Makovsky: Iran ‘like Cuban missile crisis in slow motion’

Middle East expert and St. Louis native David Makovsky speaks last week at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library’s Annual Lazaroff Lecture.  Photo: Meg Crane/Jewish Federation

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

David Makovsky, a native of St. Louis and a leading expert on the Middle East, said during a St. Louis visit last week that the threat of a unilateral attack by Israel has “dropped off for now,” but the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons can be compared to “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”

Makovsky, a distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was in town to deliver the annual Lazaroff Lecture for the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, which was attended by more than 150 people last week.

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Before his talk, he visited the Jewish Light for an interview. (View video excerpts of the interview online at

When Makovsky spoke in St. Louis last March in the “Can We Talk?” program sponsored by the Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Center, he indicated that there was a “better than 50-50 chance” that Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear facilities — with or without the support of the United States.

At the time he said that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was most in favor of such a strike, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “just a few steps in back of Barak.” Since then, Makovsky said Barak has changed his view in order not to create a wedge between Israel and its most important ally, the United States. Noting that while he understood Netanyahu’s frustration over tensions with American officials, “it was a mistake for Netanyahu to go public with his concerns,” Makovsky said.

“It is a very tough dilemma,” Makovsky continued, “and one that calls for some humility.” He added that recent polling data suggests most Israelis want the United States and Israel to work together on this issue. Since his United Nations speech, Netanyahu has said that he believes things won’t get critical until 2013.

Makovsky said he had no doubt that Iran was continuing its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that the development of such weapons by Pakistan and North Korea are examples of that danger. “There is concern that the feeling will be that it is too early for action, too early, too early, and then…Oops! Too late!”

Makovsky recently had an article published in The New Yorker magazine called “The Silent Strike” about the events leading up to Israel’s destruction of a nuclear plant in Syria in September 2007, which he compared to a “James Bond-style operation.”

But he cautioned against making comparisons to Israel’s 1981 destruction of the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, and the 2007 destruction of the nuclear plant in Syria. Iran has multiple locations of nuclear facilities, and taking action against them would be much more complicated and challenging than those single-facility actions, said Makovsky.

Turning to other areas of concern in the Middle East, Makovsky said that recent events in Egypt after the election of the Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as President to be a combination of those that are “hopeful” and those that are “less hopeful.”

Makovsky noted that the “Arab Spring started with such hope with so many young people demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for an idealistic vision of the future…Those ideals were no match for the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that has been around since 1928, which was very well organized with mosques, and discipline and were ready to go when elections were called.”

Makovsky said he is concerned with the direction taken by Egypt since Morsi took office. Morsi used the attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai as an occasion to fire 70 of Egypt’s top generals, including General Tantawi, who had close and positive ties to Israel. “On the one hand, it shows that Morsi asserted civilian control over the Egyptian Army,” said Makovsky. “On the other hand, those he dismissed were in favor of close ties with both Israel and the United States.”

In some areas, Morsi’s actions have been hopeful as when he went to Iran and called for action to stop the killing in Syria, Makovsky said. However, he has failed to even mention Israel in any of his statements, even to acknowledge that he sent a note of thanks to Israeli President Shimon Peres for his congratulations during the month of Ramadan. “Time will tell what kind of leader Morsi will be,” he said. “If his policies fail, he will be out.”

Syria is another concern, Makovsky said, noting the more than 30,000 Syrians killed and over 300,000 refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. “I worry about the metastatic spread in the region into a general Shia-Sunni conflict.” However, he does not foresee “U.S. boots on the ground” in Syria, and U.N. action to stop the killing is unlikely because Syria can count on Russian and Chinese vetoes.

“Certainly the United States is concerned about what sort of Syria it would like to see after Bashar Assad is gone,” he said. “Perhaps the United States might help replenish the supplies of some of the rebel groups in addition to what is being done by other countries in the region.”