There are more mixed signals over Iran's nuclear program, and its potential implications for Israel and the United States.
The Jerusalem Post lifted an item from the UK Independent, saying it will take Iran "only a few months to produce a bomb, if Tehran has resumed uranium enrichment in other plants. However, the Post omits an important detail from the UK paper's account. To complete the enrichment process, Iran will have to restart its facility at Natanz, which could take two years. That would put the earliest production of an Iranian nuclear bomb in the 2008-2009 timeframe, assuming that Teharn doesn't encounter a significant difficulties in the restart, or the subsequent efforts to enrich uranium and fabricate a working weapon. That could push production of Iran's first atomic bomb past 2010. The timeline in the Independent was based on an interview with IAEA Director, Mohamed El Baradei, and its seems to mirror those of Israeli analysts.
But there are too many intelligence gaps to say that the timeline is correct. For example, Iran is believed to have covert nuclear facilities that may duplicate the functions of such known sites as Esfahan, Khondab and Natanz. If Tehran has a hidden complex for uranium enrichment--and technical hurdles have been overcome--then Iran may be well on its way to producing a nuclear weapons before the 2008-2010 timetable. However, Israeli seems to be hedging that Iran is still years away from developing nuclear weapons, giving its leaders more time to develop a consensus on the issue and (potentially) prepare the Israeli public for military action against Iran.
As we noted last week, there appears to be no appetite for unilateral military action within Israel (at least for now), and senior leaders have actually differentiated between an Iran with a nuclear research program (which Israel might be willing to tolerate), and an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons, something that Israel has said it would never tolerate. But even on that long-standing "red line," the Israeli position is less clear. Just last week, a senior unnamed defense official (perhaps IDF Chief Dan Halutz) told The Jerusalem Post that Israel might have to resign itself to a nuclear Iran. I'm not sure that represents a consensus within the Israeli cabinet, and Prime Minister Sharon quickly followed those remarks by reiterating that Israel would never allow a nuclear-armed Iran. But the comments of Sharon (and the anonmyous defense official) suggest that debate on the Iranian issue is continuing.
Here's something else to consider: while the "mixed signals" from Tel Aviv may represent legitimate political debate, they may also be an effort at deception. The Israelis are acknowledged masters of geopolitical deception, and the apparent "debate" may be an effort to confuse Iran (and the world community) while Israel secretly weighs potential options. But the deception theory has its flaws as well. To date, there has been no discernable effort to prepare the Israeli public for potential military action, a requisite step in the political and military processes. Before the 1981 raid on the Iraqi reactor near Baghdad, the Israeli public was bombarded with stories and statements on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, preparing Israelis for the secret raid that was eventually launched.
Despite today's breathless headline in The Jerusalem Post, there are no signs of pending shifts in Israeli policy. Tel Aviv will keep a wary eye on Iran's nuclear program, publicly supporting diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter peacefully, while (at the same time) examining its miliary options as well. If recent reports are correct, Israel believes its will reach a decision point on Iran's nuclear program sometime around 2008, allowing more time for diplomacy and (as required) military planning. This strategy is predicated on accurate intelligence from the Mossad and Israel's military intelligence branch (the DMI), who are without peer in the Middle East. Mr. Sharon is betting Israel's short-term security on the belief that his spooks are getting it right.