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Israel’s Iran Dilemma

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 08, 2009

    As the new government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu takes charge in Jerusalem, it seems that there are no easy solutions to what Israel perceives to be its central strategic question – how to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear quest. Israel’s leaders across the political spectrum have long maintained that a nuclear capable Iran, coupled with the rhetoric against Israel emanating from Tehran and its help to groups like the Hezbollah and the Hamas, constitutes an existential threat. While there has been widespread receptivity for the need to prevent any more countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, more so in the volatile Middle East, there has not been a similar understanding on how to go about achieving that task. The United States and major European powers have sought to deal with the Iranian programme through a combination of diplomatic measures and economic sanctions. UN Security Council resolutions since July 2006 (1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835) have urged Tehran to cease its uranium enrichment activities. Under the terms of these resolutions, a wide range of sanctions have been put in place against companies and individuals involved in the Iranian nuclear trade. Their effect however on stalling or forcing Tehran to roll back its nuclear programme, by all available indications, seems rather modest.

    Israel on its part has been advocating more robust action to prevent Iran from acquiring the expertise to produce a nuclear bomb. The possibility of a bombing raid or a missile attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, either alone or in conjunction with other powers, was widely contemplated. The efficacy of such an action has however been the subject of much debate, with estimates of the time period within which Iran will be able to get back to its pre-raid capabilities ranging from 6 months to 3 years at most. The question of the possible loss of Israeli fighter pilots and planes over enemy territory, the issue of flying over Egyptian and Saudi air space, the imperative of aerial re-fuelling to sustain the over 300 minutes of flight time, possible repercussions of such an action, including on the over 25,000 Jews living in Iran, among others, have been cited as limiting factors.

    Some reports indicate that innovative tactics have also been employed by Tel Aviv (and Washington) aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear procurement networks. These include the establishment of fictitious or deliberate front companies supplying faulty nuclear equipment, thus taking advantage of Iran’s covert efforts to get hard-to-get hardware on the nuclear black market. The Israeli secret service Mossad has also been speculated as being responsible for the ‘untimely’ deaths of some senior members of the Iranian nuclear energy programme, including a former scientist working at Isfahan enrichment facility who died under mysterious circumstances in 2007. If true, this policy would seem to echo the successful Israeli effort directed against West German engineers who were working on secret missile projects for Egypt under Nasser in the early 60’s.

    Despite these efforts, however, Iran has continued its march down the nuclear road. The report of the Director General IAEA to the Board of Governors on February 19, 2009 revealed that Tehran had successfully produced over 1,000 kgs of low enriched uranium. Analysts point out that Iran now has the technical wherewithal as well as the raw material to produce the 20-25 kgs of highly enriched uranium required for a nuclear device, if it so desired. Iran of course continues to insist that its nuclear programme is geared towards peaceful purposes and that it has every right to enrich uranium in tune with its rights as a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

    While US administrations, both under President Bush and President Obama, have not ruled out any option to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Washington has however proved to be a less than interested party in actively pursuing a military solution. Reports suggest that it has, for instance, been non-committal on allowing Israeli fighter planes to fly over Iraqi airspace on their possible bombing mission and had refused to provide Tel Aviv with the necessary equipment to carry out such a task, like adequate amounts of advanced bunker-busting bombs. The US also differs with Israel over the possible timeframe within which Iran will be able to fashion a nuclear device. The Chairman of the US Central Command Gen. David Petraeus, in an interview with CNN on March 29, 2009, stated that Iran was still a “couple of years” away from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to develop a nuclear bomb. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told NBC on March 1, 2009 that the Iranians were “not close to a weapon at this point." Their stance is in contrast with the assessment of the Israeli chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Yamos Yadlin who told the Knesset on March 8, 2009 that Iran has "crossed the technological threshold," and that it will have a capability to make a bomb within a year.

    President Obama, during his campaign speeches and in his public pronouncements after being sworn in, has acknowledged the ‘dangers’ of a nuclear Iran and his intent to prevent such an eventuality. Obama has called for “tough but direct diplomacy” to convince Iran to forgo its nuclear option. His “carrot and stick” approach holds the possibility of economic incentives and closer cooperation with the United States if it relents and the threat of even tougher economic sanctions if it does not. In his message to the Iranian people on March 20, 2009, Obama held out the prospect of “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” Though the initial reaction from the Iranian leadership to that offer has been not positive, US officials have pointed out that one important area that Washington could begin to have a constructive interaction with Iran was on the need to stabilize Iran’s neighbour and America’s current primary foreign policy priority, Afghanistan. The Obama administration, therefore, in the immediate future, may not be inclined to do anything ‘dramatic’ regarding the Iranian nuclear question, an issue which Mr. Netanyahu contends should instead be America’s top foreign policy priority. It remains to be seen how wide a margin Israel’s new government will give for further talks to work, given its contention that Iran has earlier ratcheted up its nuclear programme on the pretext of talks with the European powers. There is also the uncertainty regarding the composition of the new Iranian government that will be formed by the middle of the year and the likely stance that it will take on the issue.

    Israel’s new leadership thus has some tough choices to make. It will have to either reconcile itself to the possibility of a nuclear Iran or wage a lone hand and hope that in the additional time so secured (provided its attack, either by planes or missiles, is deemed successful and Israel is able to counter Iran’s retaliatory tactics), more pressure can be applied to force Iran to desist from its nuclear plans. It will however not make strategic sense for Israel to attack Iran without US backing or tacit support, one which has not been forthcoming so far.

    Having touted the impossibility of a stable deterrence relationship on account of the ‘nature’ of the Iranian regime and the absence of communication channels with it, Israel’s leaders have the unenviable task of convincing their domestic audience that deterrence can hold in the event Iran attains the nuclear capability. They will also have to continue to take the necessary steps to ensure that this deterrence is robust. Whether this will result in an end to Israeli nuclear opacity, and an overt nuclear posture, is a matter of conjecture. (The then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an ‘inadvertent slip’ during an interview given to a German television channel in December 2006 had acknowledged Israeli nuclear capability).

    Israel has of course been taking steps to face up to the possibility of a nuclear Iran. Analysts have pointed out that the out fitment of Dolphin-class submarines with nuclear-capable Popeye turbo cruise missiles with a range of over 1,500 kms endows it with a secure second-strike capability (reports indicated the missiles were tested in March 2000 in the waters of the Indian Ocean). Other recent measures that Israel has taken include the acquisition of the powerful x-band radar in September 2008, erected in the Negev and manned by US technical personnel, capable of detecting missile launches more than 4,000 kms away. The radar would give sufficient time for Israeli missile defence systems to track and shoot down any incoming missiles. Another option that was viewed as an additional guarantee was of the US extending its nuclear umbrella to Israel. The issue was raised by current US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a campaign debate in April 2008. The viability of such extended deterrence is of course open to debate. Israel’s Iran dilemma it seems will play out to an as yet undefined end contingent on a range of factors straddling the domestic, regional and international milieus.