What would be the timetable for Israel strike on Iran?

The timing of Saturday’s Times of London article, which claimed that the Israel Defense Forces is training for an attack on Iran on very short notice, is certainly no coincidence. Israel is trying to make clear that even though the United States plans to begin a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, it holds a realistic military option against Tehran’s nuclear program. Without a deal that assuages Israel’s concerns, there may be no other choice but to attack.

About 10 days ago, Maariv reported that the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was briefed on the progress of the IDF’s planning on the Iranian question. Supposedly he was happy with what he heard. It’s highly probable we will hear and read many more reports of this sort in the near future, mostly in the international media.

Most senior defense figures believe that nothing positive will result from the dialogue between Washington and Tehran. They also acknowledge that Israel’s ability to influence the talks is very low and that it would be best for Israel not to be seen as obstructing efforts to resolve the confrontation with Iran peacefully.

However, the defense establishment is continuing with its preparations for an attack, as well as its signals to the international community and Iran that the plan is serious and feasible.

There appears to be also an American effort to link an operation against Iran with a more favorable approach by Israel to peace with the Palestinians. An article in Yedioth Ahronoth last week suggested that the United States is hinting that its willingness to attack Iran (or permit Israel to do so) will be directly related to the Netanyahu government’s flexibility on issues such as evacuating settlements, pullbacks from the West Bank and progress on a peace accord with the Palestinian Authority.

It’s too soon to tell if this is a trial balloon from Washington or a clear position. But even if the dialogue with Tehran fails, senior IDF officers doubt whether the United States will allow Israel to go ahead with an offensive operation.

What may be the timetable for a strike? Updated Western intelligence assessments talk of fast Iranian progress and make discussions of a “point of no return” academic. Tehran is near the point where the question of whether it produces a nuclear weapon will be only a matter of choice, not ability.

Sometime in 2010 the Iranians will have enough fissile material for a single weapon; the IAEA says 25 kilograms are necessary. It is unlikely the Iranians will waste the material on demonstrating their abilities through an underground explosion. Most likely they will wait a year or two and build up a stockpile of about 75 kilograms of fissile material, which will suffice for a demonstration and a weapon or two.

The Iranians have another problem: It seems they still have a way to go to be able to place a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel. It is highly unlikely they will be able to mount a nuclear strike on Israel using aircraft-borne weapons, considering the Iranian air force’s limitations.

Assessments about the year Iran will be a nuclear country vary, with Israel stressing 2010 (nuclear capable), and the United States estimating – according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – 2013 (a nuclear weapon). Either way, it’s clear the next two to three years will be critical. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will discuss the Iranian threat publicly, as did Ehud Olmert, or work behind the scenes, as did Ariel Sharon. His choice will not necessarily indicate his decision on a strike against Iran.