Looking for Help in Containing Iran

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Morteza / Reuters / Corbis

A Russian supertanker is anchored by Neka oil terminal in Iran, 300 km north-east of Tehran.

Containment isn't what it used to be. The Government Accountability Office issued a report last week that says the Iran sanctions aren't working — at least when it comes to gas and oil. Since 2003 Iran has signed $20 billion worth of energy deals with foreign companies. And sanctions apparently aren't convincing Iran to come clean on its nuclear program either. Iranian President Ahmadinejad scoffed at this week's threat of new U.N. sanctions. "The Iranian nation has chosen its path and will continue with it."

Whatever that path is, Turkey, a member of NATO and supposedly NATO's frontline against Iran, doesn't bother even playing the sanctions game. Prime Minister Erdogan said last week that Turkey would not be talked out of going ahead with the natural gas deals it has already signed with Iran. He told reporters in Spain, "Iran and Turkey are two friendly countries, and Turkey will continue to import gas from Iran."

Keeping the lights on in Ankara seems to be more important than the prospect of an Iranian nuke. Little wonder after the Bush administration stunned the world with a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran had given up building a bomb.

That brings us to Saudi Arabia, another soldier in our Iran picket line. The $20 billion in arms that Bush agreed to sell Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states is meant to deter the Iranians from taking the Gulf. All well and good. But the question remains, as always, whether the Arabs will figure out how to use them. They didn't in the last war in the Gulf (1990-91), when the Kuwaiti army collapsed in a blink. As the Saudi army did when Saddam attacked Khafji. Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the time were armed with some of the most modern and sophisticated arms in the world. Why should we think it would be any different today with Saudi Arabia trying to contain Iran?

The Israelis, for one, think it's a waste of $20 billion of good arms. I called Dr. Ephraim Sneh, recently departed deputy defense minister and an expert on Iran. Since he commanded Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in the early '80s, he has watched Iran's rise with mounting alarm. "This isn't a joke for Israel. Iran is thousands of miles from you, hundreds for us. Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel, said Sneh, who had no doubt in his mind that Israel should do something about Iran, now.

So would Israel go it alone, bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure? I asked an official in the Bush administration. "Fly over our fleet in the Gulf? I doubt it."

Yet flying through unfriendly skies didn't seem to bother the Israelis when they bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Why now wouldn't Israel defy the world? "An Israeli attack is not expected," he said, conceding the point. "But on the other hand it's not unforeseeable."

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down