- Israel has not made a decision to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Following a summer during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak appeared to be preparing the political ground for a decision to strike, Netanyahu has in recent days been calling for the US to set clearer ‘red-lines’ for Iran, which would reassure Israel of the Obama administration’s commitment to act if necessary.
- Iran’s nuclear programme continues to advance with the IAEA reporting an increase in uranium enrichment, more evidence of weaponisation and continued Iranian non-cooperation.
- Whilst there is a consensus in Israel on the need to stop Iran’s nuclear programme and to keep the military option on the table, politicians are divided over whether there is a need for Israel to act now, with many security figures preferring to give sanctions and diplomacy more time.
- The US and other Western powers share Israel’s interest in ensuring maximum pressure on Iran through escalating sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of force. However, Washington appears reluctant to be more specific than its existing commitment of stating it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
- The point at which Israel’s window of opportunity for a military strike closes is a matter of judgement that only those with access to the most sensitive of information will be able to make. As a result, the weeks up to and beyond the US elections are likely to remain fraught with continuing speculation.
What are the latest developments with Iran’s nuclear programme?
In statements over the weekend, European foreign ministers, including William Hague, accepted that current pressure had been insufficient to force Iran to change course and that more sanctions were needed quickly.
Iran’s nuclear programme continues to advance. The IAEA’s latest report, issued on 30 August, declared that, ‘efforts to resolve all outstanding substantive issues have achieved no concrete results.’ Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has reached nearly seven tonnes, enough to build five nuclear weapons if further enriched. Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges installed in its underground Fordow facility for enriching uranium up to 20 per cent. The report also stated that the IAEA had been provided with information that corroborates its conclusion in November 2011 that Iran’s activities to build nuclear weapons ‘continued after 2003; and some may still be ongoing.’ In addition, no agreement was reached on allowing inspectors access the Parchin military site, where the IAEA suspect research into nuclear weapons triggers has occurred. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, alleged head of Iran’s clandestine weapons programme until 2003, had returned to work.
Iran’s bellicose statements against Israel have also continued, with President Ahmadinejad calling Israel a ‘cancerous tumour’ which has no place in the Middle East.
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran between April and June achieved little – except revealing the wide gaps between the sides and Iran’s apparent unwillingness to climb down, despite the considerable impact of sanctions. Hopes that working level contacts might resume after the summer have not materialised. Iran rejected P5+1 proposals at talks and US President Barack Obama is unlikely to offer more concessions at this point, as they could be exploited politically by his opponents in the upcoming presidential election. The only factor preventing all sides acknowledging that the talks have completely run aground is the desire to stop Israel from taking action.
What is the situation in Israel regarding military action?
The debate in Israel over taking military action remains intense and politically sensitive. On Wednesday 5 September Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the second part of an intelligence briefing for the Security Cabinet, after elements of the first part of the briefing, including assessments on Iran, were leaked.
However, after a summer of constant speculation, during which Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be preparing the public and political opinion for a decision to strike, there were indications in the past week that the two were rowing back.
Senior Haaretz correspondent Amir Oren reported on September 2 that Barak was now opposed to an Israeli strike prior to US elections. Meanwhile, over the past week Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the international community to set ‘clear red lines’ for Iran. Netanyahu told Canadian CBC news on Sunday 9 September that Israel was discussing these red lines with the US. The call for red lines is interpreted by many as an attempt to find a way to climb down from a decision to strike and establish common ground with the US.
Prior to this latest development, Barak and Netanyahu were making the case both within the political circles, and with the general public, that an Israeli military strike was justified. Barak appeared as the foremost advocate for a unilateral Israeli strike. In an interview with Time Magazine in July, he stressed that it ‘becomes clear from quarter to quarter that the capacity to influence a significant delay in their [Iran’s] plans is becoming more and more remote.’ In another interview with Ari Shavit of Haaretz, an anonymous ‘decision maker’ — easily identifiable as Barak — made the case for a pre-emptive Israeli strike, and emphasised Israel’s need to rely on itself concerning the most critical aspects of its national security, and not the United States.
