Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to tanker traffic failed to have the desired effect. Despite the menace to the flow of Persian Gulf oil, the price of crude oil on the international market has remained stable. In response to the new US and European sanctions on all trade with Iran, more of its customers have announced intentions to cut back on their Iranian oil purchases.
Iran is also trying to strike back at Israel using its network of international terrorists. The Israeli government believes that Iran was behind separate attacks on Israeli embassy personnel Monday in New Delhi, India and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
In New Delhi, Tal Yehoshua Koren an Israeli embassy employee, suffered shrapnel wounds in her back and lower body from a bomb placed on her car by a terrorist on a motorcycle while the vehicle was stopped for a red light. She was on her way to pick up her children from school. The car’s Indian driver and two passers by were lightly wounded.
In the Georgian capital of Tblisi, the Georgian driver of an embassy car, heard a strange noise after starting it up, and discovered a “quite powerful” bomb planted in his car that local police successfully defused.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that, “Iran is behind these attacks; it is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world. . . In recent months we have witnessed several attempts to attack Israeli citizens and Jews in several countries, including Azerbaijan, Thailand and others. In each instance we succeeded in foiling the attacks in cooperation with local authorities. Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, were behind all of these attempted attacks.” He added that Israel “will continue to operate methodically and patiently against international terror that originates in Iran.”
IRAN NEARING ITS GOAL
Diplomatically, Iran is playing the same old games. It is again trying to engage the West, this time using Turkey as an intermediary, to initiate another round of endless talks. By this time, the US and its European allies realize that such talks are just another stalling tactic, designed to go nowhere, while Iran’s scientists overcome the last few obstacles standing in the way of its nuclear goal.
For once, both Israel and the US agree that Iran is less than a year away from producing its first nuclear weapon. The consequences of such a development would be disastrous, enabling Iran’s Islamic leaders to try to fulfill their repeated threats to destroy Israel, chas v’sholom.
The reason the European Union imposed the latest round of sanctions against Iran was not its love for Israel. European leaders have finally realized that a nuclear- armed Iran would be a menace to their vital national interests as well. Once Iran acquired nuclear weapons, all of the other powers in the region would seek them out, too, including, at a minimum, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and possibly others, if only to protect themselves against Iranian nuclear blackmail.
THE MIDDLE EAST NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE
The worldwide danger from such a development can be readily understood from what happened last year in Libya. As soon as Muammar Ghadhaffi began to lose control of his country, his military arsenals were quickly plundered. The result was that the international illicit arms market was flooded with pilfered Libyan arms of all descriptions, including portable Stinger-like anti-aircraft missiles, being sold to the highest bidders, including terrorists. Now just imagine the same scenario in which an Arab country with nuclear weapons in its arsenal began to fall apart. The result would be the nightmare of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists around the world who are all too willing to use them.
The US and the European powers are finally acting now because they are worried about the consequences of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The prevailing consensus is that the Israeli attack is likely to come sooner, probably before the November presidential elections in the US, rather than later. This is in spite of US efforts to persuade Israel to give the newest round of sanctions more time to pressure Iran into returning to the bargaining table to negotiate over its nuclear program, this time in good faith.
The dispute between the US and Israel is no longer over the intentions of Iran to develop nuclear weapons, nor the progress it has made towards achieving that goal.
WHY ISRAEL MUST ATTACK SOON
A long article published in the New York Times last month explored the question of whether Israel will attack Iran. It concluded that Israel will attack when it determines that it is the only way to stop the Iranians from gaining a nuclear weapons capability that would threaten Israel’s survival.
Iran already has enough enriched uranium with which to build 5 or 6 nuclear weapons, given further enrichment, which is certainly within their technical capabilities. It has an estimated 10,000 enrichment centrifuges in operation producing the raw material for more bombs.
If they were given the order today, it is believed that Iran’s nuclear scientists would be able to assemble their first working bomb for testing within nine months. Just six months later, using Chinese designs bought from a black market ring in Pakistan, it is believed that Iran would be able to build a bomb small enough to fit inside the warhead of one of its Shahab 3 ballistic missiles, which have the range to reach Israel. The total estimated lead time is around 15 months, from the time the order is given to the moment that the Iranians have a usable weapon against Israel. That is the argument that US officials have used to try to persuade Israel to wait at least until next year, in order to give the new sanctions on Iran time to work, before launching an attack.
