Israel must launch a military attack against Iran within days, according to one expert — months, according to others — if it is to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Those dire warnings, most recently from John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg in a cover article in The Atlantic, have once again thrust Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons back into the spotlight. But several experts scoffed at the claim by Bolton that Israel must act by early next week to keep Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility from becoming operational.
Bolton, who served at the UN under President George W. Bush, had claimed on Fox Business Network that once Russia delivers nuclear fuel to the Bushehr facility this weekend, which is then loaded into the plant’s core, it would be too late for Israel to launch a military strike because an attack would spread radiation and harm Iranian civilians.
“Once that uranium, once those fuel rods are very close to the reactor, certainly once they’re in the reactor, attacking it means a release of radiation, no question about it,” Bolton said. “So if Israel is going to do anything against Bushehr it has to move in the next eight days.”
But Yossi Alpher, a former analyst for Israel’s Mossad and Israel Defense Forces, said Israel has no intention of bombing the Bushehr facility because “it’s an electric power reactor.”
He said Bolton’s claim that the Bushehr facility was comparable to the Iraqi nuclear reactor or the facility North Korea was building in Syria — both of which were destroyed by Israeli warplanes — was “absolutely wrong.” And Ephraim Inbar, director of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, called Bolton “a big alarmist.”
Still, attention is focusing again on Iran’s persistent drive to develop nuclear capabilities, and on the limited, and frightening, scenarios that could result when that happens.
The Netanyahu administration has said it would wait to see whether international sanctions imposed on Iran would compel Iran to stop its quest for nuclear weapons. The UN Security Council voted to impose a fourth set of sanctions on Iran, and the U.S. and the European Union later imposed even more punitive measures against Iranian banks and energy suppliers.
Zalman Shoval, a foreign affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel would prefer that “everything be done to curtail Iranian capabilities in every sphere to make sanctions more effective.”
But there is growing concern that sanctions will not be sufficient to stop Iran, and little information as to what the Obama administration’s Plan B would be like.
In the Atlantic article, Goldberg, a highly respected reporter who often covers the Middle East, said interviews he conducted with 40 “Israeli decision-makers” and U.S. officials convinced him that Netanyahu was likely to order a military strike against the Iran sites next spring if the U.S. did not act first.
Israel is prepared to wait through December for the sanctions to work, wrote Goldberg, who quoted one Israeli policy maker as saying Israeli intelligence believes Iran will have a nuclear weapon by next March. The Israelis are concerned as to whether President Barack Obama would fulfill his campaign statement that a nuclear Iran was “unacceptable” and that the “world must prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
“If the Israelis reach the firm conclusion that Obama will not, under any circumstances, launch a strike on Iran, then the countdown will begin for a unilateral Israeli attack,” Goldberg wrote in an 11-page article.
The Atlantic Web site also quoted Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as saying that the sanctions appear to be slowing down the Iranian nuclear project, lowering the odds on Israeli action next year to below 50-50. Goldberg had put it at better than 50-50.
“Indeed,” Indyk wrote, “I would argue that, if current trends continue, it's actually more likely that the United States will bomb Iran than Israel.”
Alpher, the Israeli analyst, said he doesn’t “have any dates to give you” regarding Iran’s nuclear timetable. But he said a list of conditions would have to be fulfilled before Israel would consider a military strike. Among them: continued calls by Iran for Israel’s destruction; Iran’s ability to launch a nuclear attack against Israel would be “extremely” near; all diplomatic pressure and sanctions would have failed, as well as clandestine efforts to slow the nuclear program; and Israeli aircraft could safely reach Iran and set back its nuclear program for a “significant period of time.”
Inbar pointed out that Iran has to accomplish two things before it has a usable nuclear bomb: it must develop enough fissionable material and have the ability to deliver the bomb to its intended target.
“It is getting close to the amount of enriched uranium it needs,” he said. “But a bomb design, if it has to do it on its own, is complicated. Maybe it got the blueprints from Pakistan, I don’t know.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that there was a Harvard study about two years ago that concluded that Israel could successfully attack Iran without the help of the United States. He said he is convinced that this analysis is correct.
“There’s no question that it is technically doable,” he said.
Asked about those who worry that Iran may have hidden some of its nuclear program at undetected underground sites that Israeli warplanes would miss, Steinberg replied: “There are always questions in any military operation. Just as the Iranians may have hidden aspects of their program, there are technologies and weapons that Israel will unveil for this purpose.”
Should Israel attack the Iranian nuclear sites, Steinberg said it would set back the Iranian nuclear project for years. But he warned that Iran would respond through the use of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, “and other terrorist attacks.” And there would be political implications “because at some point the regime in Iran will be replaced by a more moderate regime and a military confrontation with Israel would remain a sorepoint.”
He stressed that Israel would only attack Iran “as a last resort,” and stressed that no decision would be made “until the last minute.” But Steinberg said the Israeli military has already drawn up attack plans, just as it did months before it destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
“Any serious military force confronted with a threat that Iran poses would have to be prepared,” he said. “The concept of a point of no return is really exaggerated. This is a constantly unfolding process. When do costs of waiting exceed the costs of invading? That’s when you go.”
Goldberg told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that he believes “Iran loves nukes and will do anything to have them.” Should it get the bomb, he said, any future conflict between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah “has the potential for a cataclysm. … The chances of a nuclear exchange by mistake are very high.”
In addition, Goldberg said that once Iran had a bomb, the Middle East equation would be changed forever, with Islamic radicals emboldened, moderate Arab states set back, and Israel citizens living under unbearable conditions.
“A main reason why there has been no all-out war for Israel for 37 years is because it is protected by its nuclear monopoly,” Goldberg asserted. “Israel’s enemies knew they couldn’t go too far. But if Hamas and Hezbollah get that same umbrella” of Iran’s nuclear protection, the situation would be highly dangerous, “and terrible for the peace process.”
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