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"Israel Doesn’t Need America on D-Day"

A leading voice of restraint is starting to worry about Iran

R.D. Ward

"I supported [Netanyahu and Barak] on the notion that if we come to the fork in the road [on Iran], where we have to choose between very tough alternatives—the ‘bomb’ or the ‘bombing’—I’m with the prime minister, for the bombing,” former Israeli defense-intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told me on a recent evening on the porch of his home in the small town of Carmay Yosef. It was a bold statement coming from a man who in 2010 reportedly helped persuade Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak not to strike Iran.

It was not the first time I had spoken with Yadlin about Iran—we had discussed it at various intervals over two years—but it was the first time he’d agreed to let me publish an interview with him on the subject. And that was because Yadlin believes that from an operational perspective, Israel is finally approaching that fork in the road—perhaps within a year, if the newest round of diplomacy doesn't yield an acceptable deal (last week, Yadlin co-published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on “Four Possible Deals with Iran”).

The 62-year-old Yadlin is no stranger to the idea of bombing a neighboring country's nuclear program. In 1981, he was one of the eight Israeli F-16 pilots that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor; according to accounts from senior Bush administration officials, he was also a key player in Israel’s discovery and destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Now president of Israel's Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), he is widely considered one of the nation’s leading security authorities (according to informed sources, leaders of three major parties sought unsuccessfully to convince Yadlin to run as their candidate for defense minister in the January election).

Yadlin is a cautious figure. With silver hair and glasses, he has the air more of an economics professor than of a retired general. His catchphrase, if he has one, might be, "let’s define the variables, and I will tell you the outcome." (He recently created a mathematical equation for predicting revolutions in the Arab world.) He is careful about forecasting the future even though it was his job as the leading intelligence-gatherer and national assessor for two prime ministers and three defense ministers. But when he does, his track record is impressive. In the first interview I published with him in September 2011, he called the then-widespread predictions of Bashar Assad's imminent downfall "wishful thinking" and explained why he believed the Syrian leader would hold out for at least another few years.

On Iran, Yadlin was always similarly measured. He consistently disassociated himself from the "time is just about up" chorus led by Netanyahu. As head of INSS, he has become a sort of arbiter in the Israeli public between the conflicting schools of thoughts presented by Barak (who strongly backed an Israeli strike) and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (who called it “the stupidest thing I have ever heard”), presenting a conceptual framework and various algorithms with which to objectively measure the urgency of the Iranian threat and Israel’s best options for dealing with it. Until recently, Yadlin believed that Israel had more time—more time to wait for sanctions to bite, more time for alternative measures to take their toll, and more time to hope that the Iranian regime might fall or that the U.S. might take action itself. In September 2012, as speculation about an imminent Israeli strike reached fever pitch, Yadlin told Ha'aretz's Ari Shavit of Netanyahu and Barak: "They say that time has almost run out, but I say there is still time. The decisive year is not 2012 but 2013. Maybe even early 2014."

Yadlin's assessment of the timeline for Israel’s military option has changed very little since then, and therein lies his—and Israel’s—dilemma. Like most top members of the security establishment, Yadlin believes that Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran. But he also knows that so long as there appears to be a chance for a diplomatic solution, Israel does not have the international legitimacy to act.

“We should let [Rouhani] enjoy the benefit of the doubt, that maybe something is different,” he told me. “Maybe he is taking with him the big majority that elected him, that really wants to lift the sanctions and end the nuclear crisis. But we should not let him drag it out two years and then realize that he deceived us, and that we don’t have the military option on the table anymore.”

What follows is a composite of two recent conversations with Yadlin about the Iranian nuclear program, the new diplomacy with Hassan Rouhani, and Israel's complicated military option.

Ben Birnbaum: It was just reported that President Obama spoke to Rouhani by phone. I’m sure you saw his speech before the General Assembly, his interview with Christiane Amanpour. What do you make of his overtures? Are you encouraged so far? And do you think Israel should take a different tack, to be more welcoming of this?

