- Iran’s nuclear programme represents a serious threat to the interests of the West and its Arab allies in the Gulf. A forthcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report is expected to reveal evidence that Iran has acquired the technology for a nuclear bomb.
- Given Iran’s vocal opposition to Israel’s existence and its active support for armed groups on Israel’s borders, Iran’s nuclear programme present a major threat to Israeli security. Whether Israel should resort to military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities is one of the most difficult dilemmas faced by Israeli policymakers in Israel’s history. An Israeli military strike would have uncertain impact and could trigger a wider conflict.
- The debate in Israel has intensified in recent days, following press speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are preparing for an Israeli military strike. Iran is expected to soon move part of its enrichment capacity to a new underground facility that would make it harder to destroy from the air.
- That Israel is considering military action is a consequence of the failure of the international community to act with sufficient determination on this issue. The new IAEA report provides an important opportunity to refocus international efforts on this issue.
Why is the international community refocusing on Iran’s nuclear programme?
The threat posed by the Iranian nuclear programme has resurfaced at the top of the international agenda in recent days, ahead of a new report by the IAEA to be published this week. According to reports, IAEA officials have concluded that Iran now has the technology to produce a nuclear bomb.
The Guardian reported on 2 November that according to British officials, the UK was stepping up its preparations to support the US in a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on 3 November that a nuclear-armed Iran ‘would be a very, very bad thing for peace and security in our world,’ and stated that ‘we take no options off the table.’ Speaking at the G20 summit in Cannes on 3 November, US President Barack Obama stressed ‘the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.’
The IAEA for several years has referred to evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons technology. The IAEA’s September 2011 report expressed concerns about ‘activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information.’ Despite the faltering performance of Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz and the harm caused by the Stuxnet computer virus and sanctions, experts assess that Iran’s programme remains capable of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium. If further enriched, Iran’s growing stockpile is already enough for two to four bombs. According to reports, this week’s IAEA revelations include evidence that Iran has developed technology to trigger a nuclear explosion, with the assistance of former Soviet nuclear weapons experts.
The US and Europe are concerned that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could spark a nuclear arms race among its Arab neighbours. They are also concerned about the impact that Iranian nuclear weapons would have on the balance of power in the Gulf. Both the US and the UK have close defence and trade relationships with Gulf states, whose stability and cooperation is vital to oil supply and the prevention of terrorism. As Ash Jain, a former member of the US State Department’s planning staff, described in a recent paper, Iran’s aim is to pressure its neighbours to end cooperation with the US and to join an Iran-led regional defence framework.
There are already four UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. However, until now, the US and major EU states, hindered to some extent by the reluctance of China and Russia, have failed to bring about sanctions of sufficient severity to force Iran to change course. Additional measures that have not yet been taken are sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, and against its trade in oil and petroleum.
The extensive leaks of the new IAEA report and the increased rhetoric of Western officials appear calculated to increase international pressure and prepare the ground for new and tougher measures against Iran.
Why is Israel particularly concerned about Iran?
There is a broad consensus in Israeli policy circles that Iran’s nuclear programme represents Israel’s most serious security threat. Iran is a theocratic regime ideologically opposed to Israel’s existence, whose leaders have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction, and which provides arms and finance to terrorist groups on Israel’s borders.
The worst-case scenario for Israel is that Iran may use a nuclear weapon against Israel. However, even if a direct nuclear strike is unlikely, given that Israel is widely believed to have its own nuclear deterrent, Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would be a major security threat. Of particular concern is that Iran may be further emboldened in its supply of weapons and support to its allies on Israel’s borders, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel’s ability to act against these groups could be curtailed if Iran extends a nuclear umbrella to them, or if it threatens to pass on nuclear materials. Overall, the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran poses a considerable challenge to Israeli national morale.
