TEL AVIV – A DRONE recently penetrated Israel’s airspace from the Mediterranean. It was allowed to fly for about half an hour over southern Israel before being shot down by the Israeli air force over a sparsely populated area. It is still not known who dispatched the drone and from where, but it is now assumed that it was launched from Lebanon, either by Hezbollah, acting in Iran's service, or by forces of the Iranian regime itself.
If that is indeed the case, the episode should not be regarded as yet another incident in a region fraught by conflict and violence. On the contrary, it is a significant window into the arena in which the conflict over the future of Iran's nuclear program is being waged.
Several developments and forces are now shaping this arena. One is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision, announced in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, to suspend his threat to launch unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear installations. He has said that Israel will give the US and the rest of the international community an opportunity to stop Iran’s progress through other means by the spring or early summer of 2013.
Another development is the US presidential election. Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s success in the first debate improves his chances and the prospect of a new administration settling in before any major decisions are made on the Iranian nuclear issue.
In Iran, the regime pushes ahead, but is clearly being hurt by an economic crisis (largely a consequence of international sanctions), popular protest, and internal bickering – and has turned bellicose as a result. After several months of listening to Israeli (and, to some extent, US) war rhetoric, the regime began issuing its own menacing bombast, as a matter of substance and to defend the pride of a regime that views itself as the heir to the glorious imperial tradition of Persia.
Various Iranian spokesmen have begun threatening Israel not only with a massive response to any potential attack, but also with a preemptive strike. Israel would not merely be punished for any attack, they say; it would be annihilated.
This position was accompanied by Iran’s harder line on military involvement in the Syrian civil war, echoed by its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. For some time, under the impact of the Syrian civil war – and still smarting from the 2006 war with Israel – Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, had lowered his profile and moderated his rhetoric. No longer.
At the same time, the Iranian regime is sending a variety of signals that it wants to renew the nuclear negotiations. One example was the announcement that some of its enriched uranium is being diverted to medical research; in other words, uranium enrichment, according to this message, can be slowed down. At this point, however, there are no indications that Iran is interested in more than reducing external pressure and the impact of the sanctions.
The drone, shot down not far from Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona, fits with these two efforts. Iran’s war rhetoric and threat to inflict a deadly blow on Israel is served by dispatching a drone in the general direction of Dimona. And, if the idea is to negotiate, the drone’s flight was an excellent prelude to a demand that Iran’s nuclear effort be dealt with as part of a larger effort to ban nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East.
There are two other disturbing aspects to the drone affair. First, it is a clear indication that Hezbollah is, indeed, the long arm of the Iranian regime – its base on the Mediterranean and on Israel’s border. The occasional argument that it is a genuine Lebanese political movement, tied to Iran but ultimately Lebanese, is simply wrong.
Second, the drone’s arrival from the Mediterranean underscored the danger that terrorist organisations, supplied with deadly modern equipment, can inflict damage “without a return address.” Just a few weeks ago, it was feared that Syria’s crumbling regime might transfer part of its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah, or that some of that arsenal might fall into jihadis’ hands. And one of the arguments against Iran’s nuclear program has been that the regime might transfer fissile material to Hezbollah and its ilk to be used in a radioactive “dirty bomb.”
There are four components to an effective strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program: real negotiations, rather than a leisurely meeting once every few weeks; stiff sanctions on Iran, but without today’s gaping loopholes; a credible threat of military action; and a face-saving exit for the Iranian leadership.
This is a viable strategy, but it is now clear that only the US can implement it. Let us hope that the Americans act in time.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador of Israel to the United States (1993-1996), is currently based at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the Brookings Institution.