The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program during the past few months have produced nothing more than a diplomatic dance in the face of persistent Iranian ploys for time coupled with intransigence on key issues. In failing to reach a negotiated settlement, the conflict with Tehran is inching closer toward a point of no return, where Israel might decide that the circumstances warrant a unilateral attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although there are other scenarios under which Israel may decide to attack Iran, chief among them is Israel’s fear that Iran is close to reaching what Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak terms, “a zone of immunity.” Under such circumstances and given more time, Iran would be in a position to store much of its previous enriched uranium, as well as its high quality centrifuges, deep inside the mountain base of Fordow, thus becoming completely immune from aerial bombardment.
This objective, which Tehran is hard at work in seeking to achieve, limits how much time Israel would have before it acts. This Israeli concerns make the continuing diplomatic efforts coupled with sanctions advocated by the Obama administration unviable options and might in fact be extremely risky to pursue. The Netanyahu government is absolutely convinced that Iran will continue to play for time as it has over the past several years, during which time Tehran has considerably advanced its nuclear program in defiance of the IAEA and in spite of severe sanctions.
Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Barak, in particular, are not persuaded that any future talks will persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program. Time has therefore become Israel’s worst enemy as Iran races to shield its main nuclear facilities to make them impregnable to air attacks. Unlike securing a “zone of immunity”, which the Israelis believe Tehran could achieve within a few months, other possible scenarios include: Iran mustering the technology to produce nuclear weapons, cyber-attacks being inadequate to slow the nuclear program, and requiring more time to work, thus denying Israel the luxury of time to assume the “wait and see” attitude.
Although a consensus exists among the Israeli defense and security establishment that an attack would at best delay Iran’s nuclear program by two to three years and might even push Iran to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities more vigorously than at the present, it is not a given that Iran would simply resume its nuclear activity following such an attack. Some Israeli officials argue that the changing regional and domestic political dynamics may force Tehran to rethink its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, as Barak speculated a couple of months ago, Iran’s potential retaliatory attacks against Israel or its allies, specifically the US, would have limited impact and the catastrophic regional repercussions many Western observers suggest would not necessarily come to pass. Although President Putin, for domestic political motivation, is eager for a foreign policy achievement and would be inclined to put more pressure on Iran, no one who understands the internal dynamics in Iran expects any breakthrough in the next meeting scheduled for June 18-19 in Moscow between the P5+I and Iran. As a result, feverish diplomatic maneuverings will follow along with a stiffening of the American and European sanctions that are in place already. Additionally, the current quiet military preparation for striking Iran by both the US and Israel may well enter a new phase of readiness, albeit with differences in timing and the decision regarding if or when to strike, which remains a contentious issue between the two allies.
Undoubtedly, there is extensive cooperation between the United States and Israel regarding Iran’s nuclear program, including intelligence sharing and the coordination of cyber-attacks, all the while keeping Israel informed about the progress (or the lack thereof) in the negotiations with Iran. In recent weeks, a number of former and current American officials have visited Israel including: Michele A. Flournloy, former Undersecretary of Defense, David S. Cohen, Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in the Treasury Department, and Wendy R. Sherman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. These and others are trying to assure Israel that the US’ commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities is solid and that the US is prepared to use military force should it become necessary.
The Obama administration insists that Iran is at least two years away from reaching the so-called “point of no return”, providing the administration with more time for diplomacy and allowing the crippling sanctions to succeed. Moreover, having just concluded the war in Iraq and with the fighting in Afghanistan still continuing, there is little appetite to start new military operations, which could ignite regional conflagration. In addition, being that this is an election year, the President does not want to risk a military operation especially when there is more time to find new alternatives. Finally, neither the US nor any of its close allies, especially Israel, faces direct, imminent or immediate danger from Iran, which US collective intelligence agencies assure is not the case at this juncture.
The Netanyahu government sees the Iranian threat from a different perspective. Israel maintains, with some justifications, that the Iranian leadership has repeatedly threatened Israel existentially and even if Iran does not use a nuclear weapon against Israel, it poses a grave regional danger far greater than the potential consequences of an Israeli attack. A nuclear Iran would increase nuclear proliferation (the Saudi government has already threatened to develop its own nuclear weapons), heighten the risk of extremist groups of obtaining nuclear materials, and embolden Iran to throw its weight around in the region, pitting the Shiite bloc against Israel. That said, former Israeli officials from the intelligence and military communities argue that Iran knows only too well that Israel maintains second strike capabilities that could cause catastrophic damage to Iran and the Iranian leadership is not so irrational as to commit suicide. Nevertheless, Netanyahu insists that Israel’s national security concerns cannot be taken lightly and however remote the Iranian threat may be, Israel cannot afford to take the risk.
The Israeli position is further strengthened by the argument that the on and off negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran and through Turkish and Brazilian mediation nearly two years ago, have produced nothing of substance. This problem was compounded by the recent presumed agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran to allow inspectors to access the controversial Parchin military base, which has failed to materialize. Moreover, recent evidence revealed that a cleanup operation has taken place at the military site, which has heightened the suspicions of IAEA, the US and Israel. Finally, Iran continues to refuse unfettered IAEA access at its suspected nuclear sites, with the intent of obfuscating its true nuclear goals. Israel views this as a pattern that Tehran has been pursuing almost with impunity while defying not only the IAEA but also four UNSC resolutions demanding a complete suspension of its enrichment program.
Although for Israel time is of the essence, should Iran come close to reaching the “zone of immunity” which would make attacking Iran more likely, clear and unequivocal evidence of Israeli intelligence findings must be produced for the whole world to see before Israel contemplates such an attack. A premature Israeli attack could not only have catastrophic regional consequences but could also subject Israel to world–wide condemnation, potentially crippling sanctions, and retaliatory attacks by Iran and its surrogates.
The United States is not oblivious to Iran’s intentions or to Israel’s legitimate concerns. Regardless of the differing assessments between Israel and the US, Israel would be well advised to fully collaborate with the American administration and act in concert to avoid any miscalculations that could potentially cost Israel dearly.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies >>> www.alonben-meir.com
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