The Israeli leadership is at war with itself over Iran: In one corner, Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. In the other, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Dagan does not oppose a military strike as a matter of principle. But as a military man who witnessed the horrors of war, especially in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for him an all out assault on Iran must be a last resort. “Only when there is an existential threat and the sword is on our neck” should we take military action, he told us in that meeting at Mossad headquarters.
The former Mossad chief still believes that Israel has not yet arrived at that junction. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran has already crossed the “technological threshold,” which means that the Islamic Republic has mastered the craft of producing 20 percent enriched uranium. If it wishes, it is capable of enriching it to 90 percent, which is bomb-grade material. Despite the damage inflicted on its nuclear program by Mossad, CIA, and British MI6 in a series of covert operations, Iran still has at least 5,000 operational centrifuges—a sufficient number to spin uranium to bomb level (90 percent). It has also secretly conducted numerous laboratory tests and computer simulations in the process of weaponization, the final stage in assembling the bomb. All Iran needs now is the political decision to instruct its scientists to produce a bomb.
What Dagan’s argument relies on is the belief that Iran has not yet made such a decision. In addition, once such a decision is made, Iran will need six to 18 months to produce its first crude atomic device. It will need another two years to make the bomb “deliverable,” i.e., miniaturize it to a size that can be fitted as a warhead on its Shihab 3 missile capable of reaching Israel or Saudi Arabia.
All in all, according to Dagan, Israel and the West still have time to influence the Iranian regime by toughening sanctions in the mold of what the European Union decided to do two weeks ago (i.e., to stop purchasing oil from Iran by July). That decision was just supplemented on Monday by the White House’s directive to freeze the assets of Iran’s Central Bank. Then there are covert measures, like knocking off Iranian nuclear scientists and installing computer viruses like Stuxnet. If such measures fail to affect the Iranian regime, Israel or the United States will still have a window of opportunity to strike.
This attitude is shared by the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama Administration, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have recently expressed. In an interview with 60 Minutes late last month, Panetta said: “The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon.”
Barak and Netanyahu couldn’t see things more differently. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman shared their thinking. He wrote that Barak—and I would add Netanyahu, too—is guided by three questions regarding Israel’s decision to strike. The first question is: Does Israel have the military capability to inflict severe damage on Iran’s nuclear facilities and significantly set back their progress? Question two: Will the international community sanction such an attack? And third: Is it necessary to do it now or in the near future? According to Bergman’s article, Barak is convinced that the answers to all these questions are yes, and thus Israel must attack Iran this year.
However, in recent conversations with several senior Israeli air force commanders, intelligence chiefs, and Cabinet ministers, one can come to the opposite conclusion. Many of these leaders say that Israel lacks the military capability to paralyze or set back Iran’s nuclear program three to five years. Israel has a limited fleet of fighters and bombers, which can carry a limited weaponry load. It simply doesn’t have sufficient capabilities to carry out a prolonged campaign with a multitude of sorties. Such a sustained campaign can only be carried out by the United States.
As to the second question—whether Israel has international backing—there is neither international support nor U.S. approval. And as Dagan, the majority of Israeli Cabinet ministers, the CIA, and others have made clear, there is no need to strike in the near future since there is still time before Iran produces its first bomb. Thus the answer to Barak’s three questions is no.
Those who prefer to use a military option only when “the sword is on the neck,” as Dagan put it, point to the fact that the current combination of sanctions and covert operations is working. Indeed, there are many indications that the pressure on Iran is bearing fruit. The economy is deteriorating, inflation is up to 30 percent, and the Iranian currency was recently devalued by 10 percent. Earlier this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei restated that the “cancerous tumor” of Israel should be wiped off the map. This should be understood as a sign that the regime is feeling the heat.
The mullahs are in a sort of catch-22. They aspire to have nuclear weapons as deterrence against what they believe is an Israeli-Western threat to the regime. They want the bomb as an insurance policy to ensure their own survival. But in racing to get it, they may find themselves in a war that may actually bring down their regime.
It is difficult to predict what Iran’s decision will be. Some experts tend to believe that as the international pressure increases, the Islamic Republic will slow down its program in order to stall for more time by pretending it wants to negotiate. But if they break out and rush to produce nuclear bombs, I believe that they most likely will be attacked. Not by Israel—but by the United States.
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