is preparing to have the full capability to shut down the waterways at will. The destruction/capture of RPVs, over internationl waters, demonstrates clearly, that Iran is tactically and strategically prepared to influence negatively oil supplies/ markets. The current Iranian despotic leadership has made tremendous advances in all types of tactical and even strategic weapons; a week does not go by without an Iranian announcement of the successful test of some new weapon or new capability. A nuclear armed Iran, would in fact have full control over the Gulf and its waterways, and even fully influence nearby countries. Such control would seriously imperil energy supplies troughout the world/ generate big un-employment and recesionary pressures to an already weak global economic situation.. There is no reason whatsoever, to doubt that Iran will be fully capable of building and using nuclear weapons very soon. Is such a situation acceptable to: the allies of the Gulf states; to the energy users from the Gulf; and even to the sovereign Gulf states, unquestionably not. The ability of Iran to shut down the Gulf waterways, would introduce another very negative factor into the whole petrochemical market, and thus affect world trade. I hope the sit gets resolved peacefuly, but it is not looking very good, Iran is clearly not bluffing!

  4. ryesta7971

    January 6, 2013

    whatever the jews wants, the jews get

    Iran has every right to develop nuclear technology, but forget about that….the UN bows to anything the zionists want


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