Israel is a long way from attacking Iran

Israeli leaders and officials have recently intensified their campaign against nuclearIran. The messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ambassador to Washington Salai Meridor and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is clear: Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed Israel is very concerned by the likelihood that Iran, whose leadership has called for the Jewish state’s destruction, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.

These public statements, as well as closed talks between Israel’s leadership and leaders around the world, can be interpreted as “preparing the ground” for the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. It is also correct that all the bodies dealing with the “Iran case,” including the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Air Force and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, are planning for the worst-case scenario. This is their professional duty. But one cannot conclude, as many have following a report in The New York Times (June 19) that an Israeli attack is certainly around the corner. Not only has such a decision not been made in any relevant forum in Israel – the question has not even been discussed.

The decision to attack Iran to foil its nuclear program is from Israel’s point of view a last resort, and the chances of it happening depend on many variables, which are unfolding over various time frames some overlapping, others running in parallel.

The most important variable is Israel’s coordination with the United States. As has happened on a number of historic occasions – the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the two Lebanon wars and, most recently, the strike against Syria’s nuclear reactor, Israel will not strike Iran without first coordinating its actions with the U.S. This could be a tacit understanding, a flashing yellow light, or a direct request for a green light. Such support is conditioned first and foremost on the question of who will occupy the White House come November.

Another variable is international sanctions on Iran. These are being applied sluggishly. Russia and China are blocking every U.S.-European Union effort to apply painful sanctions that would affect Iran’s economy. But Israel has still not given up hope that in Moscow and Beijing will change their policies and impose harsher sanctions.

Another significant factor is the domestic situation in Iran. Next May, presidential elections are scheduled in Iran. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decides he is fed up with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mostly because of the worsening economic situation, and prevents him from running for another term, or does not support him, this dramatic turn of events could also affect Iran’s nuclear program.
Although most experts agree the desire to acquire nuclear weapons is shared by most factions in Iran, differences still exist. It is possible that a new president, from less radical ranks, may agree to suspend uranium enrichment and seek dialogue with the West.

But there could also be an unexpected development in the form of a technological breakthrough: Iran may declare before the elections in February 2009, the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, that it has mastered all stages of uranium enrichment, and is capable of roducing
nuclear arms.

The fourth variable, upon which every political decision in Israel is taken, is of course the operational preparedness of the air force and the other agencies that are party to a strike. Is Israel capable of carrying out a significant blow to the essential sites where Iran is developing nuclear weapons, to the point that the process is stalled for several years?

Only when there are clear answers to these issues will Israeli leaders make a decision. First they will take into account the heavy price Israel may have to pay. Undoubtedly, Iran will retaliate. Above all, Israel will make up its mind only as a last resort after realizing the U.S. will not attack Iran, the regime in Iran will not change its direction and the sanctions remain ineffective. Only then will the Israeli cabinet have to make one of the most fateful and existential decisions in the history of the state.