Amos Yadlin: I think Israel should not oppose any negotiations that can lead to a good deal—to a deal that will stop the Iranian capability to produce nuclear weapons. And for Israel, serious negotiations are a win-win situation because if a reasonable deal is reached, which is reliable and contains intrusive inspections and turns the nuclear clock backwards, it’s better than the dangerous options of the “bomb or the bombing.” And if negotiations fail, then there will be legitimacy to take preventive action to stop Iran.

BB: Are you cautiously optimistic or pessimistic about the chances for a diplomatic breakthrough?

AY: I think Rouhani is a new phenomenon in the Iranian regime. But we need to keep in mind that he is not a reformist. He is the flesh and blood of the radical Iranian regime.  We also have to be very cautious because he does not set the course. The supreme leader will sometimes give him leeway and will sometimes stop him. There is no doubt he wants to reach an agreement, and there is no doubt this is because of the sanctions. After so many years, the West had a real effect vis-à-vis the Iranians. And now it has to use this leverage in the right way.  If the Iranians try to lift the sanctions in the beginning of the negotiations at the minimum price, they will never stop the nuclear program later on. Lifting the sanctions should be only a deposit for the endgame, when Iran will answer fully to the U.N. Security Council demands.  A bad deal is also something that we have to be worried about. But I reemphasize that Israel should not oppose any diplomatic effort that will halt the Iranian dash toward the nuclear bomb. I also want to emphasize that what is important is not the charm campaign, the very well-selected words to the elite media, and the nice words—or nicer than Ahmadinejad—at the U.N. What is important is the substance—the details of the deal—and we are not there yet.

BB: You said you’re worried about a bad deal—that is, a deal that might satisfy the United States but leave Israel concerned. What might that be?

AY: A bad deal is bad for the U.S. as well as for Europe and the Arabs. A bad deal will keep the Iranians a few months from the bomb and will give them the option to run away from the deal, as they did to the Europeans early last decade. You know, Rouhani himself cut a deal with the Europeans in 2003 because there was very effective leverage after President Bush invaded Iraq. And at that time the Iranians felt very worried that they might be nextso they agreed to freeze the nuclear program. When they felt that the U.S. was bleeding in Iraq and was not going to attack any third country in the Middle East, they ran from their commitments and started full-scale conversion and enrichment in 2005 and 2006, so they can do it again. And if the deal freezes them in a place that when they break it, they can run to the bomb in a few months, it’s a bad deal.

BB: What would constitute a good deal?

AY: Scholars and nuclear experts from the U.S. have written about it. They’ve basically said, ‘Give them the right to enrich. Give them a very limited number of centrifuges. And all the fissile material [3.5 % enriched uranium] will be shipped out of Iran.’ This takes the breakout capability back to a two-year time frame. If they violate the agreement, it would take them two years to make a bomb. And of course there would be much more intrusive inspections– “additional protocol plus.” And what do the Iranians get? The lifting of sanctions, the right to enrich, the right to a peaceful program.  We can't use the confidence-building measure method anymore – it only let the Iranians buy time. For the first time since 2003, the West has effective leverage vis-à-vis Iran, and it should not trade it for meaningless confidence-building measures.

BB: You’ve said that you think the international community needs to put a “big for big” offer on the table right away.

AY: I think that’s the only way to decide whether Rouhani represents a significant change in Iranian policy or not really. We should let him enjoy the benefit of the doubt, that maybe something is different. Maybe he is taking with him the big majority that elected him, that really wants to lift the sanctions and end the nuclear crisis. But we should not let him drag it out two years and then realize that he deceived us, and that we don’t have the military option on the table anymore.

BB: What do you say to those who think that the Israeli military option was never really on the table—that the debate inside the government over whether to attack Iran was a charade?

