Israeli war drums threaten autumn strikePosted: 14/08/2012
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
The debate about whether to attack Iran is again dominating Israeli media. The government speaks of a deadline measured in weeks. Although the national security establishment is solidly opposed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that the decision will be made by the political leadership. As yet, there is no consensus in the eight-member security cabinet for a strike, and apparently no majority either. The public at large is opposed to unilateral action (46% opposed, 32% in favour, according to one poll).
There is surely an element of bluff whenever Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak talk about the military option. Yet they also are determined not to allow Israel to fall under an Iranian nuclear shadow nor to put Israel’s security entirely in US hands.
In rattling sabres, Netanyahu is not only trying to affect Iran’s calculus; he is also preparing the Israeli public. The war drums herald a political debate that any country should have before launching what would be a highly consequential act.
There are five reasons why Israel might choose to attack in September or October:
- Diplomacy will be judged a failure – indeed Israel is already saying so. Iran’s senior negotiator is to talk again with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in late August, but probably not with the full six powers (Britain, France, Germany and China, Russia and US – dubbed the E3+3 in Europe but the P5+1 in America). The US reportedly will not agree to another P5+1 political directors’ meeting with Iran without progress on a deal.
- Iran’s enrichment programme will have made further progress, thereby increasing the sense of alarm. The latest quarterly IAEA report next month will document an ever-growing stockpile of enriched uranium, another 1,000 or so centrifuges installed, and additional work at the facility at Fordow. Iran is still months away from being able to produce a single bomb, and two years away from having a missile-deliverable weapon, but each increase to the enrichment stockpile shortens the timeline.
- Time is running out for Israel to be able to stop Iran on its own. The enrichment halls at Fordow are too deep to be hit by any bombs in Israel’s arsenal. As of May, Iran had about 700 centrifuges producing 20% product there, but work was under way to install a total of 3,000 machines. These advances at Fordow are why Barak talks of Iran entering a zone of immunity.
- The weather conditions will be optimal once the summer heat dissipates and before the winter cloud cover moves in.
- The political conditions will be optimal during the final months of the US presidential election when incumbent Barack Obama will have no political cover to take action against an Israeli attack. His administration is doing all it can at present to quietly dissuade an Israeli attack. After the election, Obama can be more vocal in demanding that Israel not take unilateral action that would likely drag the US into another Middle East war. If Obama is re-elected, he will also be able to consider compromises with Iran, such as allowing some sanctions relief and acknowledging a right to enrichment that are too sensitive before 6 November.
The Iranian media is nonchalant about the prospect of war, on the grounds that the US does not have the will while Israel lacks the means. This underestimates both Israel’s determination and its capabilities. With limited air-refuelling planes and no bombers that can carry deep bunker busters, Israel certainly cannot conduct the kind of sustained campaign with which the US could obliterate all of Iran’s known nuclear facilities while also suppressing air defence systems and destroying other military targets.
However, Israel would instead seek to take out four key sites: the uranium conversion facility at Esfahan (which produces the feed material for enriched uranium), the research reactor under construction at Arak (which, if it comes on line in the next year or so, could produce weapons-grade plutonium), the main uranium enrichment site at Natanz, and the new uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.
The first two are above ground and can be targeted with submarine-launched missiles. Natanz is 8m underground and it will require precision double air strikes and good luck to destroy it. Fordow is too deep for Israeli bunker busters, though entrances and tunnels could be collapsed.
Because an Israeli attack would not destroy Natanz and Fordow completely, Iran would be able to reconstitute the centrifuge cascades within a short time. This time, however, they might be out of sight of international inspectors if an attack incites Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It may well bring about an Iranian bomb sooner than would otherwise be the case.
This and the unpredictable consequences of any attack are why Israel’s defence establishment is so opposed to a go-it-alone attack. In this debate, the professionals clearly have the winning logic. But they are not the decision-makers.