ISRAEL LOOKING AT A DIFFERENT DEADLINE
But Israeli officials have a different concern. They believe that, once completed, the new nuclear facility Iran has built in Qom deep under a mountainside, would be impervious to air attack. Once it is up and running, Israel believes it won’t matter how long it will take Iran to finish its first nuclear weapon, because Israel will no longer be able to stop it. The key question for Israel is therefore: “When will it be too late to destroy the facility in Qom?”
This is what Defense Minister Ehud Barak meant when he spoke a few weeks ago about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear program before it reached what he called the “zone of immunity.” Once Iran has put in place enough equipment, raw materials and trained personnel to build a bomb in an invulnerable place like Qom, a nuclear weapon becomes just a matter of time. Unless Qom is destroyed before it becomes operational, Israel will come under direct threat of nuclear annihilation from Iran, and there would be nothing that Israel or the US could do, at that point, to stop it.
According to Barak, the consequences of Iran attaining such an ability go far beyond the direct threat of a nuclear attack on Israel. Iran could open a nuclear umbrella over its allies in the region. It might declare that it would also use its nuclear weapons to retaliate against Israel if it were to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas in Gaza. Such a threat by Iran would make Israel far more reluctant to retaliate against a small flurry of missile launches from Gaza or South Lebanon.
US POSITION HAS SHIFTED
Until recently, the US seemed to agree that Iran must be prevented from ever achieving the ability to build a nuclear weapon, but now the US position is different. US officials now talk about “weapons prevention,” which means trying to stop the Iranians even after they have achieved the technical capability to build a bomb on their own. But Israel isn’t buying it.
As one Israeli intelligence official told Ronen Bergman, the Israeli reporter who wrote a long article on the topic in the New York Times last month, “I fail to grasp the Americans’ logic. If someone says we’ll stop them from getting there by praying for more glitches in the [uranium enrichment] centrifuges, I understand. If someone says we must attack soon to stop them, I get it. But if someone says we’ll stop them after they are already there, that I do not understand.”
From the Israeli point of view, the crucial question becomes not how long it will take Iran to build its first nuclear weapon, but how long before the new facility in Qom becomes impregnable to Israeli attack.
According to Bergman, the window of opportunity for a successful Israeli attack on Qom will close in just 9 months. The US, which has a much larger air force and bigger bunker busting bombs in its arsenal, could probably be able to destroy Qom for the next 15 months, if the US were willing to launch a direct attack on Iran, which is a very big if, especially if Obama gets re-elected, which is beginning to appear more likely.
While there is general agreement between Israel and the US on the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program, and where it stands now, there is still some doubt about Obama’s true intentions. Friends of Israel have long suspected that if given the choice, Obama would prefer to live with Iran as an emerging nuclear power rather than take the US to war to against Iran prevent it, regardless of the consequences to Israel.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
Ehud Barak told Bergman that there are three basic questions which must be answered in the affirmative before the Israeli government will decide to attack Iran on its own.
The first question is whether Israel has the military capability to significantly delay Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons, and the related question of whether the Israeli military could then defend Israel’s population centers against the inevitable counterattack.
The second question was whether the US would actually allow Israel to carry out such an attack.
Finally, Israel would have to determine whether all the other possibilities for containing Iran’s nuclear threat short of war had been exhausted.
According to Bergman, for the first time, Barak and Netanyahu, as well as other key Israeli officials, are now convinced that the answer to all three questions is yes.
Israel has been making military preparations for just such an air strike for years. In 2008, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert approached the Bush White House with a list of specific pieces of US military equipment needed by Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities successfully from the air. The request was denied. Bush had decided to issue his infamous 2007 national intelligence estimate on Iran which discounted its nuclear program as an imminent threat.
ISRAEL’S MILITARY PREPARATIONS
US officials recognize that Iran’s nuclear threat is real, and therefore, Israel’s request for the weapons it needs to attack Iran is legitimate. Since Bush left office, President Obama has been sending Israel the arms which Bush had refused them, while asking Israel’s leaders for more time to solve the problem through diplomacy.
As a result, Israel now has new long range strike aircraft with midair refueling capability, as well as a number of bunker-busting bombs designed to take out Iran’s other underground nuclear facilities. Israel has its own drone strike and reconnaissance aircraft. It has sophisticated electronic technology it used in 2007 to disable Syrian air defenses so that Israeli aircraft could destroy a secret North Korean nuclear facility in the Syrian desert. Israel has also been conducting military exercises in the Mediterranean with NATO, simulating long range air attacks on targets as far away as Gibraltar.
Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel has upgraded its civil defense capability. It has also developed and deployed, with US help, the Arrow anti-missile system to guard against long range missiles, and the Iron Domb system to shoot down shorter range rockets.
