Nuclear Iran is past its point-of-no-return, yet oil sanctions remain on paper
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu advised visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey Friday, Jan.20 that the time for action against Iran was now, for two reasons: First, the conviction that Iran has passed the point of no return for developing a nuclear weapon; and second, the diminishing prospects for a US-led embargo on Iranian oil to catch on before it is too late.
The Obama administration disputes the Israeli prime minister on both points, insisting there is still time for tough sanctions to incapacitate the Iranian economy and stop Tehran before it reaches the point of no return in its drive for a nuke. Israel insists that this pivotal point was reached four years ago in 2008.
Gen. Dempsey was exhaustively briefed on the Israeli position during his whirlwind interviews Friday with President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and three conversations with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, one with key General Staff officers.
It was not by chance that Maj. Gen. (ret.) Asher Yadlin, until last year Israel chief of military intelligence, maintained in a detailed article in the Tel Aviv daily Maariv: "If Iranian leaders were to convene tonight and decide to go ahead with the secret production of a nuclear bomb, they already possess the resources and components for doing so. This [capability] was once defined as the point of no return. [As matters stand] now, Iran's nuclear timeline no longer hinges on the calendar; it rests entirely on a decision in Tehran."
The former intelligence chief was saying that for four years, the US and Israeli governments colluded in propagating the false assumption that Iran had not reached a nuclear weapon capability. Presenting a highly problematic oil embargo in 2012 as capable of putting Iran off its nuclear stride is equally illusory.
Yadlin's disclosure provided backing for Netanyahu who Thursday, Jan. 19, at the end of a visit to Holland, asserted for the first time: "Iran has decided to become a nuclear state" and called for "action now to stop Iran before it's too late."
Some of Israel's cabinet ministers tried to soften the impact of the prime minister's words by suggesting that his bluntness aimed at pushing President Barack Obama into implementing the sanctions he signed into law on Dec. 30 targeting Iran's central bank and oil sales, and giving him an extra lever for bringing the European Union and Asian powers aboard.
But Netanyahu soon put them right. According to debkafile's Jerusalem sources, he lined them all up to inform Gen. Dempsey – and through him President Obama – that they did not believe in those sanctions and suspected the Obama administration of orchestrating their buildup as a tool for holding Israel back from a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
debkafile's oil sources in Asia and Europe report that updated figures confirm how little traction the oil embargo campaign has achieved so far:
There is no evidence that China, Japan, South Korea, India, Turkey and the European Union members, which purchase in total 85 percent of Iran's total average export of 2.5 million barrels a day, have cancelled any part of their orders.
While China – which in 2011 bought from Iran 550,000 barrels a day, covering 11 percent of its oil – cut its orders down in January by 285,000, this had nothing to do with ab embargo. Beijing was simply exploiting the threat of an embargo to squeeze from Iran a discount on prices and reduction of its debt for previous purchases. China made it clear to the Security Council that is opposed to "sanctions, pressure and military threats" against Iran. After settling its price dispute with Tehran, China fully intends to return to its former level of trade, even if it decides to partially diversify its oil sources to Saudi Arabia following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's Middle East trip this month.
The European Union, which buys some 450,000 barrels per day from Iran, holds a special meeting Monday, Jan. 23, after failing last week to approve a cutback on purchases from Iran. Iran provides Greece, Italy and Spain respectively with about 25 percent, 13 percent and 10 percent of their oil. They are holding out for a very partial embargo and want it delayed until the end of 2012.
Japan, while pledging publicly to keep reducing its purchases of Iranian crude by 100,000 barrels a day, is waiting to see whether China and India join the ban. "The United States should try and talk more with India and China as they are the biggest buyers of Iranian crude," said Japan's foreign minister Koichiro Gemba this week, clearly passing the buck.
South Korea is only willing to forgo 40,000 bpd, but is asking for a waiver.
India's Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said this week that India, which as Iran's second biggest buyer after China relies on Iran for 12 percent of its imports (3,500,000-4,000,000 bpd), will continue to trade with Tehran and not abide by sanctions.
In anticipation of a US-led ban on Iran's central bank, Delhi announced this week that the CBI would open an account with an Indian bank for receiving payment for its oil, partly in Indian rupees instead of US dollars.
Turkey, keen to position itself as broker between the West and Tehran and the venue for future nuclear negotiations, is maintaining its import level of 200,000 bpd of crude from Iran.
Given the snaillike progress of the international oil sanctions campaign against Iran, the Israeli Prime Minister informed Gen. Dempsey Friday that he could not see his way to giving the Obama administration more time for these penalties to work. He stressed that the Islamic Republic's nuclear program had reached the critical point where time was of the essence for preempting a nuclear-armed Iran.