US and Israeli intelligence experts are in sharp disagreement over the time Iran needs for breakout to a bomb. The Americans say that Iran would need one year between a decision to go from nuclear threshold to nuclear bomb – enough time for preventive action – while the Israelis say the time is much shorter – six months at most. President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who leads the negotiations with Tehran, insist that America intelligence would detect an Iranian decision to go forward in time to step in and pre-empt it.
European co-negotiators are "on the same page," lined up behind the same “strategy and goal” for trying to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran, Kerry said after meeting with French, German and British foreign ministers in Paris Saturday, March 7.
However, Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf states are no more convinced than Israel or Egypt that a year is a realistic timeline for diplomacy, sanctions or force of arms to go into effect and cut short Iran’s progress towards assembling its first nuke – despite Kerry’s attempt to reassure them last week in Riyadh.
Israel’s military, intelligence and political leaders are strongly skeptical of Washington’s time calculus for three reasons:
1. There is no guarantee that either American or Israeli intelligence agencies will be able to detect a decision byTehran to cross the agreed nuclear threshold into manufacture. Iran might well be months into the production of a nuclear bomb, or even at its finishing stages, before the wake-up alert reaches Washington.
The two agencies are agreed on one point, that if Tehran does decide to go ahead and build a nuclear bomb, it will produce an arsenal of three to five devices at the outset.
2. Israel has found grounds for suspicion that US and Iranian negotiations have in fact cut down the one-year period substantially to six months at most, from the moment Iran goes into production of a nuclear bomb and it becomes operational.
3. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his advisers believe that Obama and Kerry are aware of this, but are keeping it dark because it would undercut their argument that the final nuclear deal with Iran would take into account Israeli and Gulf security concerns. Six months would obviously not be long enough for preventive action by the United States, least of all Europe.
4. The collision between US and Israeli intelligence in their evaluations of Iran’s timeline for a bomb is far more critical and potentially harmful to the relations between the two governments than the public feuding between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister.
Netanyahu cautioned against the buried timeline bombshell in one sentence of his speech to the US Congress last Tuesday, March 3. He said, “Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran’s breakout time would be very short – about a year by US assessment, even shorter by Israel’s.”
In the heat of electioneering – ten days to go for the Israeli vote on March 17 – the prime minister’s rivals are avoiding lining up with him on the grave ramifications of this diversity of assessment. They prefer to hammer away at his inadequacies in domestic policy.