Has Iran Outfoxed Netanyahu?

Israel's Iran policy is suddenly in serious trouble.

The much-anticipated breakthrough in the negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons has yet to materialize. But Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who believes that a wily Iran is outwitting its gullible interlocutors, isn’t breathing any easier; instead, he’s breathing fire. The statements from those involved in the talks (Iran and the P5+1) indicating that the obstacles to an interim accord are being overcome have incensed Netanyahu. And he has made his displeasure known—publicly and without pulling punches—even though the first-step agreement with Iran couldn’t be reached in the end.

As the upbeat reports streamed in last week, Netanyahu declared that a compromise with Iran would be a betrayal of Israel as well as a strategic blunder that would eventually bring grief to other states as well. He continues to insist that Israel will neither be bound by any deal, short of one that ensures denuclearization, that the P5+1 reaches with Iran nor rule out any response (read: a military strike) it deems necessary to defend its interests.

What are those Israeli interests? While Iranian leadership remains adamantabout retaining an independent nuclear fuel cycle, which it regards as its right under the terms of the NPT, Israel has made it just as plain that Iran’s acquisition of that capability is unacceptable—period. That’s because the Israeli leadership is convinced that any accord that permits Iran to enrich uranium to a level needed for generating electricity, even under strict verification, enables it to gain, and pretty quickly, the capacity to dash across the nuclear threshold when it wishes to do so.

While this perspective explains Netanyahu’s scorn for the negotiations, he risks becoming isolated should the dealmakers eventually start viewing him as an obstreperous maximalist who is heedless of the risk of war. Moreover, he doesn’t have sure-fire options for dismantling Iran nuclear complex, which consists of many facilities, widely dispersed and well protected. The most critical one, nestled deep underground within a mountain, is the Fordow site, and its -three thousand-plus centrifuges have enabled Iran to spin out enriched uranium from uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) to a level of 19.75 percent. Four other installations are crucial if Iran is to build a nuclear weapon: i) the Esfahan uranium conversion plant, where yellow cake is turned into uranium oxide and uranium hexafluoride; ii) the Natanz centrifuge complex; iii) the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak, which, though yet to be fueled, offers a plutonium pathway to nuclear arms; iv) the weapons design, manufacture, and testing center at Parchin, where work on warheads may have been underway already.

The operational problems Israel faces in destroying these and other sites simultaneously are formidable and have been widely discussed by specialists. Among the key questions are whether Israel has: i) enough air- and missile-delivered ordnance packing enough earth-penetrating power to get the job done; ii) the number of fighter-bombers required to reach the targets, destroy (rather than damage) them, and return intact; iii) viable plans to cope with the possibility that its strike aircraft may have to take circuitous routes to maximize safety, thereby reducing their range. Even those experts who offer relatively optimistic assessments about Israel’s capabilities concede that a militarily complex and politically controversial campaign involving a full-blown, and unprovoked, attack on Iran will at best lengthen the time Tehran needs to build the bomb, rather than making it impossible for it to do so.

So Netanyahu’s first problem is that his assertions that Israel will do whatever is required to prevent an Iranian fuel cycle isn’t credible to those calling the shots in Tehran. Besides, that’s not their main worry; it’s the threat of an American attack (Washington does have the planes, missiles, and bunker-busting bombs with the necessary power, in particular the 30,000 pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator) and the effect that the wide-ranging, hard-hitting economic sanctions are having on the Iranian economy—and might have on the weary Iranians, who’ve seen the value of the rial plunge and inflation soar. Iran’s leaders have squashed several protests since 1979, most recently in 2011, but they aren’t eager to face more, no doubt realizing that every regime’s luck runs out at some point.