The public and bombastic declaration by Mossad chief David Barnea, to the effect that the Mossad guarantees that Iran will never have nuclear weapons, is so embarrassing in its ignorance. And it’s so lacking in credibility due to its pretentiousness, and childish and provincial in its wording and its timing. Anyone who hears such a declaration, and knows anything about nuclear issues and Iran, knows that it has no validity.
Only an ignoramus can believe that an external force, whether an espionage agency (the Mossad or the CIA) or an army, can prevent a country with a population of 85 million, with a nuclear and industrial infrastructure of the type now existing in Iran, from acquiring nuclear weapons. It’s true that with stratagems it is possible to cause damage and to delay the inevitable, and at best to buy perhaps a year and even somewhat more, but we have to understand that no external force can prevent a determined Iran from producing nuclear weapons, except by means of an overall military conquest.
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Even in the case of Iraq, on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1990 – when the population was under 18 million, and its nuclear and technological infrastructure was far inferior to what Iran has today, it was not the bombing by the U.S. Army in the 40 days of war that destroyed President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. What destroyed it was his defeat in the war.
Because of it he was forced to accept, among other conditions, a strict nuclear inspection regime. And even then, only in a years-long effort did the inspection regime succeed in identifying and destroying Iraq’s nuclear program. In other words, only in a forced inspection regime, and after a defeat in a real war, is it possible to guarantee that a country won’t have nuclear weapons. And even such a commitment will eventually expire. Never say “never.”
If Iran were really determined to cross the nuclear threshold – it would have done so a long time ago. No external force except for the capture of territory and a defeat of the regime would be capable of denying Iran nuclear weapons, if it had a national commitment to achieving that goal. In the final analysis, delays and postponements, even as a result of large-scale military operations, could not prevent that.
In a historical analysis it seems that Iran has made a real effort to approach nuclear capability, but not with total intransigence and at all costs. Iran is determined to achieve nuclear capability, but at the same time it also balances this with caution and moderation – in order not to lapse into situations of conflict with the world powers.
Iran is constantly examining the world’s opposition to its nuclear aspirations, and each time seeks an opportunity to take another small step forward. After 2003 – the year in which the most compartmentalized initiative of the Revolutionary Guards, the production of about half a dozen first-generation nuclear warheads, was abandoned – Iran has been very careful not to accelerate its path to a bomb, including in the past two years. In other words, even after the withdrawal of former U.S. President Donald Trump from the nuclear treaty.
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Although there is no doubt regarding Iran’s aspirations to get as close as it can to a bomb, we don’t know the furthest point that Iran aspires to reach in its present situation. We can reasonably assume that even the Iranian leadership itself does not see eye to eye on this question.
Many in the United States, including this writer, believe that at present Iran has no intention of crossing the nuclear threshold, in other words, of carrying out a test and demonstrating capability. Apparently Iran aspires to approach the nuclear threshold, but also to blur its proximity to the threshold – especially regarding issues beyond the production of weapons-grade nuclear material.
Logically, it seems that Iran, if it could, would like to resemble Israel of the late 1960s. In other words, to be a country that is not subject to any nuclear agreement and doesn’t say exactly what and how much it has, but that the world gradually gets used to considering a nuclear threshold state. And more important: The world also understands that there is no point in fighting with Israel over its proximity to the threshold. In such a case, Iran would probably issue a declaration that would not be essentially different from Israel’s ambiguity, something like “Iran will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.”
But present-day Iran does not have a status that enables it to resemble Israel of the late 1960s, or even South Africa or Pakistan of the early 1990s. As long as it is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, Iran knows that it cannot do this. In its current situation, it’s hard to see how Iran will reach understandings with other countries, even vague understandings, which will recognize the fact that it is a nuclear threshold state. Of course Iran’s proximity to the threshold will depend on the credibility of the renewed agreement, on the assumption (which is not at all certain) that an agreement will be reached.
On the other hand, if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked, and especially if the attack is launched by Israel alone – a possible scenario is that Iran would decide to unilaterally implement Article X of the NPT, which allows it to withdraw from the treaty within three months: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”
Incidentally, Iran may implement the withdrawal even if its nuclear facilities are attacked in a strike that is not purely military.
In other words, the Mossad chief’s commitment is not only a foolish, childish and boastful statement, it is dangerous as well. It may turn into a boomerang – after it damages its targets it will come back and damage its dispatchers. The commitment of the Mossad head – backed by a belligerent and unilateral commitment by Israel, which lacks any international legitimacy – is likely to be a recipe for a catastrophe that Israel should fear greatly: creating the justification and legitimacy that would enable Iran to leave the NPT (and other “flawed” agreements that are being negotiated at present) and become a genuine threshold state, a few days or weeks away from the bomb.
Three years after Trump, with the encouragement of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, abandoned the nuclear treaty, there is almost total security consensus that this precipitous step was a terrible strategic mistake. The “commitment” of the Mossad chief is likely to turn into a similar mistake. It is ignorant, foolish and lacking in credibility, and not only that, but it’s outcome is likely to be the opposite of its intentions.
The writer is a professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California