The recent publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report on Iran—"Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran"—has pushed Israel a large step closer to launching an assault on Iran's nuclear installations. One report emanating from London’s The Daily Mail last week stated that the British Cabinet believes Israel will strike this Christmas or a few weeks after.
The IAEA report probably contained little that was not known in Jerusalem (indeed, at least some of the evidence pointing to Iran's duplicity and intention to build nuclear weapons probably originated with Israeli intelligence in the first place). But taken cumulatively, the data presented by the UN agency—on Iran's nuclear-enrichment program and nuclear-detonation work, warheads, equipment and knowledge acquisition—all point to the giant strides that Iran has made during the past decade and indicate that Iran will be in possession of a nuclear bomb, should it so desire and if left unhampered, within twelve to twenty-four months.
Israel's defense establishment has for years been divided about the wisdom and feasibility of assaulting the Iranian nuclear installations, which are dispersed around the country and, in many cases, buried deep underground. A major recent argument of those opposing an immediate strike—and they have included the heads of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet (the internal security service) and military intelligence—was that there was still time for international diplomacy and sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA report means that time has now run out.
To be sure, President Obama and his chief European allies will now push for a new, upgraded round of sanctions. But they are unlikely to receive UN Security Council endorsement, given Chinese and Russian support of Tehran. The West could conceivably institute sanctions on its own—but they aren’t likely to be any more effective than the previous three or four rounds. The only sanctions that might conceivably force the ayatollahs of Tehran to change tack would be a complete boycott of Iran's central bank and a complete freeze on purchases of Iranian oil, the country's only export (except for pistachios). But Chinese and Russian (and, perhaps, Indian) noncooperation dooms these measures before they even get off the ground.
Which leaves the world, including Israel, with only two options: allowing the Iranians to attain the bomb and then hope that mutual deterrence will work to keep the Iranian finger off the red button, or militarily assaulting the Iranian nuclear facilities before that can happen.
Europe, of course, is out of the picture altogether. But the United States, in its post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan mood appears to lack the stomach for new military adventures. So the onus is on Israel, which has (relatively) small but effective air, naval and commando units.
A decade ago, then prime minister Ariel Sharon tasked Meir Dagan, the new head of the Mossad, with stopping the Iranian nuclear project—and Dagan, according to reports, swore he would deliver. During his eight years in office, Iranian centrifuges occasionally spun out of control (faulty equipment); Iranian nuclear scientists died from bombs or bullets in the streets of Tehran—or simply vanished off the face of the earth; a powerful computer virus briefly shut down some segments of the Iranian nuclear program (Israeli or American computer geeks). And, indeed, these acts of sabotage may have bought Israel, and the world, a few extra years unblighted by the menace of Iranian nuclear weaponry.
But they also appear to have instilled in Israelis a false sense of security, according to Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit. The Iranian problem was “being taken care of,” it was felt.
But it wasn't, and the IAEA report shows just how great was the disconnection from reality. This explains the current sense of crisis and immediacy in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the leading proponents of a strike against Iran, have charged that their opponents are sowing fear and demoralization in order to stay the government's hand. These opponents argue that Iran's retaliation for an Israeli strike would be inordinately damaging and costly for Israel (rockets on its cities, terrorists blowing up its embassies); it’s best, they say, to let the Iranians get the bomb and rely on mutual deterrence.
Barak went on record about the possible effects of prospective Iranian—and Hamas and Hezbollah—rocketing of Israel in the wake of a strike against the Iranian nuclear installations. He told Israel Radio: "When a journalist says that there might be 100,000 [Israeli] dead or a major newspaper argues that Israel might be destroyed or an important Knesset Member says the [existing] cemeteries may prove insufficient, I say . . . the sowing of panic is reaching a crescendo . . . War is no picnic, but in no scenario will we suffer 50,000 dead; not even 5,000 dead, [not even] 500 dead."
He added that he and Netanyahu will not decide the issue on their own. Launching an attack will require a Cabinet decision, and a decision has not yet been taken, he said. But "we are preparing for this," he added.
Most observers in Israel believe that while Israel would like to have a green light from Washington, it will proceed without one if it believes that its existence is at stake. The feeling here is that Obama will endorse, and perhaps in various ways assist, an Israeli strike once it is underway–whether or not he is consulted beforehand—because he sees the ayatollahs' regime as a threat to world peace and American interests in the Middle East; because successive American administrations, including his own, have declared that Washington will not to allow Iran to acquire the bomb; and because, in a presidential election year, Obama cannot afford to alienate the Jewish vote.