Crunch Time in Washington and Jerusalem for Decisions

The timing of major steps centering on Iran's nuclear program was as precise as any dance step.

Tehran delivered its answer to the six-power group's proposals Wednesday, Sept. 9, only after the revolutionary regime was certain it could assemble a nuclear weapon at short notice.

That night, the news broke in Washington that “American intelligence agencies have concluded in recent months that Iran has created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon.”

New intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country “has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb.”

That piece of news appeared over photos of a gleeful Manoucher Mouttaki, Iran's foreign minister, preparing to hand his governments “package” of proposals to the six ambassadors of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Those proposals dealt with every global issue under the sun excepting Iran's nuclear activities which Tehran tabooed for negotiation.

That Tehran had reached its goal of being able to assemble a nuclear weapon any time it chooses was first disclosed six months ago.

On March 25, Israeli military intelligence chief, Gen. Amos Yadlin, reported this to a closed hearing of the Knesset security and foreign relations committee, intending the information to be leaked to the media.

Then, on Tuesday, September 8, the day before Mottaki's wet squib was delivered to the Group of Six, Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad, the defense minister's strategic adviser, offered a Tel Aviv news conference a fresh perspective. For the first time, he publicly raised the possibility of Iran building a nuclear device as its first priority – rather than a nuclear bomb.

A nuclear tsunami?

Gilad hedged around the diabolical implications of this disclosure by referring to its indirect menace:

“The construction of a nuclear bomb or even a primitive nuclear device by Iran will constitute a dramatic change in Hizballah's strategic abilities,” he said. “The organization could then carry out large-scale military operations against Israel, or multiple terror attacks against Jewish targets abroad, while Israel would be deterred from striking back by the Iranian nuclear umbrella shielding the Lebanese terrorist group.”

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources reveal that a “nuclear device” is Israel's ultimate nightmare, a mortal threat because of its surreptitious uses.

Israeli intelligence has reported that Tehran could destroy a large part of the most densely populated areas of Central Israel with a primitive nuclear device like the one Pakistan detonated in its first nuclear test in May 1998 – even without a sophisticated bomb or ballistic missile for its delivery.

According to this report, Iran could load such a “nuclear device” – unbeknownst to Israeli or Western intelligence – aboard an Iran Airways civilian airliner or an Iranian merchant ship bound for Europe or a Middle East destination – and detonate it in mid-Mediterranean opposite the Greater Tel Aviv coast and many miles outside its territorial waters.

The resulting explosion would be powerful enough to set off a nuclear tsunami to swamp and contaminate central Israel's coastal and lowland cities and drown most of their inhabitants. It might engulf a large coastal conurbation encompassing Greater Tel Aviv, Netanya, Rishon LeZion and Herzliya as well as Israel's international airport.

The disastrous nuclear floods would only be stopped by the rising slopes of the inland Judean Hills leading up to Jerusalem – but not before leaving hundreds of thousands dead and injured in their wake.

A red line, crossed

Therefore, from Israel's point of view, Iran has already crossed the red line. Its Islamic Shiite leaders have achieved their desired capability to destroy the Jewish state. The world powers' helplessness to stop them means Israel is no longer able to avoid looking at the necessary action for its survival.

The package presenting the Islamic Republic as a world power, demanding a new world order and refusing to discuss its “right” to enrich as much uranium as it likes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has also crossed President Barack Obama's red line.

The White House statement of Wednesday asserting that Tehran had “deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb” was an attempt to show that a tiny opening still remained – even after its cavalier rebuff of Obama's offer of nuclear dialogue – to try and deter Iran from going all the way and taking that last step.

Harsher sanctions are in the air, ranging from an embargo on refined fuel products to a naval blockade.

But getting them approved or implemented is commonly known to be a non-starter and as such has been factored into Iran's tactics. Obama has gone so far as to put the US missile shield plan for East Europe on hold in deference to Moscow's wishes. But even if he were to formally revoke the plan, Russia would not support such sanctions and neither would China, while unilateral US penalties are a remote prospect.

The “narrow space” has closed

Iran's nuclear challenge has therefore hurtled way past its refusal to discuss its military nuclear program and dropped the world off at a fresh crisis point: To disarm or not to disarm Iran is the new dilemma facing Washington and Jerusalem. Assuming that Obama might possibly opt to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, he must first decide without delay if and how to hold Israel back from military action.

That the first 24 hours after the delivery of Iran's proposals went by without a response from Washington signaled the White House was unready for a decision.

On May 24, almost four months ago, the US Chief of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, discussing the Iranian nuclear program, said: “… And so that leaves a pretty narrow space in which to achieve a successful dialogue and a successful outcome, which from my perspective means they don't end up with nuclear weapons.”

Now this narrow space has been closed.

In the next two articles in this issue, we review the many uncertainties facing President Obama in the Middle East – on top of the Afghanistan war's challenges – thanks to his administration's slow pace in reshaping strategic and military policies and charting its forward motion.

All these difficulties appear to be critical at this moment; they would become inconsequential if and when Israel moves in to smash Iran's nuclear facilities.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources estimate that this week's events have brought Israel closer than ever before to military action.

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