For a last-minute entry in the foreign policy category of “October Surprise,” take a look at the statement Tuesday from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Iran stepped back from its push for nuclear-weapons capability in August, delaying the “moment of truth” by “eight to 10 months.”
Barak made the comments in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that the British paper published online yesterday. It’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen yet of Iran’s “blink” in its nuclear confrontation with the West and of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to wait until next spring before considering unilateral military action to stop the Iranian program.
Here’s the “October Surprise” part: You can argue that Iran’s step back from the brink in August was a result of the pressure campaigns by the United States and Israel. A supporter of President Obama could claim that it validates his strategy of sanctions and diplomacy, backed by the threat of military force; a Romney backer could counter that it’s a result of Israeli military threats alone. Either way, it has political implications.
It’s also possible that Iran was casting an early vote in favor of Barack Obama, by defusing an issue that could have exploded in the final two months of the U.S. presidential campaign.
Barak’s comments focused on Iran’s decision in August to convert to civilian fuel rods 38 percent of its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to 20 percent (on the way toward bomb capability). Iran announced this decision, but it received relatively little publicity at the time. It fell to Barak to explain its importance.
The Iranian decision to reduce its available stockpile “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to 10 months,” Barak told the British newspaper. He said there could be at least be three explanations for why Iran had chosen this course:
“One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer. It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], ‘Oh, we comply with our commitments.’”
Barak said Tehran’s move had only delayed the confrontation into next year and that Israel still faced the threat of an Iranian program that by “next spring or early summer” could enter a “zone of immunity” in which it had enough enriched uranium to proceed quickly to make a nuclear weapon, without an Israeli option of military preemption. So for whoever is elected U.S. president on Nov. 6, dealing with the next phase of the Iran crisis will be a top priority.
Perhaps the real October Surprise is the crisis that didn’t happen this month; now Barak has given a clear explanation of how it was defused.