In the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue of April 20, we reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were poised near a decision on a date for striking Iran’s nuclear sites shortly after the second round of talks between the six major powers and Iran in Baghdad on May 23. (Israel Loses Patience with Obama, Starts Countdown to Unilateral Decision on Nuclear Iran)
This week two alternative scenarios were shaping up.
In this article, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources uncover some of the planning for the short one, which it now appears may possibly go forward before rather than after the Baghdad meeting, for two reasons:
1. Defense Minister Ehud Barak came away empty-handed from his Washington visit April 20 with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The battery of questions he fired at the US secretary to find out if a secret deal had been reached in backdoor dialogue with Tehran in Paris and Vienna and what if any concessions (“the US bottom line”) had been made to procure the deal remained unanswered.
Panetta told him the situation was unchanged: Washington and the five powers (P5+1) had stood by their five demands of Iran: a) Stop 20-percent uranium enrichment; b) Export your entire stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium; c) Shut down the buried, fortified Fordow enrichment facility near Qom; d) Open up all suspect nuclear sites to unfettered international inspections; and e) Allow the International Atomic Agency to affix monitoring devices to the centrifuges to gauge the level of enrichment purity.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, was present for part of the conversation.
Obama’s consent to lift inspections leaves Iran free to build a nuke now
These demands were put before Iran at the first round of formal talks in Istanbul. They were not the answers Barak had traveled to Washington to hear. His questions referred to the real business contracted between the US and Iran privately. But that was all he got from the US defense secretary.
2. After the defense minister returned home and reported to the prime minister, Tamir Pardo, Director of Israel’s external intelligence Mossad, submitted his recommendations:
He concluded that if the Six Powers and Iran achieved a breakthrough in Baghdad a month hence and scheduled a third round for July or early August, Israel’s window of opportunity for a military operation against Iran would start closing fast. The US presidential election would be coming up, for one thing, and all six powers would back Obama up with one voice to accuse Israel of sabotaging the negotiations when they were on the point of successfully resolving the Iranian nuclear impasse.
Diplomatically, Israel would find itself in an untenable situation, said Pardo.
To the conclusions he presented Netanyahu and Barak, he attached a list of new dilemmas that needed to be addressed without delay:
– Will President Obama’s consent to let Iran off the hook of IAEA inspections at key nuclear installations free Tehran’s hands for surreptitiously bringing its nuclear bomb program to completion?
Israeli military and intelligence experts have no doubt at all that it will.
Iran has enough low-grade 2.5-percent enriched uranium accumulated to build one nuclear device now and two soon. It has also piled up 162 pounds of 20-percent enriched uranium.
Iran needs no more than 43 days to assemble a nuke
As the former IAEA deputy director Oli Heinonen has pointed out, mastering 3.5 percent enrichment is 70 percent of the way to mastering the fuel cycle for an atomic weapon. Twenty percent enrichment is 90 percent of the process.
– Does Iran possess the technology for building a nuke?
On this too, the answer is affirmative. Iran’s nuclear scientists have mastered the manufacture of a nuclear trigger. According to the IAEA’s latest report, “Information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
– With the materials and technology already in hand, how long will it take Iran to build a nuclear bomb?
Israel’s prime minister and defense minister were stunned by the answer. It was 43 days!
Not a year, not two or three years. Just a month and a half!
The inescapable conclusion therefore is that if Iran is already secretly manufacturing a N-bomb, unbeknownst to US and Israeli intelligence, the next rounds of negotiations designed to pre-empt a nuclear Iran could find the Islamic Republic already in possession of a bomb.
– If Israel holds back now, will diplomatic and military circumstances permit an attack at a later date?
Military and diplomatic professionals say ‘probably not.’
Short-term versus long-term scenarios
– If Israel goes forward now, will the rift between Israel and the Obama administration grow beyond repair? After all, President Obama explicitly asked Netanyahu to refrain from striking Iran until after he asks the American voter for a second term in November.
Neither Netanyahu nor Barak think the damage to relations would be irreparable.
Certain clues this week pointed to Israel’s two senior policy-makers being closer than ever before to finally settling on an early timeline for the Iran operation, although an alternative scenario is still under discussion. (See a separate article in this issue on the long-term scenario.)
The number of personal advisers with direct access to the prime minister and defense minister was slashed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, leaving no more than half a dozen confidential aides each– none known to have any connections in the media. They alone are present at conferences on the Iranian issue, except in cases when Netanyahu and Barak talk one-on-one.
Iran, the subject clearly preying heavily on their minds crept into the speeches both were called on to make on the occasions of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the Israel Fallen.
Monday, April 23, Barak stated: “Israel must rely above all on itself (not the US) when put to the supreme test. We are capable of contending with any near or distant enemy.” He went on to comment that Israel is the strongest nation “within a 1,500-km radius” – a giveaway in relation to Iran.
In case that point was not missed, the minister said in another speech later: Israel’s threat to attack Iran is serious,” and added, “2012 will be a year of decisions.”
Israel’s top soldier: The IDF stands ready to act
The next day, Tuesday, Netanyahu told a radio interviewer: “We take Iran’s threats to destroy Israel with the utmost seriousness and are bound to prepare to face up to it. I would be happy if sanctions worked, but President Obama and I have said clearly that Tehran cannot be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon and Israel must maintain the ability to defend itself at any time against any threat.”
Israel’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz had this to say: The IDF stands ready for an attack on Iran if the government gives the order. "In principle, we are ready to act," he said.
So far, the order has not been given. But, according to our sources, the final decision may be no more than days off.