Thursday, December 29, 2005

The View from Tel Aviv

A hat tip to Paul Mirengoff of Powerline, who discovered a series of fascinating press articles on recent Israeli comments regarding Iran's nuclear program. I say "fascinating" because the reports remind us how important this issue will be in the New Year, while highlighting Israel's internal debate over the Iranian threat, and how to deal with it.

According to the Chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Iran "will obtain a nuclear weapon within two years," if there are no interruptions in their development efforts. The committee chairman, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, said that a nuclear-armed Iran will lead to a "new" Middle East--"threatening, dark and dangerous." Steinitz made the remarks after a recent committee meeting that focused on the Iranian nuclear issue.

During the same meeting, Mossad chief Meir Dugan offered a slighty different take on the issue, telling Knesset members that Iran will reach "a stage of independent technological ability in a matter of months." However, Dugan apparently did not predict when Iran might actually have nuclear weapons. In the past, Israeli defense and intelligence officials have differentiated between Iran's mastery of the technology required to produce nuclear weapons, and actually producing a working bomb. Dugan's comments seemingly refer to the technology issue, and not weapons production. Many Western intelligence analysts believe it will take Iran several years to build a bomb after they master the requisite technology.

Dugan believes the Iranian matter should be referred to the UN Security Council, noting that the imposition of sanctions could be effective, since 40% of Iran's fuel needs are imported. The Chief of Intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), seems to share that point of view, although Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash believes the window for diplomacy is closing fast. According to General Farkash, if the Iranian issue isn't in the Security Council's discussion file by March, then "diplomacy will have failed."

At the other end of the spectrum the new IDF Chief (Air Force Lieutenant General Dan Halutz) believes that Iran does not pose an imminent threat. In an interview with Israel Army Radio, General Halutz also drew the distinction between Iran's efforts to develop nuclear technology, and the actual production of nuclear weapons, suggesting that Iran may not acquire nuclear weapons until "the beginning of the next decade." Halutz also called for continued diplomatic efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, but did not suggest that talks must reach a successful conclusion in the coming months.

As we've noted previously, there is genuine disagreement within Israel over the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, and exactly when Tehran might actually field nuclear weapons. Amid this debate--and the upcoming parlimentary elections--the Israeli leadership seems willing to give diplomacy a chance, but only to an unspecified point. Several Israeli officials have made reference to the March timeframe, both as a date when Iran will have supposedly "mastered" nuclear technology, or a deadline for getting the issue before the Security Council. Does March represent some sort of "red line" which, according to the Israelis, Iran will not be allowed to cross, or (as General Halutz suggests) should diplomacy be given more time. We won't know that answer until sometime next year.

It's also worth remembering that 'March 2006 is when Israelis go the the polls and choose a new government. PM Sharon had hoped to keep the Iranian issue out of the political debate, but Likud is having none of that. Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu's recent endorsement of the "Begin doctrine" (preemptive strikes against Israel's enemies) and MK Steinitz's warnings about Iran are clearly intended for domestic political consumption. If Likud has its way, the Iranian nuclear program will become a central issue in the upcoming election, with conservatives questioning Sharon's handling of the threat.

The message from Tel Aviv remains mixed, politically, diplomatically and militarily. While this could be an Israeli deception tactic (designed to mask military preparations and political decisions that have already been made), the diverging assessments and opinions are--more likely--a reflection of continued debate within Israel's government. A consensus on the exact nature of the Iranian threat (and the required Israeli response) are still being formulated. Iran is certainly aware of the Israeli deliberations, and will use this opportunity to press ahead with its nuclear program, believing that there is only the slightest chance of an Israeli strike, at least for the near term.

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