Despite recent signals, Israel isn’t ready to bomb Iran. Yet.
First Vice President Joe Biden went on ABC’s This Week and said that while the White House prefers a engagement-and-negotiation strategy to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, “If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that.” Two days later, President Barack Obama told CNN he hadn’t given an OK to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, but Eli Lake of The Washington Times soon offered a caveat to Obama’s denial. Of course he hadn’t given a green light; Israel hadn’t asked for one. That bad cop-good cop routine, coupled with rumors that Arab countries were quietly in favor of an Israeli strike—they don’t want a nuclear Iran in their midst any more than Israel does—could leave observers thinking an Israeli attack is imminent. Is it?
No, analysts say. No one doubts that Israel is willing to take unilateral action if U.S.-led talks with Iran—direct or otherwise—fail to stop its march toward nukes. And they agree it’s clear that Israel has the capacity to strike what’s known as the three nodes of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure—the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the nuclear research center and uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, and the heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors at Arak—with either Israeli Air Force bombers or land-based missiles. But it’s unlikely, they say, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reach that conclusion in the coming weeks or months.
Andrew Apostolou, a researcher who has covered Iran for more than a decade and now works at Freedom House, a democracy promotion group, says that Israel is locked in a wait-and-see mode, planning to let U.S. diplomacy exhaust itself. Matthew Silver, a historian at Emek Yezreel College in the Galilee, agrees: “Netanyahu figures, ‘okay, let Obama talk to the mullahs. It’s a preordained failure.’” That the Israeli prime minister is making loud noises about a possible military strike, Apostolou says, suggests one won’t come anytime soon. “If the Israelis really wanted to scare the Americans, they’d say nothing. When the Israelis go really quiet, that’s when you have to start worrying.”
But in the meantime, Israel will continue to match Iran’s belligerent signals. An analyst who asked to remain anonymous points to the IAF’s large air exercises in Greece alongside the Greek air force last summer, an underreported but telling event. Not only is distance between Israel and Greece roughly the distance between Israel and Iran, but the Greeks have S-300 Russian anti-aircraft missiles, the type the Iranian military is looking to buy from Russia, presumably to shoot down Israeli warplanes. “Clearly, the Israelis were keen to have a look at them,” says the analyst. For their part, the Iranians have conducted major air maneuvers in recent months and boasted to the media that their missiles and aircraft have a range of more than 1,000 kilometers. “And guess where that is?”
The mood in Israel is one of unbothered calm, not frenzied anticipation, Silver says. “I don’t think people anticipate that tomorrow or the next month or six months from now, our planes are going to go in the air,” he says. “Even the security people from Mossad aren’t estimating that Iran can go nuclear in the next year or two.” But Israelis view Obama’s hopes of engagement and reconciliation as naïve. “When engagement leads nowhere, then Israel will have to act,” he says. “The rifle isn’t cocked, but the cartridge isn’t too far from the rifle.” When the time comes that Israel does think a strike is necessary, U.S. approval won’t matter, says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and specialist on the Middle East. “Whenever I travel in the region, everyone’s always looking for a ‘green-light,’” he says. “The U.S. hasn’t been in the business of giving green-lights, and the Israelis are sophisticated enough not to even ask for one.” The Israelis aren’t going to defer their actions to the “smoke and mirrors of diplomacy,” he says.