AY: The debate has been a very serious debate. The prime minister is not bluffing. It is the main issue he cares about. He thinks that stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the most important issue for the future of the State of Israel. And he hasn’t changed. On the contrary, if the talks fail, he will be much stronger when he approaches his government, his security cabinet. He will say, ‘Look, I have listened to you. You told me that there is more time for diplomacy, for sanctions, for an agreement, for the shadow war, for regime change, for a U.S. action, and look what happened. The Iranians were not serious in any negotiation. An agreement was not reached. Even though sanctions are painful, they haven’t changed their minds. They haven’t changed their behavior. Rouhani is not a regime change. He is not a liberal. He is not a reformist. In any case, he doesn’t set the course. The supreme leader hasn’t changed his mind, so we are left with only one option to stop Iran from becoming nuclear.

BB: Netanyahu and Barak wanted to attack during the last government, but they ran into opposition from you and the other security chiefs who thought it was too soon. But your thoughts have evolved over the past year. Why?

AY: I supported them on the notion that if we come to the fork in the road, where we have to choose between very tough alternatives—the “bomb” or the “bombing”—I’m with prime minister, for "the bombing". But for a decision about an Israeli attack, you need positive answers to basically four questions. The first one is, ‘can you live with the bomb?’, and no doubt the Prime Minister will say no. And second: Can your operational capabilities achieve the goal of destroying most of the program? Third, have you exhausted all the other options? As long as there is a realistic chance to achieve the "no-bomb" by negotiations, by agreements, Israel doesn’t have legitimacy to do it. I think this is now the main obstacle because Rouhani has given some backwind to the idea that maybe the Iranians will reach an acceptable agreement. Number four, do you have sufficient understanding with the United States that this is a legitimate and necessary self-defense measure? America and Israel are allies. As I explained to you once, Israel doesn’t need America on D-Day. It can do it alone. It even can cope with the day after, but it does need the United States for the decade after.

BB: “The decade after.” What do you mean by that?

AY: I mean that even the most successful operation theoretically—theoretically—will stop the program for five years. If you want to make these five engineering theoretical years into a decade, until the regime changes, you need the U.S. on board, with the continuation of sanctions, with leading the international campaign against the renewal of the nuclear program in Iran, and maybe supporting [Israel] in doing it again. So that’s why I think 2012 was the wrong year to do it, because in 2012, it was a bright red light from Washington. I would like to emphasize, Israel is not asking for a green light. Israel only doesn’t want to do something that is going 180 degrees against American vital interests as long as it is not a response to a threat that is almost an existential threat. I think in late 2013 or early 2014, especially if America sees that Iran is not serious about reaching an acceptable agreement and only continues to buy time, the U.S. will accept an Israeli attack because a nuclear Iran is absolutely against American vital national security interests. And since many people believe that America, after becoming energy independent, is pivoting to Asia, it is even less likely that America will stop Israel from a self-defense measure.

BB: But why this next year? It seems like every year has become the “last year to stop Iran.”

AY: The coming year is a special challenge because the Iranians are now very close. They may be able to produce a bomb faster than intelligence can detect that they are breaking out or sneaking out. And the breakout time may be shorter than the time necessary for the decisions and planning and execution of an operation that can stop it. This is what is unique here. ‘You cannot live with a nuclear Iran,’ that’s was decided long ago, But in the coming year, the probability of affirmative  answers to all four fundamental questions will be higher than it has ever been. The second thing is whether the Israeli operational capabilities are going to expire. This was Barak’s ‘zone of immunity’ concept, which I didn’t quite agree with. Or at least I didn’t agree that 2011 or even in 2012 was where the trigger should be put, but the end of 2013 or the early part of 2014.

BB: You seem to be indicating that Israel has a very short time frame to figure out whether Rouhani is serious in negotiations. Because if you’re saying that the Israeli military option might not exist in another year, Rouhani could just play for time, just appear to make concessions.