Various factors may have motivated Barak and Netanyahu to build momentum for an attack during August. The Iranian nuclear programme is undoubtedly advancing and the diplomatic process has clearly failed. At the same time, the Iranian led-axis is somewhat on the back foot due to sanctions and the situation in Syria. Meanwhile, the US administration is influenced in its diplomatic reaction by the upcoming presidential elections. The window of optimal weather conditions, prior to the onset of winter, may also be a consideration.
However, Netanyahu and Barak would require a cabinet decision to launch a strike. The 14 member security cabinet is divided, and senior serving and retired security officials widely believe Israel can afford to give sanctions and diplomacy more time. There is a consensus over the threat posed by Iran and the necessity to pressure Iran and the international community with a credible military option, but there are opposing judgements about the necessity, or wisdom, of acting now.
The complex and fraught debate is fuelled by different assessments of various factors, including the effectiveness of an independent Israeli strike; the assessment of the retaliation Israel will have to absorb; the point at which Iran’s capacity for building a bomb will be move beyond the reach of an Israeli strike; the impact on relations with the US; and whether the US can be relied upon to act later down the road if Israel does not. Opinion polls suggest much of the Israeli public are divided on the issue. With Israeli elections due before the end of next year, Israeli decision makers will also be aware of the potential for any decision to impact of their electoral fortunes.
The lack of clear support among the public, or amongst the political or security echelons, and the fervent opposition of the US, may have caused Barak and Netanyahu to delay a decision. But for how long remains unclear.
What is the significance of the US position?
Israel’s relationship with the US is one of the key issues being considered in the internal Israeli policy debate. Whereas the unnamed ‘decision-maker’ – presumed to be Barak – indicated that Israel should ultimately be willing to go ahead without US support, President Shimon Peres has stated publicly that Israel cannot stop Iran alone, and should act in coordination with the US.
Dialogue between Israel and the US remains intense. The Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld, who met with Barak in Tel Aviv on Thursday 6 September, was only the latest in a constant stream of senior US officials to visit Israel. However, whilst Israel and the US share overall assessments of the threat, Israel has a far greater sense of urgency, because its lesser military capabilities mean its window for military action closes sooner.
Currently, there is an understanding that the US would act if it had evidence that Iran had begun construction of a nuclear weapon. But some Israeli strategists fear that by that time Israel’s window of opportunity to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively may have closed. Israel, with a deep-seated political culture of self-reliance, in defence and security matters is extremely reluctant to allow a situation in which Israel would be reliant on a US decision to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons. Given the failure to prevent both Pakistan and North Korea from going nuclear, Israel has well-founded fears that Iran could also succeed, despite apparently determined opposition from President Obama and other Western leaders.
In this tense, high-stake game, these differences have repeatedly come to the surface. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said in an interview on 30 August that he did not want the US to be ‘complicit’ in an Israeli attack. There were also harsh words between Netanyahu and the US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro during a meeting on 31 August, in which Netanyahu expressed frustration at the lack of clarity in the US approach.
The election season in the US is fuelling uncertainty among Israel’s decision makers about how the US can be expected to behave after November. Though Mitt Romney has tried to outflank Obama by talking tough on the issue, Israel cannot be sure that a new President would take military action in his first year of office. A period of transition in the US could serve to relieve the pressure on Iran and buy the nuclear programme precious time.
Though there were indications in a recent New York Times report that the US was looking for ways to close the public rift with Israel, it seems unlikely that Obama will make public commitments regarding military action that would bind his hands after the election. It is an open question whether Netanyahu and Obama will find time to meet whilst Netanyahu is attending the UN General Assembly in New York, with their schedules currently not coinciding.
Israel has not yet made the decision to take military action, and the lack of US support and a clear political consensus in Israel count against a strike in the coming weeks. However, the pressure on Israel’s decision makers to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and to not leave the decision in the hands of the US, weighs heavily. Israel will hope that a further escalation in sanctions, backed by the threat of force can compel Iran to change course. But how long Israel can wait before its window of opportunity for a military strike closes, is a matter of judgement that only those with access to the most sensitive of information can make. As a result, the weeks up to and beyond the US elections are likely to remain fraught with continuing speculation.