Analysis

An Iranian Nuclear Breakout? Not So Fast

Israeli intel's annual assessment spawned alarming headlines, but a closer read paints a somewhat different picture

Iran's Arak nuclear facility in 2011.
Hamid Foroutan/AP

The Israel Defense Forces’ annual intelligence assessment, presented this week over the course of two hours, leaves a large opening for misunderstandings and inaccurate interpretations. The somewhat dramatic headlines, based on Military Intelligence’s predictions – which were general, cautious and quite reserved – demand broader discussion and additional explanation.

The mistaken impression that arose from those headlines was that the Islamic Republic if Iran is renewing its race to achieve nuclear capability, but that is not what’s happening in reality. As reflected in MI’s report and in recent data from the International Atomic Energy Commission, the truth is that the Iranians are accumulating violations to the international nuclear agreement signed by the world powers in 2015. After the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, and more intensely after the American economic sanctions were ratcheted up in May 2019, Tehran began to systematically and gradually violate it.

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The aim of the regime, according to MI, is to collect tradeable “assets” ahead of renewed talks, if and when the Americans deign to return to the negotiating table to discuss an alternate form of the discarded agreement. These moves are backed up by attacks and sabotage operations targeting regional petroleum sites and the Gulf states’ oil-export routes, in an attempt to persuade the administration of President Donald Trump to back down.

The most significant violation of the agreement occurred last November, when Iran resumed uranium enrichment at the underground facility in Fordow. The fact that this site is fortified against most types of attack means that Iran is again creating a kind of immune zone around a central element of its nuclear project. On top of this, there are the other violations cited by MI, including the operation of advanced centrifuges and the accumulation of an increasing amount of enriched uranium – albeit at low level (3.67 percent) for the time being.

In April, by which time the Iranians will have accumulated a sufficient amount of uranium, about 1.3 tons’ worth, they will be able, theoretically, to advance to further levels of enrichment. In the course of the year they will be able to distill from that quantity about 40 kilos of high-level enriched uranium (90 percent), which is enough to manufacture one bomb. Two years from today, they would be capable of completing the entire project and attaining a nuclear weapon, in the form of a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile.

But whether all of this actually occurs depends on a series of decisions, as former MI chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin tweeted on Wednesday. The key factor, he says, is whether Tehran decides to produce nuclear weapons.

“Iran has refrained from doing this for years and has preferred to establish threshold capabilities, which will allow it in the future to come to a decision and implement it,” says Yadlin. “There is a high probability that Iran has not yet made a decision to manufacture weapons, and therefore the countdown to Iranian nuclear weapons capability has not yet begun.”

This Nov. 1, 2019, satellite image provided by provided by Maxar Technologies shows the Fordo nuclear facility, just north of the holy city of Qom in Iran.
Maxar Technologies via AP

In the background, as in the past, the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that the Iranians are moving toward the bomb via some sort of secret channel, unknown to either the atomic energy commission or to Western intelligence organizations.

A second crucial question arises from MI’s appraisal in regard to the legacy of Qassem Soleimani. The powerful Iranian general, who was assassinated by the United States two weeks ago, spearheaded a network of arms-smuggling operations and consolidation of military forces across the Middle East. Will his successors pursue that project with the same intensity? What will Israel’s response be?

From Soleimani’s assassination until this past Tuesday, there had been no reports of Israeli strikes in Syria or Iraq – which was interpreted as stemming from an Israeli decision to await developments, in the wake of the surprising blow delivered by the Americans. However, on Tuesday night, the Syrian air force’s T-4 base, near Homs, was bombed. If Israel was behind the attack, it can be assumed that a need arose to take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity and to scuttle a specific arms-smuggling operation.

In the meantime, according to media reports, MI’s recommendation – both before and after Soleimani’s assassination – is to step up moves against the Iranians on the northern front. For his part, in a speech last month, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi also predicted a possible escalation against Iran in the north during 2020, and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has publicly argued that an opportunity has arisen to expel the Iranians from Syria altogether.

But there’s also something of a catch in MI’s recommendation: Its annual assessment cites a low probability of Iran or its proxies initiating a war against Israel, but at the same time maintains that the risk of an unplanned flare-up of hostilities has increased in light of the escalating exchange of blows between the sides.

An additional Israeli intelligence assessment is that Iran and Hezbollah will begin to respond to attacks in which their personnel are killed. In other words, the IDF is suggesting that the strikes be intensified, even though it’s aware of the danger that this will drag the sides to the brink of war. The chief of staff and the General Staff do not usually come across as warmongers, but those are prophecies that could prove self-fulfilling.

In the background, the American-Iranian confrontation has moved to more covert channels. Tehran made do with one immediate response to the Soleimani assassination: firing about 20 missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, which caused no casualties. However, senior Iranian figures and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah have already marked out their next goal: ridding the entire Middle East, especially Iraq, of all American forces. Accordingly, it’s possible that Iran’s revenge has not yet been fully realized. The next moves could include a war of attrition against the 5,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq and also possible terrorist attacks – without Tehran officially claiming responsibility for them – against other American targets worldwide. For the time being, Israel has a marginal part in this confrontation: Iranian threats are targeting the United States.

A picture taken on January 13, 2020, shows U.S. army drones at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar.
AFP

Powers-that-be

Media reports about the IDF’s annual intelligence assessment appraisal omitted the references to the role of the great powers in the region. MI has detected an ongoing weakness in Europe’s impact in the international realm. For example, in the last two years, Britain, France and Germany – the three European signatories to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran (along with China, Russia and, formerly, the United States) – did not exert even the slightest influence in the dispute over the agreement. It was not until this week, in light of continued Iranian violations, that the Europeans took a belated stance and announced that they would reconsider imposing sanctions of their own on Tehran.

In contrast to the feeble European input, Turkey is strengthening its position as a regional power. Ankara is involved in every Middle Eastern hotspot where crisis is unfolding – i.e., Libya, the Idlib enclave in northern Syria, the Palestinian arena, and in Europe which is being flooded by refugees from the region – handling itself with sophistication and carefully maneuvering between the two main competing powers: the United States and Russia.

As for the Americans, MI continues to assess that their general tendency is to withdraw from the Middle East, even if that is not reflected in the dry statistics (85,000 troops in the region, 18,000 of whom were added in the past few months – precisely after President Trump started to talk about bringing them home). The Middle East is far from holding a high place in the U.S. list of priorities. Way above it on that list are competing for technological superiority in the international arena, and – closely interrelated – waging power struggles with China and to a lesser degree, with Russia.

But because the pullout tendency is at a low ebb right now, America remains the strongest and most conspicuously present power in the region. Russia and China are taking a different tack. Moscow is forging alliances of interests and moving into spaces vacated by the Americans (its involvement in Syria is a blatant example). Beijing seeks economic dominance by means of commercial and technological contracts involving huge infrastructure projects (ports, highways, railway lines) and creation of cellular networks for any country in the vicinity that’s interested.