Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and the previous defense minister, was considered the most fervent advocate of Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He faced — along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — a broad coalition against the move that included then-President Shimon Peres, cabinet members and security chiefs.
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Three key officials faced off against Netanyahu and Barak: Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Shin Bet security head Yuval Diskin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. When their terms expired, they criticized plans to attack — and the planners.
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Dagan said when asked about an Israeli air strike on Iran. Diskin described his fears about seeing Netanyahu and Barak discussing the topic over cigars and whiskey.
In late 2012, shortly before Barak stepped down as defense minister, he tried to make the case to cabinet colleagues that if Israel didn’t act soon against Iran, it was very doubtful it would ever be able to. As time passed, the Iranians approached immunity from attack — fortifying defenses and building up stockpiles of uranium.
As Barak saw it, with a nuclear Iran, “the world wouldn’t be the same world,” a nuclear arms race would plague the region, and nuclear weapons would eventually find their way to terror groups. “We would face a threat of existential proportions,” he warned.
A year after this dire prediction, the world powers led by the United States came to an interim agreement with Iran that loosened sanctions but required Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. The deal is supposed to lead to a permanent agreement, but Barak finds it hard to believe the world will stop the Iranians via negotiations.
“The entire concept here is mistaken,” he says, adding that under the interim agreement, the Iranians are moving ahead with their vision of obtaining nuclear weapons “as cautiously as a porcupine making love,” as he puts it. “There are activities they can carry out in rooms as large as the one we’re sitting in, rather than at huge industrial plants where they enrich uranium.”
Why is the concept mistaken? Maybe the major powers will halt the Iranian nuclear program without a military operation that would cause mass casualties.
“What led the Iranians to enter into negotiations was the combination of pressure from three sources. The first was the sanctions, particularly relating to oil exports and access to international finance.
“The second was the threat in the background — the big stick — the possibility that if things continued as they were, without talks or an agreement, Israel or the United States, or in Iranians’ view, the combination of the two, would attack them. As a result of these difficulties, additional pressure was created: the fear of a weakening regime.
“They concluded that it was worth letting [President] Hassan Rohani be elected and go for an agreement. The interim agreement is creating a reality that’s easier for the Iranians when it comes to the stifling of the sanctions. It allows them lengthy ongoing discussions on a permanent agreement.
“The damage caused by this methodology is that the two main pressures that the Iranians were feeling are being eased — the sanctions and the fear of an attack. As a result, the third pressure has also eased, the fear of a weakening of the ayatollahs’ regime.
“A major mistake has been made here, even though the negotiations have set the Iranians back by half a year. The Iranians have no interest in reaching a permanent agreement. From their standpoint, it would be better to get another improved interim agreement and exploit the fact that the Americans prefer, as they see it, an agreement like this — over throwing up their hands and admitting failure.
“The Iranians, who are excellent at assessing the situation, believe that the American administration has changed its aim from one goal — that there not be a militarily nuclear Iran — to another goal without acknowledging it — that there not be a military nuclear Iran ‘on our watch.’ The Iranians seek to buy time to wait for the opportunity where ... the world can’t deal with them for a year. Then they’ll run and we could face an established fact.”
Waiting 4,000 years
What are they waiting for — the next U.S. election, when they, you would claim, can sneak by and go nuclear?
“They’re waiting for the moment the world is paralyzed. It could be the result of a deterioration in the situation in Ukraine, the crisis between Pakistan and India, or following elections in the United States.
“The North Koreans and Pakistanis obtained nuclear weapons because they were patient. From a historical perspective, the Iranians have been waiting 4,000 years for the bomb, or in the modern era 40 years, from the time of the Shah.
“For them, it addresses a genuine historical need to belong to the great powers’ club and the fear that the Americans would threaten to depose the ayatollahs’ regime. They know one thing: No one has ever tried to interfere in the affairs of a country thought or known to be nuclear.”
Why do you assume that if Barack Obama gets the impression the Iranians are tricking him he won’t order an attack?
“Theoretically the president could regain his composure, but the probability isn’t high. In practice, it’s very hard to regain your composure. You’re already constrained. Governments have repeatedly been locked into their original positions due to the international and domestic political criticism to be expected due to a change of position. A change in position carries a heavy price in all these areas — an attack on inconsistency and flip-flopping.
“Now, if the Iranians showed contempt for Obama and treated him like a nothing, he might act, but the Iranians are too smart. They’re trying to be sure never to cross the line. They’re players who are at least as sophisticated as us all.”
Can the Americans attack Iran without getting caught up in an all-out war as President George W. Bush did in Iraq?
“In one night they can set the Iranians back years in a way that, even if the Iranians know in advance which night it’s going to happen, they wouldn’t be able to do a thing. In the case of a surgical strike, Israeli or American, it’s unreasonable for the Iranians to close the Strait of Hormuz or attack American bases in the Gulf, in order to avoid one of their greatest nightmares: an all-out war with the United States that could lead to the fall of the regime.
