The questions surrounding Iran and the decision of whether or not to attack its nuclear facilities reminds me of Israel and Egypt from1970 until the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. After Anwar Sadat gained power in the wake of Gamel Abdul Nassers death, he would, from time to time, declare that if Israel would not return the territories it conquered in 1967, Egypt would return them by force. At the time, Israelis laughed at Sadats statements. Even flyers advertising Israeli New Years Eve parties called on people to celebrate the year of reckoning, directly referencing Sadats oft-used expression. 1971 passed without any reckoning, as did 1972. With the passing years, Israels self-confidence skyrocketed, along with its complacence and euphoria. And then it happened. 1973 was the year of reckoning. Anwar Sadat stood by his promise, and retrieved what we took from him by force –Sinai.
Since the 1990s, Israeli intelligence services have been publishing evaluations estimating that it would only be a matter of years before Iran builds a nuclear weapon. An early evaluation describes 1997 as a turning point. After that, another turning point at the start of the 21stcentury – the point of no return. That time has passed, and with it a new kind of terminology was used: technological threshold, around 2004. This happened again in 2007, as well during the years 2010 and 2011.
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All of these evaluations proved false. Perhaps they were erroneous. Maybe they were correct at the time, and only secret operations attributed to the Mossad, with cooperation from the CIA and the British MI6 – a dangerous computer virus, damage to centrifuges, explosions in missile bases and areas with nuclear stockpiles – are preventing Iran from fulfilling its goal.
Most of Meir Dagans term as the head of the Mossad (2002-2010) was blessed with significant intelligence achievements and successful special operations of highly strategic importance. The Mossad is credited with obtaining information that allowed the IDF to destroy long-range missiles in the Second Lebanon War. According to several publications, the Mossad was responsible for obtaining information regarding Syrias building of a plutonium reactor intended for the production of a nuclear weapon. The intelligence allowed the Israeli government to destroy the reactor.
After some time, and with the help of precise intelligence, Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniya was assassinated in Damascus, as was Syrian General Muhammad Suleiman, who acted as intermediary for special operations to Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad, coordinated his own countrys nuclear program and was responsible for supplying Hezbollah with missiles. But the crown jewel of Israels achievements during Dagans tenure was the damage done to Irans nuclear program.
A man trusts his own intuitions. Thus, it is no surprise that Dagan is a great believer in the effectiveness of clandestine operations. And this is often the problem with special operations: The belief, till the point of infatuation on the part of the planners – and this includes the Americans and the British, in addition to the Israelis – that they can achieve great things in both the tactical and the strategic realms. It is comfortable for the decision-makers in Jerusalem, Washington, London or Paris to believe in these operations, to truly believe that they will provide a solution to the problem.
But, with all due respect to the success of clandestine operations, most Israeli, American, and European experts agree that secret operations will not be enough to halt Irans rush toward a nuclear arsenal. Iran is, in all honesty, fairly close to its own year of reckoning. It has already passed the technological threshold. It knows how to enrich uranium, and has carried out experiments where uranium was enriched to 90%, as well as experiments with explosives to generate chain explosions. It carried out computer simulations of nuclear explosions. There is a general consensus that by the year 2012, and 2013 at the latest, Iran will be able to put together a nuclear weapon. True, if is able to do so, it will be a large bomb – a clumsy structure – one that wont be able to be assembled as a nuclear warhead. This will require several more years. Thus, Meir Dagan was right when he said Iran would be able to acquire a nuclear weapon by 2014-2015. But the fact that Iran may have a nuclear weapon (which will, in all likelihood, be only one of several to be produced) in the next year to year and a half will allow it to change the rules of the game.
Thus, it seems the hour approaches when decision-makers will have to decide whether or not to attack. Three years ago, only a short time after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister, and even before he gave his famous Bar Ilan speech, this writer suggested that it would be in Israels interest to act decisively in helping establish a Palestinian state. Such a step would have received the support of the Arab world, the Muslim world, Europe and the United States. It would have bolstered Israels political position and security situation, and Irans general influence over the Middle East as well as over smaller radical organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas would have waned. In such a situation, Israel would have allowed itself to present a convincing case for an attack on Iran. Each bloc – the Arab and Muslim world, Europe and the United States – would have either openly supported the operation, or refrain from openly opposing it. But Netanyahu and his government have no intention of allowing for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Thus, Israelis left severely isolated in its ability to confront Iran. Not to mention that Israels ability to conduct an effective strike against Iranian nuclear sites in order to neutralize them for a reasonable period of time is limited, especially when compared to that of the United States. The aforementioned puts Israels ability to allow it to attack Iran, even if it really wants to, in serious doubt. Thus, the only country with the ability to truly halt Iran from reaching its target is the United States. The past weeks has seen a severe change in tone emanating from Washington D.C. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have openly spoken about the possibility that the United States will be forced to attack Tehran, and emphasized Americas determination to prevent the Ayatollahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Israeli and American analysts tend to classify this resolute language as a change in U.S. policy. They attribute the change to the president and the defense secretary who have happily appropriated it for themselves. I am of the opinion that this is an exaggeration. Neither Ehud Barak nor Netanyahus tacit threats of an Israeli attack over the past weeks convinced the Americans. Everyone knows that those hints were nothing more than disingenuous. I do not believe that there has been a change in the U.S. governments policy. The determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has always been apriority for Barack Obama. It is possible that he suppressed this determination. Now that he finds himself approaching an election year, and especially while he is under attack by Republican candidates for having a weak foreign policy, Obama is interested in emphasizing his obligation to his belief that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons.
It is obvious that this message is not intended only to win re-election. It is also intended to signal to Iran that the United States stands by its word, and that the Iranian leaders ought to cease developing nuclear weapons, or risk feeling the wrath of the American war machine. The message is directed toward Russia (whose leadership was severely weakened over the past weeks due to protests against alleged fraudulent elections) and China who would do well to put pressure on Iran, lest they seek a military standoff.
Thus, I believe that the chance that President Obama will call for a military strike on Iran, if he reaches the conclusion that there is no other way of stopping its nuclear program, is increasing. This may happen in 2012, before the U.S. elections, or not long after. Indeed, the year of reckoning is approaching.