Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Crossing the Red Line

It received only passing attention in the press, but there are new indications that Iran is rapidly approaching an Israeli "red line" in regards to its nuclear program. For some time, Israeli leaders have stated that there is a point in the nuclear development process that Tehran will not be allowed to pass. Reaching that stage--and attempting to move beyond it--will invite Israeli military action.

Not surprisingly, the Israelis have always been a bit vague as to what constitutes the "red line" and when Tehran will reach that point. This "vagueness" was the product of two factors; first, there was genuine debate within Israeli political, military and intelligence circles as to how far Iran had progressed in its nuclear program. Secondly, the Israelis wanted to avoid tipping its hand to the international community, potentially revealing its level of knowledge about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and military planning for dealing with the threat.

At this point, potential Israeli military strikes against Iran are just that--a potential threat. But the red line that might prompt such action is coming into focus. In a weekend interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, weekend, new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the key issue with Iran was not the production of nuclear weapons, but rather the acquisition of the know-how needed to build a bomb:

"This technological threshold is nearer than we anticipated before. This is because they are already engaged very seriously in enrichment," Olmert said. "The technological threshold is very close. It can be measured in months rather than years."

Olmert's comments indicate that his government now defines the red line in terms of the technical ability, and not a finished product. Some Israeli analysts believe that the Iranian program is progressing more rapidly than their U.S. counterparts. One recent CIA estimate said that Tehran may be a decade away from having a nuclear weapon, and would need several years to acquire the necessary knowledge. Israeli estimates suggest a much more compressed timeline, with some speculation that Iran might have its first nuclear device within two years.

The Israeli Prime Minister's warning about Iran came just weeks after his Mossad chief delivered similar, dire predictions in conversations with senior U.S. officials. As we noted at the time, Olmert's decision to send the Mossad director to Washington (in preparation for this week's U.S.-Israeli summit) was designed to not only convey Tel Aviv's concerns, but remind Washington that Israel's patience is not unlimited. Olmert's comments might have also been intended to prod stronger U.S. action against Iran, with a veiled hint that "if you don't do something, we will."

There are obvious risks in this strategy. Deciding when Iran has reached the knowledge threshhold becomes a matter of subjective intelligence analysis, with much greater margin for error. Then, there's the thorny issue of whether military strikes can eliminate enough of Iran's "knowledge base" to create long-term delays in nuclear weapons development. The British tried a similar approach with their massive raid on Germany's ballistic missile center an Peenemunde in 1943. A strike by hundreds of RAF heavy bombers killed scores of German rocket scientists and technicians, but delayed the Nazi V1 and V2 program by only nine months.

More importantly, the knowledge "red line" moves the decision-point for Israeli military action much closer. If Iran is indeed only months away from having the know-how to build a bomb, the Israel may be only weeks away from making its own decision. In his talks with Mr. Olmert, President Bush may find himself in the difficult position of trying to dissuade the Israelis from near-term military action, while making the case for continued diplomatic efforts--efforts that have yet to bear fruit.

1 comment:

a guy in pajamas said...

I wonder how the Israelis are measuring 'know-how,' and what exactly they mean by it.

Anyone can get the simple knowledge from the internet or library, and any nuclear physicist (which I'm pretty sure Iran already has some of) could tell you in pretty good detail. This doesn't guarantee a successful bomb, but that's in the engineering, and the specs for the Hiroshima bomb should be easy to come by.

Am I missing something?