AY: That’s exactly the Israeli official position. Netanyahu said, ‘don’t let him buy time because we are running out of time.’ This is exactly the catch-22. The prime minister is telling the world, ‘I will not buy the long negotiations,’ the small confidence-building measures, because you will drag them as far as condition number-two will expire.

BB: What do you mean, will expire?

AY: We spoke about precondition number two. If the negotiations will continue until a time that Israel cannot do it operationally, we are losing an important alternative to stop Iran nuclear program. Once again, you need all four conditions, the way I see it. If you agree to live with the bomb, the rest is not important. If you cannot do it, so you cannot do it. The rest is not important as well.

BB: What would you say to the people who think that Israel can’t do it?

AY: I say that they ignore history. The same people also thought that we couldn’t destroy the Arab air forces in ‘67. They thought we couldn’t make it to Entebbe and free the hostages in 1976. They thought it was impossible to strike the reactor in Iraq. They thought we couldn’t destroy the Syrian air defenses in the Bekaa Valley in 1982. There’s a lot they thought Israel couldn’t do.

BB: But you are absolutely confident that Israel could launch an operation that would delay it a few years?

AY: Yes, sure.

BB: With no doubt? It’s not one of those things where things could go wrong?

AY: Nothing into the future is 100 percent. Every military operation can go wrong. But basically, when you launch an operation, you launch it after your analysis concludes that there is a high probability—90-95 percent—you will achieve its goal. Risks should not paralyze an operation planner. He should find ways to minimize risks and to find a proper operational solution to every negative event and operational scenario that can develop. 

BB: But you think Israel is prepared? Without getting into the details…

AY: Yeah, you try to get me to the details and I have no intention to go there. Let me just restate the only three words I'm willing to use on the issue: It is doable.

BB: I’m not trying to get you into the details. I just want to know your confidence level.

AY: My confidence level is quite high. We have been building the force and practicing for this day for years.

BB: And when does the window for the plan close?

AY: You always try to get from me an exact date, like "fifteenth of August 200X.” It is a multi-dimension problem, and we can't look at it as a binary question: “do” or “can't do.” It can be the last quarter of 2013 or the first, second or even third quarter of 2014. There is not a certain deadline, but the probability of success will eventually decrease to a level that may change the decision to launch the attack. Both sides are trying to improve their options and position. Israel is acquiring capabilities as time passes. It’s not only losing. It doesn’t only become harder. Israel has more and more capabilities. But the Iranians are also gaining. They are hardening their facilities and adding more centrifuges. So there are two lines that will cross, and they are much closer to crossing than when the “zone of immunity” argument was used in the past. 

BB: What do you mean by that?

AY: Assuming there is a time, an expiration date"for the Israeli capabilities—you want a date? Let’s take a theoretical date. February 15, 2014. It is not. It is not. It can be three months before. It can be six months after. But no doubt that we are now a year closer than last year to this expiration date.

BB: But there is also the issue of weather, no? Many say that there is a period in the fall and the winter where there isn’t really a viable option.

AY: That’s not correct. In the Middle East, you can have two weeks of wonderful weather in January. Remember January 1991, Operation Desert Storm. It doesn’t stop anybody.

BB: But this idea is out there.

AY: There are many unprofessional ideas out there.

BB: Is 2013 the end date just for Israel or for both America and Israel?

AY: Just for Israel.  I have not told you 2013. It may be a bit later. For the U.S., because of their capabilities, it is at least a year post-Israel and will depend on many operational parameters that should not be public knowledge.

BB: I know you don’t want to name a specific date, but you seem to believe that Israel is approaching the ‘zone of immunity.’

