By Victor Kotsev – Asia Times November 5, 2011
Through a number of leaks and well-publicized war exercises, the Israeli government has dramatically increased its threats against Iran in the past days. Since the Israeli military likes to act by surprise, it seems this specific escalation is a bluff designed to help pass tougher diplomatic measures against the Islamic Republic at the United Nations Security Council, specifically following the anticipated publication of an important report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next week.
However, given the exceptionally high and rising regional tensions (not all of which involve Israel directly), a larger war in the Middle East is a distinct possibility. Thus, the Israeli rhetoric can be interpreted in two additional ways (all three are not mutually exclusive): as an attempt to deter a possible first or second strike by Iran and its allies, and as a campaign to prepare public opinion, both at home and abroad, for hostilities.
According to a widely circulated if anonymous assessment (presumed to have come directly from high-ranking Israeli officials), the window of opportunity for striking the Iranian nuclear sites this year will close in a matter of weeks, with the coming of the winter.
The urgency implied in this argument is not necessarily very real – according to most assessments, if Iran were to choose to produce a nuclear bomb, it would need several years at the current rate of enrichment to have enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.
In the worst-case scenario, if the Iranian leaders choose to dash headlong toward a bomb, they would need at least a few months. There is some controversy about the precise time frame, but the Institute for Science and International Security estimates six months. 
However, it was not very difficult to twist the assessment into a powerful sound bite (“the window of opportunity for a strike against Iran is closing”) and to put it to use to justify and amplify an impressive Israeli show of force. In the space of a week or so, Israel conducted a simulation of a long-distance air strike together with Italy, tested what was allegedly an upgrade of its Jericho 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, and conducted a home front drill centered around the scenario of a chemical weapons attack delivered by a missile.
All three drills were conducted in an extraordinarily open way; the usually tight-lipped Israeli military censor allowed the Israeli press to publish pictures of the exercise in Italy and speculations about the Israeli missile program . Moreover, these reports were accompanied by a flurry of other reports and leaks, all conveying, explicitly or implicitly, the same message; that an Israeli strike on Iran is imminent.
“[Benjamin] Netanyahu trying to persuade cabinet to support attack on Iran,” was the title of a November 2 article on the Israeli prime minister’s intentions in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz . “With Syria on the way down, Iran needs nukes more than ever,” another Ha’aretz headline from the same day reads . “US fears unilateral Israeli strike on Iran,” a website associated with another Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, claimed just days earlier. 
Even The Guardian chimed in, reporting that the United Kingdom was “stepping up” its preparations to assist the United States in a “potential military action against Iran”. 
Last month, the US think-thank Stratfor suggested that the US was finally siding with Saudi Arabia in a more aggressive stance against Iran. 
On the one hand, much of this is clearly posturing, and Israel seems to be playing the bad cop in the American pressure campaign against Iran at the UN Security Council.
If Russia and China could be persuaded that the Israeli government is serious in its threats, they would theoretically become more amenable to tougher sanctions against Iran (something they have so far opposed).
The IAEA report is due to be released next week, and it is rumored to be harshly critical of the Iranian nuclear program. It could – backed up by the American allegations that Iran conspired to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington – serve as a basis for another round of sanctions.
In the past, Israel has conducted highly dangerous and controversial operations – a planning a potential strike on Iran would fall in this category – in the greatest of secrecy; it is unlikely that it would make so much noise now while preparing to attack imminently. Nevertheless, as a whole there is a real danger of a regional war, the time frame for which is not clear, and the Israeli moves could well be meant to address that threat.
In the analysis of Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer,
It is important to note that the drills and tests of recent days, and those expected to take place in the coming days, were all planned months ago…. However, one cannot ignore the proximity of these events, together with the continuing operational work on the Iron Dome systems in Gaza and in northern Israel, the acceleration of the Magic Wand and Arrow 3 defense systems – and naturally the public discourse over the last few days concerning the possibility of a strike on Iran … All these elements – with differing degrees of planning – provide the background music in a concert of a military apparatus preparing for a possible large-scale operation.
Even if the decision to attack Iran has not yet been made, and despite opposition by senior security officials, the IDF’s [Israel Defense Forces] task – and that of the rest of the security and intelligence bodies – is to provide the decision-making level with the maximum number of operational options and the offensive and defensive options. 
An attack on the Iranian nuclear program might not come from Israel – and neither is it certain that Iran and its allies will desist from initiating hostilities themselves. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, recently threatened to “burn the whole region” in case of a foreign intervention in his country. Days ago, he professed to accept an Arab League plan for defusing the violence, but then reportedly contradicted himself once again by murdering dozens of people in cold blood.
Meanwhile, after the death of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the attention of all those who feel Responsibility to Protect is clearly fixed on Syria. The comparisons run on multiple levels – according to a recent report, the IAEA is investigating a new suspicious site in Syria, which closely resembles a Libyan uranium plant that Gaddafi abandoned several years ago . Such an allegation could theoretically help justify an intervention against Assad.
For Israel, moreover, a confrontation with Iran or Syria need not take the form of a direct exchange with either of these countries. It is very likely, for example, that last weekend’s escalation in Gaza between the Israeli army and the Islamic Jihad militant organization happened on orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Israeli muscle flexing can thus be interpreted also as a loud warning to Iran that it can easily cross the line when stoking conflict on Israel’s borders.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.
1. Debunking Gregory Jones Again , ISIS, October 27, 2011.
2. For some of the coverage, see the following: 1. Israel Air Force conducts drills for long-range attacks, Ha’aretz, November 2, 2011, 2. Home Front drill: Holon under chemical weapon attack , Jerusalem Post, November 3, 2011, and 3. IAF holds distant-strike exercise, Ynet, November 2, 2011.
3. Netanyahu trying to persuade cabinet to support attack on Iran, Ha’aretz, November 2, 2011.
4. With Syria on the way down, Iran needs nukes more than ever, Ha’aretz, November 2, 2011.
5. US fears uncoordinated Israeli strike on Iran, Ynet, October 31, 2011.
6. UK military steps up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears , The Guardian, November 2, 2011.
7. From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region, , Stratfor, October 18, 2011.
8. Are Israel’s military drills preparation for an Iran strike? , Ha’aretz, November 2, 2011.
9. New suspected nuclear complex exposed in Syria, ynetnews.com, November 1, 2011.