“Even so, Iranian paranoia has it that the real American aim is not to halt the nuclear program but to overthrow the ayatollahs’ regime in revenge for what happened 40 years ago with Khomeini’s rise to power.
“Left for them is to carry out terror activity using the cells they have in many countries in the region — to harm American interests. And they have the possibility to argue that Israel was a part of the military operation and open up with a missile attack against us or encourage Hezbollah to do something that would drag the Americans in.
“These aren’t insignificant things and I don’t discount them, but this isn’t a war like the one in Iraq in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were mobilized for years of involvement. On a spectrum between the Iraq War and the raid on Bin Laden, a surgical American operation in Iran is closer to the raid.”
The Americans wouldn’t be happy about attacking; the Iranians are creating a zone of immunity. Is Israel’s capacity for attack diminished?
“The race between our capacity to cause damage and the immunity they’re attaining — not only due to the talks but also due to the progress in the process on their side — doesn’t create an optimistic picture. The Israeli capacity still exists, but it’s declining and in danger of eroding.”
Are we at a greater risk that Iran will be a nuclear threshold state?
“In a certain respect, yes. In a certain respect, the zone of immunity is deepening. In a certain respect, our capacity is declining. In a certain respect the very existence of the talks doesn’t increase the possibility for independent Israeli action. Are you asking if all these things are good news and we’re heading in the direction in which the Iranians will lose the capability they’re seeking? No.”
If the Iranians went nuclear, would they use it offensively?
“I don’t think they would initiate the use of nuclear weaponry unless they felt their regime was on the brink of destruction. The Iranian nuclear effort is not an immediate existential threat, but it would certainly be blindness not to see that it could develop into a general existential threat in the future if it's realized.
“Look at the speech by Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been considered a moderate, more than a decade ago. Back then he said that one bomb was enough to end the Zionist story, and since Israel is facing 25 Muslim countries, it will only be able to respond to those it thinks have attacked it, and in the process a major asymmetry is created.
“Rafsanjani didn’t go a step further. He didn’t say that in fact it was possible to deliver the bomb to Ashdod or Haifa in a container without any [return] address; then you don’t know who to hit back at. There is thinking in Iran that’s rational when it comes to analysis, and extreme when it comes to the possibilities it’s willing to raise.”
No need to panic
So we should be packing our bags?
“The entire discussion on this subject is not a discussion like euphoria and depression. We’re still the strongest country in the Middle East and stand to be so for every time frame in the foreseeable future, including scenarios in which the Islamic State conquers Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
“If we get up one morning and Pakistan has fallen and there are six nuclear bombs in Saudi Arabia and six nuclear bombs in Iran — in the event of such extreme scenarios, are we going to return to North Africa and Eastern Europe? We’re staying here. We’re not dismantling the IDF or the Shin Bet.”
Have your and Netanyahu’s statements about military action been for show?
“None of the things we said then were just to make an impression and for show. We were serious, and every year, for a different reason, it didn’t become operational.
“The logic remains that we need to be capable of acting because we could enter a situation that appears like a drift into the zone of immunity, that no one is going to act and the default is Iran becoming a threshold country and later a nuclear power.”
You didn’t create a political coalition that would support an operation. The matter came up at the eight-member ministerial committee and you didn’t win support.
“Actually, it didn’t get to a situation in which the eight, with a clear majority that would let us roll, was about to bring it to the inner cabinet and beyond. And there were other centers of opposition. There was a public scare campaign.”
You assumed that military action would delay the nuclear program for several years and that in the meantime the ayatollahs’ regime would collapse. That’s a dangerous gamble. Wouldn’t we be risking war, a vindictive Iran and the chance the Iranians would revive what we destroyed?
“No one would be happy about a military operation. We have never thought there was a need to act just because there was the opportunity — only if there was the possibility, the operational capacity and a compelling need. Compelling need means that if we didn’t act, Iran wouldn’t be stopped.
“Every one of us preferred a revolution from within or that they would give in to the sanctions. And if not, that someone else would act to stop them — and if there was no other hope, we would act.
“I say with assurance that the opponents of the operation painted a much more serious picture of what could happen in such a conflict. At worst, the Iranians would have been able to shoot missiles. That’s not insignificant, but there’s a 10-minute warning for such missiles. There’s no reason for anyone to be where they’d be falling, and we would know in advance.
“Their capability to get Hezbollah to act against us is a greater threat than their ability to act directly, but many senior figures painted descriptions designed to scare, such as how they would hang pilots in Iran. In 1967, the air force’s entire fighter force took off and 10 percent fewer people returned an hour later, but that’s what determined the results of the war.
In previous instances in which we acted, we also didn’t know how long we would delay the [other] country’s progress toward a military nuclear [capacity]. When we destroyed the Iraqi reactor [in 1981], it wasn’t clear if this would have an effect for more than three or four years because, after all, the same French company could be asked to rebuild the reactor.
“But it’s not so simple, in part because there’s always the danger of repetition, not only on their part but also of another assault.”