AY: What used to be called the ‘zone of immunity.’ It’s not binary–"one or zero" The meaning is that the odds of achieving the goal go down from 95 percent to 50 percent. Then the cost–benefit analysis for launching such an attack changes. It’s not binary. It’s not that it was one and suddenly it’s zero, but it is fading out. It is declining. The question you asked was an excellent one, ‘what are the chances that the attack will succeed’? I will never tell you one hundred. Instead of using numbers, let’s say ‘very high.’ And at some point it goes to 'high'. And then it goes to 'medium.’ And then it goes to 'low'. Are you going to launch an attack when the chances for success are low? That’s the point. Do you have a piece of paper?

[Yadlin goes into his kitchen to fetch a piece of paper. He draws a graph with the x-axis delineating a calendar and the y-axis denoting the chances of success for an Israeli attack. He begins by drawing a horizontal line along the 95-percent mark.]

You are at almost 95 percent. At some point it goes down. So maybe Barak said, ‘if I don’t have 95, it’s zone of immunity.’ I say no. It is fading down gradually and slowly. Yes, it is declining. And there is a point on this slope—60 percent, 50 percent—where you say launching an attack doesn’t make sense. You still can stop them. You may delay it instead of three years, two years. Instead of two years, a year and a half. So again, it’s not binary.

BB: But Barak sincerely believed—and I guess Bibi didn’t believe it because he didn’t launch the attack—that 2012 was the end date?

AY: Yeah. Maybe he said that in 2012, it’s something like this [Yadlin draws a line on the graph at the end of 2012 with a rapid downward slope]. And I always said it’s something more like this [drawing a more gradual descent].

BB: Has Israel started descending on this graph, or is it still here [pointing to 95-percent mark]?

AY: I think we’re still here. But not for long. That’s what I’m saying. Let’s say this is the line of negotiations. Don’t let Rouhani take it all the way here, to the lower-percentage area. You have to end the negotiations within a short time frame. This is September, so let's aim to understand where the negotiations are going in the coming few months.

BB: How about the issue of Iranian retaliation? Obviously it’s hard to anticipate how things will play out, but what would you say is the median scenario—in other words, it could turn out better, it could turn out worse—in terms of Iranian and Iranian-proxy retaliation in the event of an Israeli strike?

AY: I think we’ve discussed it many times. There are two schools of thought. One speaks about “doomsday” and “the Middle East in flames” and “World War III.” And there is a second school of thought, which I am part of, the bottom line of which says that there will be an Iranian retaliation. It will be measured, calculated, and limited—both because of capabilities and more because of motivation. Because the Iranians know that their retaliation is only the second round, that there will be a third round against them which will be much more devastating. The first round will be limited to a surgical attack on nuclear facilities. There will be no damage to the Iranian economy or the Iranian population. After the Iranians retaliate, if they retaliate strongly—which I doubt that they have the capability to; they do have the capability to retaliate, but as I said, limited—but assuming they are doing all they can, they have to anticipate a retaliation from the other side, which now will not be limited to nuclear facilities. They can hit their oil facilities. They can hit their gas pipelines. They can hit their air force, their navy, the leadership, everything. So I don’t think the Iranians will have the motivation to start a full-scale war.

BB: So you don’t expect them to retaliate against U.S. assets in the Gulf?

AY: When we look to the future, we have to be humble. We have to understand our limitations in forecasting the future. It is much easier to tell you from an intelligence point of view how many centrifuges are spinning and how many kilograms of uranium have been enriched because these are engineering terms—if you have good sources, you know the answers. The answers about future decisions of political leaders and generals are not 100 percent, so you have to be careful. But I think it makes no sense that Iran would retaliate against the U.S. in the Gulf if another country attacked Iran because then they would bring upon themselves a devastating reaction.

BB: I want to get back to the issue of the breakout period. How long would it take the Iranians to produce a bomb if they decided to go for one tomorrow?

AY: I can give you a very good rule of thumb. If you take low-enriched uranium, you feed it into 3000 centrifuges, after a year, you get enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb. This is the rule of thumb. Now let’s say the Iranians have 12,000. So how long will it take them?

BB: Three months.

