In the past year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, have honed their talent for psychological warfare. At international Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in March, and in countless interviews, they have created the impression at every opportunity that Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities at any moment—and that an attack becomes more likely with each passing day.
Might we wake up one morning between now and November to hear unconfirmed reports of major explosions at Natanz and Fordow, two of Iran’s key uranium-enrichment centers? Or will rumors of a strike trickle out, as they did in September 2007, weeks after the Israeli air force destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor under construction?
Although the decision rests in the hands of only two men, and ultimately in Netanyahu’s alone, it can be said with confidence that there will be no Israeli military strike on Iran before America’s Election Day this year. November 6 may not be literally circled on the calendars of Israel’s political and military chiefs, but it might as well be. What makes us so confident?
Officials in the U.S. and Israeli governments told us they believe that President Obama, during private talks at the White House in early March, explicitly requested that Netanyahu not use warplanes or missiles to attack Iran before November. The president may well have used the same words a reporter overheard him saying a few weeks later to his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, at a summit in Seoul: “This is my last election,” Obama said. “After my election I have more flexibility.”
If Netanyahu heeds the president’s request, he’ll be granting Obama time to win a second term without the crisis of a potential oil disruption and Iranian retaliation that might spook American voters enough to question Obama’s foreign-policy credibility.
But will Netanyahu wait? It is no secret that the two leaders do not get along well personally, and the prisms through which they view the Middle East are entirely different. Obama made plain during his first two years in office that he believed the path to progress in the region was by way of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically by halting Israeli settlements and Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu, in contrast, warned that Iran is by far the greatest danger confronting the Western world.
The prime minister seems sure that a President Mitt Romney—with whom he’s been friends since their days at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s—would be supportive of almost anything Israel’s government would decide to do. So, why heed Obama’s request? The simplest answer, of course, is that Obama may be reelected, and Israel’s leader would not want to be branded as the ally who did not cooperate.
There is a more nuanced reality revealed by some Israeli officials who prefer not to be named because their analysis could be seen as undermining Netanyahu-Barak’s tough stand. Some in Jerusalem’s political world, and many in the Israeli military and the intelligence community, say it is highly unlikely that the Jewish state will strike Iran this year for several sound reasons.
First, they say, there is no great urgency. Iran has continued to enrich uranium, but Israeli intelligence estimates suggest that it would take another year—at least—for Iran to assemble its first bomb, and yet another year to fit it into a missile’s warhead.
Second, there is much that Israel can do and is doing, without using its air force and missiles. Israel’s intelligence community, led by the Mossad and the even larger military agency Aman, is enjoying an unprecedentedly strong partnership with the CIA and other Western security agencies. While diplomats led by the United States tried to negotiate with Iran in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow this year, Israel and its covert partners continually pressed ahead with sabotage and other subterfuge meant to delay and divert Iran’s nuclear program.
We now know that the United States and Israel cooperated on highly sophisticated malware called Stuxnet and Flame—and officials we spoke with add that there is more going on that has not been revealed. Israeli responsibility for a string of assassinations in Tehran, aimed at scientists and engineers who worked in their country’s nuclear program, is also barely concealed.
Netanyahu and Barak both have a taste for covert action. They are veterans of an elite and secretive unit of the Israel Defense Forces called Sayeret Matkal that does more than almost anyone can imagine. In the 1970s, Barak was Netanyahu’s commander when soldiers in the unit successfully assaulted a hijacked airliner on the tarmac in Tel Aviv, rescued hostages during other terrorist sieges, slipped into Beirut to assassinate Palestinian militants, and infiltrated Syria to kidnap military officers for use in a prisoner swap.
The two men, now weighing one of the most difficult decisions of their political lives, obviously want to stop Iran’s nuclear program without a military strike or all-out war. They must wonder whether covert action—including, perhaps, more assassinations, sabotage, supplying Iranians with faulty parts, continuing to disrupt their computer programs, and more—can do enough.
Third, most Israeli military analysts, including those in the Israeli air force, agree that Israel’s capabilities are so limited that bombing Iran would only delay its nuclear program, not destroy it. The United States has supplied Israel with 100 GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs in the past six years. But to be much better prepared to strike many targets in Iran, the Israelis want 200 of the improved GBU-31 bombs that have a more precise guidance system. Israel’s air force says it also needs two or three KC-135 midair-refueling tanker planes.
Meir Dagan, the former Mossad espionage chief who is waging an almost one-man campaign against an Israeli military strike, warns that a strike would bolster nationalist pride within Iran and spur the Iranians to rebuild and accelerate their nuclear work. Dagan adds that technological knowledge cannot be wiped out by a series of bombing raids. (On the other hand, in the past Israel has been satisfied with the strategy of achieving a multiyear delay in an enemy’s threatening strategy. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent the air force to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli intelligence believed that it might derail Saddam Hussein’s nuclear project for only two or three years. Still, it was deemed by Israel’s leaders to be well worth doing.)
The prime minister and the defense minister are treating Dagan as an enemy, probably because they are annoyed that his public remarks rob them of the strongest tool they posses to command the world’s attention. Netanyahu and Barak have been using the threat of an Israeli strike as a lever to push the international community into imposing harsher sanctions against Iran. But now, a respected man such as Dagan, who has only recently stepped out of the shadows, calls the military option “stupid,” and other senior figures in military and intelligence agencies are beginning to privately agree with him.
Netanyahu and Barak surely realize the potential dangers stemming from a strike on Iran: Retaliation could include terrorism most anywhere around the globe, a lethal rain of thousands of missiles hitting Israel, and the possibility of an all-out war that could disrupt oil supplies and trigger widespread criticism of Israel.
They also know the dangers of accepting Iran as a nuclear-armed state. Almost without exception, Israeli politicians, military leaders, and intelligence chiefs say that their country cannot tolerate living within a thousand miles of a radical enemy armed with nuclear bombs. There is too much of a chance, they argue, that the Iranians would actually use them; or, at the least, that Iran would be propelled into an unchallengeable role as a regional super-power.
The Iranians may not budge, and a military attack may well happen eventually. But it is far more likely that an American president, either Obama or Romney, will be the one to order attacks aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities after the election. That would be a last resort after exhausting options like covert actions, harsher sanctions, and diplomacy. Whatever their disagreements on tactics, on timing, and on Palestinian issues, U.S. and Israeli leaders are united in their conclusion that the world cannot comfortably live in the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran.
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