Since the early 1990s, when
Now, with the release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on
Until now, pessimists here could console themselves that a last-resort Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely draw wide international sympathy and even gratitude--very different from the near-total condemnation that greeted Israel’s attack on Saddam’s reactor in 1981. Now, though, the NIE will ensure that if
The sense of betrayal within the Israeli security system is deep. After all,
What makes Israeli security officials especially furious is that the report casts doubt on Iranian determination to attain nuclear weapons. There is a sense of incredulity here: Do we really need to argue the urgency of the threat all over again? The Israeli strategists I heard from ridicule the report's contention that "
No one with whom I've spoken believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on
Adds a key security analyst: "The report didn't surprise me. The [American intelligence] system isn't healthy. It has been thoroughly politicized. I saw it when I brought hard evidence to them through the 1990s about how the Palestinian Authority was violating its commitments. Their responses weren't professional but political. This report only deepens the crisis of confidence we feel."
The debate over the report within the Israeli security network is whether the motive of its sponsors was ideological or opportunistic. Was the NIE a back-handed way of implementing the Baker-Hamilton report, which called for engagement with
Ironically, an Israeli reading of the report only confirms the anxiety here, felt across the political spectrum, about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Responding to the NIE, the left-wing newspaper, Haaretz, sounds like a neo-con organ: "While
After all, the NIE affirms not only that attaining nuclear weapons remains a central goal within the Iranian leadership, but also that, by continuing to enrich uranium,
The more compelling reason, though, for minimizing the significance of a suspension of the covert military program is that the program itself is of secondary importance at this stage in the development of an Iranian bomb. The Iranians have continued to vigorously pursue two other programs--uranium enrichment and missile delivery systems--whose success would ensure them relatively quick access to military capability, even without a weapons program already in place. Says Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad: "My assessment is that, after they decided to aim for nuclear weapons, they advanced on three parallel tracks: enriching uranium, creating components for a bomb, and developing missiles. The missiles are ready for operation. As for enrichment, they have encountered all kinds of problems, like exploding centrifuges. I estimate that they made great progress, and very quickly, on the military track. Since they have problems with the uranium enrichment track, they can allow themselves to delay the military track, and wait for progress with uranium." Given that world attention has been focused on the military track, a tactical Iranian concession made sense.
Shavit notes that the problem with the NIE isn't in its facts but its deliberate ambiguity. "The whole report is filled with assessments of 'high probability,' 'middle probability,' 'low probability.' I don't need that." And if he had written the report? "I would have based my assessment on the facts and said unequivocally that
Nor do senior analysts here take seriously the NIE's vague assessments of when
Once the material is available, the final step toward constructing a bomb is the least complicated part of the process. "Making bombs is a much shorter process than uranium enrichment," explains Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a 40-year veteran of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. "Today the Iranians are enriching uranium at four percent; to make a bomb, you need 90 percent. From there, the transition doesn't require a lot of time. Most of the work has been done to get to the four percent. It is a matter of months, not years."
That sense of urgency is evident in the highest ranks of the Israeli military. A recent letter circulated by Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the Israeli Air Force, to his officers offered a textual comparison between quotes from Hitler threatening Europe's Jews in the 1930s with quotes from Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatening
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The
By Yossi Klein Halevi