Key elements in Israel’s endemically contentious political and defense establishment are beginning to embrace the Bush administration’s opposition to either America or Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
President Shimon Peres has used every occasion of late to argue against Israel striking Iran, maintaining that tough economic sanctions would “do the job” of deterring the Islamic Republic from making a nuclear bomb.
The 82-year old politician has a history. Peres led the camp which objected strongly to Menahem Begin‘s decision to demolish Saddam Hussein‘s nuclear reactor in June 1981.
More seriously, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources quote some of the speakers at a closed briefing in Tel Aviv of Israeli politicians, former intelligence and security officials and analysts, ex-generals and members of the inner and outer defense communities.
It took place Tuesday, Sept. 9.
Even strong proponents of unilateral Israel military action, like the former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, has cooled to this option. He told the gathering that, in his view, there was no urgency to pre-empt Iran’s nuclearization, since it did not pose an existential threat to Israel.
This view, shared by others attending the event, runs contrary to the official government position in all its dealings with the United States and members of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Much ado about very little
An Israeli expert on Iran’s nuclear program told the gathering that, according to his information, Iran has only begun activating 4,000 centrifuges, not 6,000 as widely reported, and is producing uranium enriched to no more than 4 or 5 percent. Were it not for Iran’s leaders’ practice of provocatively dramatizing their nuclear efforts, he said, there would be no fuss and the nuclear watchdog would treat the program as within permitted limits.
The expert explained further that the Iranians would need at least 15 tons of low-enriched uranium to produce 90-percent uranium for a single nuclear bomb. He reckoned they would need another year or eighteen months to reach that point, although he admitted that the transition from low-grade to weapons-grade uranium could be “easy, short and very rapid.”
In the view of another speaker at the closed meeting, even if Iran becomes capable of carrying out an underground nuclear test – which does not require a bomb or a nuclear warhead – it will stop short before implementation.
He assured everyone that Iran would not go as far as producing a nuclear weapon and cited intelligence reports that, as early as 2002, Iran had procured from Pakistan detailed diagrams with instructions on how to build a nuclear device for an underground test. The Iranians studied the plans and put them aside. Had they really wanted a bomb, they could have carried out a test long ago, he maintained.
Another expert postulated that a potential Iranian nuclear bomb attack on central Israel would cause enormous loss of life and damage, but the country would not collapse militarily or economically, and would still be able to exercise its “second strike” option.
Too big a decision for a country with no prime minister
Two days after this inside briefing in Tel Aviv, sources close to some of the participants leaked a story to the Israeli press asserting that Washington had turned down Jerusalem’s request for an air corridor over Iraq for an attack on Iran, and that President George W. Bush had refused Israel’s request for up-to-date refueling planes during his May visit to Israel. His hosts claimed that Israel’s tanker planes were too old to support an operation on the scale of a strike against Iran.
This report, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources, was received in Tehran as typical Israeli disinformation.
Our sources in Jerusalem attribute the defense community’s reluctance to launch a military operation against Iran to four main causes:
1. In a week’s time, Israel will be without a prime minister. Ehud Olmert is committed to stepping down (over a corruption scandal) after his Kadima party votes for a successor.
In the process, the present government is unlikely to survive except as a stopgap until an early election. In the next six months at least, therefore, a profound political crisis will leave Israel without a viable government for making fateful decisions of this kind.
2. Parts of the Israeli high command are coming around to believe that Israel needs American help for attacking Iran.
3. The National Intelligence Report released in Washington last December, affirming that Iran had not worked on a military nuclear project after 2003, has had the lingering effect of dampening the zeal of the proponents of military action.
4. The conviction is taking root among Israel’s generals that the forest of missiles and rockets mushrooming around Israel’s borders in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, is a greater menace than a nuclear threat from Iran.
It should therefore be stamped out without delay.