It is true that Iran, along with its allies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, have so many missiles that it would be impossible for Israel to shoot them all down. However, the experience in the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah rained rockets down on northern Israel, shows that the country would survive, even though casualties could be heavy, r”l.
WHY ISRAEL MUST ATTACK BEFORE NOVEMBER
It would seem that under the current circumstances, Obama would likely permit Israel to launch such an attack, as long as it comes before the November election. One could argue that the recent public statements by senior US officials on a possible Israeli attack, ranging from Secretary Panetta, to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to President Obama himself, suggest that the US is setting up a cover story for use after an Israeli strike. Obama would probably condemn the attack after the fact, while explaining that he had done his best to talk Israel out of it.
If the Israeli attack comes before the November election, Obama would be under severe political pressure to curtail any retaliation against Israel at that time. However, if Obama is re-elected, we can then expect US-Israeli relations to go downhill sharply, especially if Israel has attacked Iran.
THE MOSSAD CAMPAIGN
While Netanyahu, Barak and other Israeli cabinet officials appear to be convinced of the necessity of an attack on Iran now, that feeling is hardly universal among Israel’s elite. Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon placed Dagan in charge of a program started in 2004 to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Working with US intelligence officials, Dagan coordinated efforts to increase the diplomatic pressure on Russia, which was supplying Iran with nuclear technology. He worked to disrupt the financing and foreign sources of supply for the Iranian nuclear program. This included arrangements for Iran to be sent defective equipment and substandard raw materials.
The Mossad is suspected of having launched a campaign to assassinate key Iranian nuclear scientists. It is also believed responsible for a series of unexplained and sometimes fatal explosions and malfunctions at various Iranian nuclear and missile installations. These killings and mishaps have continued to this day.
Most dramatic of all, the Mossad was probably responsible for a cyberattack on Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, using the notorious Stuxnet virus, which seized control of the machines and caused them to self-destruct.
THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST AN ATTACK
These efforts succeeded in slowing down the progress of Iran’s nuclear program by years, but they could not stop it. Dagan has argued, first privately to Israeli leaders, and more recently publicly, that pursuing such covert and indirect means is the only practical way to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He insists that a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is impractical, because they are too widely dispersed and well-protected, and because the damage done by such attacks could be quickly repaired. In a matter of months, Israel would be facing the same nuclear threat.
Dagan warns that the damage done to Israel by the inevitable Iranian retaliation could be devastating. Israel could be targeted by as many as 200,000 rockets now in the hands of Iran and its allies. Iran could also unleash the terrorist groups it funds to launch attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.
An attack on Iran could quickly escalate into a full scale regional war, testing the depth of the support of this US president for Israel. Taken together, Dagan argues, the benefits to Israel of such an attack would not be worth the risks.
However, Netanyahu, Barak, and other government leaders have rejected Dagan’s viewpoint. They apparently have decided that Israel has no choice but to launch a first strike against Iran, within a matter of months, regardless of the many difficulties and dangers involved.
ANOTHER CRUCIAL TEST IN ISRAEL’S HISTORY
The decision to launch such an attack will test the strength of the US-Israeli alliance. In his article, Bergman quotes Meir Amit, who was the head of the Mossad in 1967 during the runup to the Six Day War. Amit described the reaction of the head of the CIA in Tel Aviv when he was told that Israel was planning a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. It was, Amit recalled, a very difficult meeting between two allies. When the CIA chief rejected Amit’s arguments, the Mossad chief decided to fly to Washington to have the same discussion with President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.
McNamara listened as Amit laid out Israel’s case, and then said quietly, “I read you very clearly.” McNamara then instructed Amit to return to Tel Aviv, saying, “Young man, go home, that is where you are needed now.”
When Amit reported on this conversation to the Israeli cabinet, his analysis was that McNamara was hinting that Israel had “a flickering green light” to attack Egypt, once the US had been given a chance to exhaust its diplomatic efforts to avoid war. The next day, the Israeli cabinet decided to launch the Six-Day War.
An Israeli attack on Iran is likely to be just as historic as the launching of the Six Day War, with the outcome unpredictable.
The key, once again, will be the US reaction to the Israeli decision, because the two countries see the Iran problem very differently. A nuclear Iran is not seen as a direct threat to the future existence of the US, while Israel has been given every reason to believe that it is Iran’s prime target and, as in 1967, its survival is at stake.