The calculation for Israel is not as straightforward as stopping Iran before it ‘gets the bomb’. Iran has avoided overt steps that would indicate that it has started to actually construct a weapon, which would immediately justify a military strike against it, or trigger its Arab neighbours to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Instead, it has gradually developed its programme so that the time it needs to construct a bomb has decreased and the number of weapons it could build has increased. Israel’s concern is to hinder Iran’s progress with regard to the ‘breakout’ capability to build a nuclear arsenal at short notice, if and when it chooses to do so.
How is the debate about Iran intensifying in Israel?
Whilst Israel has always preferred that the Iranian nuclear programme be curtailed through international pressure, there has long been a debate about whether Israel should ultimately be willing to take military action. Israel has acted in the past to prevent other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and, in an operation that was never formally acknowledged, bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel has almost certainly been involved in covert action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. However, nobody in Israel is enthusiastic about military action against Iran’s nuclear programme, which involves far greater technical challenges and strategic risks. The debate is about whether at some point, the risks would be justified given the scale of the threat.
The frequent statements by Israeli leaders that ‘all options remain on the table’ have certainly been motivated in part to galavanise the international community to take action. However, evidence has mounted in the past year that Israel has not been bluffing. In January 2011, recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan came out forcefully against the idea of bombing Iran. The fact that he felt the need to do so was a sign of the very real debate taking place behind the scenes among Israel’s political and policy elite.
The debate in Israel about the pros and cons of a military strike peaked in the last week, following the publication of an article by leading Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea on 28 October. He wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that PM Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak appeared to be pushing for action against Iran, despite concerns among senior military and intelligence officers. On 2 November, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu and Barak were working to muster the support for the proposal in the Israeli cabinet. The sudden exposure of the internal policy debate to the public has alarmed Israeli cabinet ministers, who have criticised Dagan and others for bringing this most sensitive of security issues into the public arena.
Those in Israel who believe a military strike may be necessary could cite several reasons why the time is ripe. The first is the continuing development of the Iranian programme itself. Aside from increasing its uranium stockpile and developing its weapons technology, Iran is preparing within months to move part of its enrichment capacity to an underground facility at Fordow. This would make it much harder to destroy from the air.
Regional developments may also play a role. The uprising within Syria may have reduced the risk that the Assad regime would become involved in any retaliation against Israel, and have put Hamas and Hezbollah somewhat on the back foot. Meanwhile, regional criticism may be muted given the increasing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, following recent allegations of an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. The forthcoming US withdrawal from Iraq may be another consideration. Israel may prefer to act after the US withdrawal, to minimise the exposure of the US to Iranian retaliation. It is also reported that after the end of the year, the US will no longer be obliged to stop aircraft from crossing Iraqi airspace, removing a potential obstacle for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to reach Iran.
However, there are many influential voices in Israel’s policy and security establishment who continue to argue that Israeli military action would be too risky and with limited benefits. Many question the capacity of the IAF to do an effective job so far from its borders. There is the risk that Israeli pilots could be shot down and captured, and a strike may only set back the Iranian programme temporarily. Military action could also lead Iran to withdraw from the NPT, allowing it to resume its programme without international scrutiny.
Then there are concerns about the immediate aftermath. Perhaps most alarming for Israel is that Iran’s allies on Israel’s borders – Hezbollah in south Lebanon, the Syrian regime, and Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip – may retaliate by firing thousands of missiles at Israeli cities and towns, plunging Israel into a multi-front war. Iran also has a legacy of retaliating against Israel by targeting Jewish communities around the world, as in the case of its bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish community centre there in 1994.
Conclusion: pressure on the West to act
Israeli policymakers are grappling with an acute dilemma, as they perceive a closing window of opportunity to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could be grave, but so could the consequences of failing to act. That Israel is considering taking unilateral military action is a result of the failure of the international community to act with sufficient determination on this issue. International attention has drifted in the last 18 months, as global economic problems and the drama of the Arab Spring have taken centre stage. The forthcoming IAEA report provides a welcome opportunity to refocus on the pre-eminence of the Iranian nuclear threat, and to bring about a more determined international response. How the international community responds may well impact Israeli decision-making in the months ahead.