Since the early 1990s, when Israel first began preparing for a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, its security establishment has been divided not about the threat Iran posed–which was almost universally agreed upon to be grave–but about whether America and the international community would have the will to stop Tehran. Optimists noted the near-total Western acceptance of the Israeli intelligence assessment that the goal of the Iranian nuclear program was a bomb. In the last year, they have also pointed to the growing strength of the American-led sanctions effort, along with repeated warnings by American, French, and British leaders about a possible military strike if sanctions failed. The pessimists, for their part, insisted that the sanctions were too little too late, that America was in the grip of a new Vietnam-like trauma in Iraq, and that the mullahs’ will to attain the bomb was stronger than the West’s resolve to stop them.
Now, with the release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, the argument apparently has been resolved. If sanctions fail to stop Iran from achieving the potential to produce nuclear weapons, the dirty work will be left to Israel, just as it was left to Israel to stop Saddam Hussein from going nuclear. America, even under George Bush, is hardly likely to go to war to stop a program many Americans now believe doesn’t exist.
Until now, pessimists here could console themselves that a last-resort Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely draw wide international sympathy and even gratitude–very different from the near-total condemnation that greeted Israel’s attack on Saddam’s reactor in 1981. Now, though, the NIE will ensure that if Israel does attack, it will be widely branded a warmonger, and faulted for the inevitable fallout of rising oil prices and increased terror.
The sense of betrayal within the Israeli security system is deep. After all, Israel’s great achievement in its struggle against Iran was in convincing the international community that the nuclear threat was real; now that victory has been undone–not by Russia or the European Union, but by Israel’s closest ally.
What makes Israeli security officials especially furious is that the report casts doubt on Iranian determination to attain nuclear weapons. There is a sense of incredulity here: Do we really need to argue the urgency of the threat all over again? The Israeli strategists I heard from ridicule the report’s contention that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” Is it, asks one Israeli analyst sarcastically, a cost-benefit approach for one of the world’s largest oil exporters to risk international sanctions and economic ruin for the sake of a peaceful nuclear program?
No one with whom I’ve spoken believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on Iran. What has been widely hailed in the American media as an expression of intelligence sobriety, even courage, is seen in the Israeli strategic community as precisely the opposite: an expression of political machination and cowardice. “The Americans often accuse us of tailoring our intelligence to suit our political needs,” notes a former top security official. “But isn’t this report a case study of doing precisely that?”
Adds a key security analyst: “The report didn’t surprise me. The [American intelligence] system isn’t healthy. It has been thoroughly politicized. I saw it when I brought hard evidence to them through the 1990s about how the Palestinian Authority was violating its commitments. Their responses weren’t professional but political. This report only deepens the crisis of confidence we feel.”
The debate over the report within the Israeli security network is whether the motive of its sponsors was ideological or opportunistic. Was the NIE a back-handed way of implementing the Baker-Hamilton report, which called for engagement with Iran? Or, more simply, was the NIE motivated by fear among intelligence analysts not to be caught exaggerating another WMD crisis?
Ironically, an Israeli reading of the report only confirms the anxiety here, felt across the political spectrum, about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Responding to the NIE, the left-wing newspaper, Haaretz, sounds like a neo-con organ: “While Iran continues threatening to annihilate Israel, what American intelligence thinks about Iran’s nuclear capability is irrelevant…. The report establishes that if Iran wants to produce a bomb it can do so, and if it doesn’t want to, it won’t. This evaluation may have a restraining effect in internal American politics. But in Israeli politics it should cause the opposite reaction.”
After all, the NIE affirms not only that attaining nuclear weapons remains a central goal within the Iranian leadership, but also that, by continuing to enrich uranium, Iran has maintained efforts to make that goal achievable. For Israeli security analysts, the suspension in 2003 of Iran’s covert nuclear military program–the NIE’s defining issue–is hardly pivotal. Partly that’s because the working assumption in Israeli intelligence is that the Iranians have resumed their covert military program. “The Syrians were working on their nuclear project for seven years, and we discovered it only recently,” says one security analyst. “The Americans didn’t know about it all. So how can they be so sure about Iran?”
The more compelling reason, though, for minimizing the significance of a suspension of the covert military program is that the program itself is of secondary importance at this stage in the development of an Iranian bomb. The Iranians have continued to vigorously pursue two other programs–uranium enrichment and missile delivery systems–whose success would ensure them relatively quick access to military capability, even without a weapons program already in place. Says Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad: “My assessment is that, after they decided to aim for nuclear weapons, they advanced on three parallel tracks: enriching uranium, creating components for a bomb, and developing missiles. The missiles are ready for operation. As for enrichment, they have encountered all kinds of problems, like exploding centrifuges. I estimate that they made great progress, and very quickly, on the military track. Since they have problems with the uranium enrichment track, they can allow themselves to delay the military track, and wait for progress with uranium.” Given that world attention has been focused on the military track, a tactical Iranian concession made sense.
Shavit notes that the problem with the NIE isn’t in its facts but its deliberate ambiguity. “The whole report is filled with assessments of ‘high probability,’ ‘middle probability,’ ‘low probability.’ I don’t need that.” And if he had written the report? “I would have based my assessment on the facts and said unequivocally that Iran is going to create the ability to make a bomb.”
Nor do senior analysts here take seriously the NIE’s vague assessments of when Iran will reach the point of no return: beginning in 2010, it says, though not likely until 2013 or even 2015. Israel’s point of no return is when Iran attains the potential to produce sufficient fissile material for making a bomb. And they believe that is likely to happen–barring continued mishaps, accidental or not, in the Iranian nuclear program, like exploding centrifuges–somewhere within the next two years.
Once the material is available, the final step toward constructing a bomb is the least complicated part of the process. “Making bombs is a much shorter process than uranium enrichment,” explains Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a 40-year veteran of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. “Today the Iranians are enriching uranium at four percent; to make a bomb, you need 90 percent. From there, the transition doesn’t require a lot of time. Most of the work has been done to get to the four percent. It is a matter of months, not years.”
That sense of urgency is evident in the highest ranks of the Israeli military. A recent letter circulated by Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the Israeli Air Force, to his officers offered a textual comparison between quotes from Hitler threatening Europe’s Jews in the 1930s with quotes from Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatening Israel today. An accompanying letter, signed by an officer identified only as “responsible for the Iranian arena,” noted laconically, “We can rely only on ourselves.” With the release of the NIE, that old Israeli sentiment has become far more acute.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.