“No end of consultations can remove that asymmetry,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
IRAN ON THE WRONG SIDE OF RECENT HISTORY
Another key would be the reaction to an Israeli attack by the leadership of Iran, which is already under intense and steadily increasing pressure.
Since 2009, when demonstrations broke out across the country protesting a stolen presidential election, Iran has been on the wrong side of the trends in the region. Its violent suppression of the dissent of its own people, coupled with its defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, has undermined its international stature.
Last year, when the rest of the world finally realized that Iran had been lying about its nuclear program, the economic sanctions levied against it by the United Nations, the US and the EU were intensified, and finally began to bite.
Iran is also on the wrong side of the Arab Spring. In trying to prop up the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, it has identified itself with a pariah state in the eyes of the entire world. Like Syria, Iran’s only remaining friends in the international community are Russia and China.
Yet Iran cannot afford to abandon Syria, which has been its most critical ally in the region. Syria has helped to project Iran’s power and influence into Lebanon through Hezbollah, which is now partially in control of Lebanon’s government. Without the support of the Assad regime, Iran would become isolated as the non-Arab leader of a minority Shiite faction in a largely Sunni Arab part of the world.
HAMAS SPLIT BY AN ATTEMPT TO UNIFY THE PA
Iran is paying a heavy diplomatic price for its support of Syria. Even Hamas, which long maintained its international offices in Damascus, has pulled up roots and is looking for another base of operations.
In fact, Hamas now finds itself split. The leader of what used to be its Damascus office, Khaled Mashaal, signed an agreement last week with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas to enable the implementation of an Egyptian-sponsored proposal the two sides accepted in principal last year, namely to hold elections for a new national unity Palestinian government.
Since then they had been unable to agree on who would lead the interim government whose sole job would be to hold the first new Palestinian elections in six years.
There have been several attempts since Hamas took over Gaza by force in the summer of 2007 to re-unite the two Palestinian factions, but the bitterness and rivalry due to years of bloody fighting doomed them to failure.
The feud was personal. Hamas repeatedly accused Abbas of selling out the Palestinian cause to the US when he agreed to try to talk peace with Israel. Hamas leaders also claimed that as the winner of the last Palestinian legislative election to be held, one of their men should run the interim government as prime minister, if Abbas was to retain the title as chairman.
Suddenly, Mashaal, who had been wandering the region like a vagabond since abandoning Damascus, showed up in Qatar with Abbas and promptly agreed to turn over the interim government to the PA chairman. Apparently, Mashaal hoped that by doing so, he would win the favor of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who are expected to become new powers in the region.
GAZA CRITICIZES PA DEAL
It did not take long before this attempt at Palestinian unity divided Hamas down the middle. The Gaza faction felt that Mashaal has sold it out. Hamas’ Gaza leadership retained its loyalty to Iran, and its dedication to armed confrontation with Israel, while the international branch, under Mashaal, sought to distance itself from both Syria and Iran, and tried to ally itself with the new forces rising in the region.
Over the weekend, Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas in Gaza, openly criticized Mashaal’s deal with Abbas. The Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, then went to Teheran, where he met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Haniyeh praised the Iranians as a “strategic reserve” for the Palestinian people, while the Ayatollah pledged that Iran would continue to stand by the Palestinian “resistance,” warning against “compromisers,” presumably referring to Mashaal and Abbas.
NETANYAHU TELLS ABBAS HE MUST MAKE A CHOICE
The rift within Hamas is still fresh, and its extent is still unknown. Israel does not yet differentiate between the two factions.
Netanyahu reacted to the new Fatah-Hamas agreement by warning Abbas that trying to implement the pact with Hamas would means that he will “join forces with the enemies of peace.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Netanyahu said. “It’s either a pact with Hamas or peace with Israel.”
TWO VIEWS OF CURRENT EVENTS
The real meaning of these developments is that the forces which have been unleashed in the region have now undermined the system of alliances which have governed the Middle East for more than 60 years. Like Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Middle East must now undergo a period of transition whose ultimate outcome is impossible to predict at this time.
Some day, historians might see an Israeli attack on Iran and its repercussions as the logical outgrowth of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the demise of Muammar Ghadhaffi, and the current agony of Syria. While it may be tempting to try to analyze these events in terms of recent geopolitical history, perhaps we would should suspend our judgment for the time being, until a more definite pattern emerges.
One thing is clear, however, to all yerei shomayim. The fate of millions of acheinu bnei yisroel now hangs in the balance. We must be mispallel that in these dangerous times, the hidden hand of Hashem will once again guide the course of human history to save the She’aris Haplaytah.