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Bomb or bunker? Israel's options on Iran narrow

Lash out or dig in? The quandary Israelis call existential seems close to decision-point.

The orchestrated roar of air force exercises designed to signal Israel’s readiness to attack Iranian nuclear facilities are belied, perhaps, by a far quieter project deep beneath the western Jerusalem hills.

Dubbed “Nation’s Tunnel” by the media and screened from view by government guards, it is a bunker network that would shelter Israeli leaders in an atomic war—earth-bound repudiation of the Jewish state’s vow to deny its foes the bomb at all costs.

Lash out or dig in? The quandary Israelis call existential seems close to decision-point. Iran’s uranium enrichment has already produced enough raw fuel for one nuclear weapon, United Nations inspectors say, though Tehran denies having military designs.

Next month’s international good-faith talks offer no clear relief to Israel, which wants world powers to be prepared to penalise Iran’s vulnerable energy imports but sees Russia and China blocking any such resolution at the UN Security Council.

That the Obama administration signed on to negotiating without preconditions—a potential disavowal of the United States’s past demand for an enrichment halt—may only crank up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ticking clock.

“The longer the US delays playing hardball with Iran, the sooner Israel is likely to strike,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens.

Yet for every expert or diplomat bracing for an imminent attack, there’s another who anticipates that Israel will be forced to stand down, hobbled by tactical limitations and the strategic hazards of ruining its top ally’s regional agenda.

“Israel cannot take action so long as the United States is sincerely holding a real dialogue with Iran,” said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser.

Should Iran not yield, Eiland said, Washington might be able to persuade Moscow and Beijing to back tougher sanctions.

“But Israel could also end up alone, with two bad choices—not doing anything and allowing Iran to have de facto military nuclear capacity, and carrying out a military intervention,” he said, declining to elaborate on which choice he would recommend.

Pliancy
The talks’ duration could come down to the pliancy in an Iranian posture that has so far entailed defending enrichment as a legal right and brushing off allegations of warhead research.

“If Iran shows a little more skin, then the talks will drag out longer,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“If doesn’t show any more skin, then I think there could be sanctions by the end of the year,” he said, suggesting that the US and Europe could target Iran’s financial sector.

Assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and carried out a similar sortie against Syria in 2007.

Aerial and naval manoeuvres, leaked to the media, have told of plans to reach Iran, though this time the targets are so distant, dispersed and fortified that even Israel’s top brass admit they could deliver a short-term, disruptive blow at most.

Hence Israel’s discreet arrangements for living with the possibility of a nuclear-armed arch-enemy—the bunkers, the missile interceptors, the talk of a US strategic shield and of Cold War-style deterrence based on mutually assured destruction.

One government intelligence analyst suggested that Israel had passed a psychological threshold by “allowing” Iran to manufacture enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for a bomb. “We keep fretting about whether they will have a ‘break-out capacity’, but really they’re already there,” the analyst said.

The UN national intelligence director has assessed Iran will not be technically capable of producing high-enriched uranium (HEU) for the fissile core of an atom bomb before 2013.

Turning LEU into HEU would be an overt breach of international law, requiring Iran to eject foreign nuclear inspectors and recalibrate its centrifuges.

That, Fitzpatrick said, could be enough to trigger American military intervention—Israel’s ideal scenario. But he also saw the possibility of Iran agreeing to a limited domestic enrichment deal, with safeguards against illicit bomb-making.

Israel could still upend such talks and hit Iran—say, if it suspects a parallel, secret enrichment project is coming to fruition. The Israelis may also want to preempt Iran’s bid to buy advanced Russian air defences that could stave off a strike.

“There are three clocks at work here: technical, in terms of Iran’s advances; operational, in terms of our capabilities and their precautions; and diplomatic,” Eiland said.

“The questions is when and how these clocks might become synchronised for a ‘window’ in which Israel would act.”—Reuters

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