All Writings
May 4, 2005

Israel’s Option Of Last Resort

As the delegates of 189 countries meet at the United Nations in an effort to eliminate some loopholes in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which allows nations technical openings to pursue nuclear weapons programs, Iran announced it will soon resume its uranium enrichment program. Although United States and Israel fully agree that Iran should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, there is an underlying disagreement about the strategy to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. Unless the United States and the European Union (EU) succeed in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel may feel compelled to act unilaterally to prevent Iran from threatening its national security, if not its existence. The discussions between the United States and Israel touch upon two fundamental issues: Whereas the United States feels that it will take Iran three to four years to assemble a nuclear device, Israel is convinced that Iran is months away from reaching the "point of no return," of achieving the technical knowhow to make a bomb. Although Prime Minster Sharon produced fresh evidence of this during his April meeting with Mr. Bush in Crawford, Texas, administration officials involved in the discussions dismissed Israeli intelligence reports as being nothing new. While the United States and Israel exchange intelligence on a regular basis, there is a difference in their interpretation and analysis of the data. Israel relies more heavily on human intelligence, and surely, singled out for destruction by Iran, it has greater sense of urgency to neutralize Iran's nuclear capability. More than once, defense minister Shaul Mofaz has declared that Israel considers a nuclear Iran to be intolerable.

Even though the Israelis agree that Iran's nuclear program constitutes a problem that must be resolved by international efforts, they do not believe that such efforts have yielded any tangible results. Israeli officials do not speak publically about the failure of American intelligence or the unsuccessful strategy to deal with proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the case of North Korea. They are also not entirely sanguine about the Bush administration's approach to bring Iran to heel. Mr. Sharon feels strongly that Iran will respond only to coercive measures; that if threatened with comprehensive sanctions and isolation it will relent. In addition, Israel is happy neither with the pace nor the content of European (Britain, France and Germany) negotiations with Iran, fearing that the Europeans are overeager to reach an agreement. As a result, they may allow Iran to process low-grade uranium ostensibly for peaceful purposes, although it can be converted into weapon-grade if Iran does not accept rigorous inspections and complete transparency. That said, Israel wants to internationalize the problem, because it does not want to lead the struggle against Iran as Mr. Sharon has recently stated, and so "would push for an international effort" to solve the problem. But Israel does want to serve notice to the international community that it is urgent that something be done to end Iran's nuclear program and if that fails Israel will feel free to act and then let the rest of the world to clean up the mess, as Vice President Cheney said a few months ago.

Israel will not shed tears if a lack of progress in the negotiations between the Europeans and Iran force Iran to walk away from the talks, as it has already threatened to do. As long as Iran pays no price for continuing its nuclear activity, believes that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and is incapable of acting militarily, and dismisses the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it will continue to defy the will of the International community. Israel does not believe that offering Iran economic and other incentives to drop its nuclear program, as the Bush administration was persuaded by the Europeans to do, is an effective strategy. Given Iran's propensity for cheating, Israel insists it takes the recent statement by Iran's leading candidate for prime minister Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's at face value. Mr. Rafsanjani said, "Iran would pursue the enrichment at all cost," from his perspective, his remark is in accord with the NPT guidelines. But Israel sees it as offering no positive prospect for a future accommodation. For this reason, some Israeli officials tell me, unless the administration, with the explicit support of the Europeans, makes abundantly clear the consequences that Iran would suffer if it violates the terms of any new agreement, there is no point in pursuing U.S.-Iran bilateral talks. Because of these facts, Israel, at this juncture, is taking the position of wait and see, while preparing for the worst. Although, as Mr. Sharon stated, Israel has no plans to attack Iran. Israel cannot, however, afford the luxury of being unprepared. During a recent conversation I had with General Danny Rothschild, who occupied high security positions inside and outside of the Israeli army and is currently a global security consultant, he said that Israel has the technical means and the logistics to take necessary action against Iran should time and circumstance require it. A risk assessment of Iran's retaliatory capability against Israel in fact bolsters the Israeli position should it decide to make a preemptive strike.

Security and defense analysts in Israel suggest that Iran's options are limited: first, that Iran does not border Israel making it nearly impossible for it to project ground troops without the consent of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan — countries that certainly would not want to get marred in a potentially devastating war with Israel. Second, Iran cannot rely on its air force to mount a massive attack against Israel not only because Iranian planes must cross the airspace of the three states mentioned. but because Iran's Air Force is no match for that of Israel's, not to speak of Iran's limited refueling capability. Third, although Iran possesses missiles that can reach Israel, especially the ballistic Shahab 3 missile, Israel has deployed the Patriot and Hawk missile air defense systems to protect its urban centers. Israel is also capable of retaliatory attack by its guided ballistic missiles which could inflict massive damage. However, Iran could prompt Hizbullah to attack Israel from Lebanon with medium range rockets that can reach Tel Aviv. With a stockpile of more than 8,000 rockets, Hizbullah may cause some limited damage but Israel could be expected to respond with decisive force that could wipe out Hizbullah's forces and batteries.

For Israel, Iran's nuclear program is a ticking bomb; thus, neither Israel's timetable nor sense of urgency is in sync with America and the EU. Moreover, Israel remains skeptical about any agreement that the EU may reach with Iran and is concerned over the lack of a clear American strategy to blunt Iran's appetite for nuclear weapons. For this reason, Israel must remain in the loop concerning the European deliberations with Iran. An Israeli attack against Iran is an option of last resort, but it remains an option should Israel conclude that all else has failed.