AY: Very good. Let’s say they will have 60K? Two to three weeks.

BB: And how many centrifuges do they have now?

AY: According to the IAEA’s last report, they have about 15,000.

BB: But all centrifuges aren’t created equal, no?

AY: This equation is for P1, Pakistani-design centrifuges. With IR2—Iranian design, which is an advanced centrifuge, you need only 1,000 instead of 3,000 to enrich enough fissile material in one year for one bomb. Which makes it even worse because they have by now, I think, plus-minus 1500 advanced centrifuges.

BB: So if they have 15,000 or so total centrifuges, then the breakout period is less than three months?

AY: Once again, don’t try to do the exact math. Enrichment is not the only  point. Basically, enrichment, it's couple of months—two months, three months. But I will complicate it a little. To achieve a bomb, you need to enrich 25 kilograms of uranium to a military-grade level, but you also need to complete the weaponization process. So you may think that now getting enough highly enriched uranium is no longer the bottleneck. Weaponization may be. Let’s say weaponization takes four months. So now it’s not so important whether it’s two or three months for enrichment's breakout. And on weaponization, the numbers are much more varied. On the enrichment timetable, all the engineers will agree. This is not the case for weaponization.

BB: So for weaponization, it could be anything from a day to a year.

AY: Exactly. Depends how much knowledge they have, how many experiments in dual-use components they’ve made. You can’t say between a day and a year, but you can say between two months and a year and a half.

BB: So you think this is underrated as a factor? It seems like everyone focuses on breakout, and weaponization might be the underappreciated variable.

AY: Absolutely. This is now the thing to look at. But once again, some people will say, ‘OK, so one bomb. What will they do with one bomb? Let’s measure it for an arsenal of three bombs, five bombs.’ Then it takes a little bit more time.

BB: Would they go, in your judgment, for just one bomb?

AY: If they want the bomb as an insurance policy, one bomb is enough. They have learned from North Korea that you get one bomb and then nobody touches you. But you can have another person who will say, ‘So what if they will have one bomb? One bomb is not operational. We can destroy it.’ But the conventional wisdom is that if they have one bomb, then the battle is lost. So the calculations are for one bomb.

BB: Why, for the sake of argument, can’t Israel live with a nuclear Iran? What’s wrong with Mutually Assured Destruction?

AY: It’s not an issue of MAD. Israel is a very very small country. It is not Israeli experts who say this. It’s an Iranian ex-president, Rafsanjani, who said in 2001 that Israel is a one-bomb country and that a proud Iranian or Islamic nation can absorb two or three bombs. But it’s much more than that. There is the issue of miscalculation, unintended escalation—the fact that unlike in the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, we don’t have mechanisms to de-escalate. We don’t have a telephone hotline between Jerusalem and Tehran. We don’t have embassies like the U.S. embassies that helped defuse the Cuban missile crisis. The most problematic issue has nothing to do with Israel. It’s nonproliferation in the Middle East. It’s the fact that the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Turks will go for nuclear weapons if Iran gets them, and all I have said about miscalculations, unintended escalations, nuclear weapons to terrorists will be multiplied tenfold—it will be a nuclear nightmare. And let me remind you that the terrorists in the planes that flew into the towers in New York City on September 11 were not Iranians. They were Saudis and Egyptians. So the idea of everyone having nuclear weapons is not a good idea.

BB:If you had to bet your life on it, do you think Israel will launch a strike in the next year?

AY: I am not in the business of betting. It depends on some important future developments, and the leading factor is the negotiations and the parameters of any future deal.

BB: But you’re saying it’s wrong to think that Israel has another year to stop Iran.

AY: It’s more correct to say that the next year, unlike previous years, is really the year of decision. Decision is not necessarily an attack—it can be an attack, it can be leaving the problem to Obama to solve, a decision to live with problematic deal, or a decision to live with the bomb, with all its ramifications.

Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Israel. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.