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The Ticking Clock

Four reasons why — this time — you should believe the hype about Israel attacking Iran.

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by ROBERT HADDICK

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius created a tempest last week when he reported U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s prediction that Israel will attack Iran and its nuclear complex “in April, May or June.” Ignatius’s column was as startling as it was exasperating. When the sitting U.S. defense secretary — presumably privy to facts not generally available to the public — makes such a prediction, observers have good reasons to pay attention. On the other hand, the international community has been openly dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue for nearly a decade, with similar crescendos of anticipation having occurred before, all to no effect. Why would this time be different?

Further, an Israeli air campaign against Iran would seem like an amazingly reckless act. And an unnecessary one, too, since international sanctions against Iran’s banks and oil market are just now tightening dramatically.

Yet from Israel’s point of view, time really has run out. The sanctions have come too late. And when Israeli policymakers consider their advantages and all of the alternatives available, an air campaign, while both regrettable and risky, is not reckless.

Here’s why:

1. Time pressure

In his column, Ignatius mentioned this spring as the likely deadline for an Israeli strike. Why so soon? After all, the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any moves to “break out” toward the production of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.

But as a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center discusses, Iran’s uranium enrichment effort continues to advance, even after the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists. According to the report, Iran seems to be successfully installing advanced, high-efficiency uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which foreshadows a significant increase in enrichment capacity and output in the near future. More ominously from Israel’s perspective, Iran is now installing centrifuge cascades into the Fordow mountain site near Qom, a bunker that is too deep for Israeli bombs to penetrate.

On-site IAEA inspectors are currently monitoring Iran’s nuclear fuel production and would report any diversions to military use. As Tehran undoubtedly assumes, such a “breakout” (tossing out the inspectors and quickly enriching to the bomb-grade level) would be a casus belli, with air strikes from Israel likely to soon follow. Israeli leaders may have concluded that Iran could break out with impunity after the Fordow site is operational and the enrichment effort has produced enough low-enriched uranium feedstock for several bombs. According to the Bipartisan Center report, Iran will be in this position later this year. According to the New York Times, U.S. and Israeli officials differ over their calculations of when Iran will have crossed into a “zone of immunity.” Given their more precarious position, it is understandable that Israeli policymakers are adopting a more conservative assessment.

2. Alternatives to military action now fall short

Israeli leaders undoubtedly understand that starting a war is risky. There should be convincing reasons for discarding the non-military alternatives.

The international sanctions effort against Iran’s banking system and oil industry are inflicting damage on the country’s economy and seem to be delivering political punishment to the regime. But they have not slowed the nuclear program, nor are they likely to have any effect on the timeline described above. And as long as Russia, China, India, and others continue to support Iran economically and politically, the sanctions regime is unlikely to be harsh enough to change Israel’s calculation of the risks, at least within a meaningful time frame.

Why can’t Israel’s secret but widely assumed nuclear arsenal deter an Iranian nuclear strike? Israel’s territory and population are so small that even one nuclear blast would be devastating. Israel would very much like to possess a survivable and stabilizing second-strike retaliatory capability. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union achieved this mainly with their ballistic missile submarine fleets, which were always on patrol and held each others’ cities at risk. Israel does not have large numbers of submarines or any nuclear-powered subs capable of long submerged patrols. Nor can it be confident that its policymakers or command-and-control systems would survive an Iranian nuclear first strike.

Even if Iran sought a nuclear weapons capability solely to establish its own defensive deterrent, the outcome would be gross instability in the region, very likely leading to one side or the other attempting a preemptive attack (the Iranian government denies that its nuclear program has a military purpose). Very short missile flight times, fragile early-warning and command systems, and no survivable second-strike forces would lead to a hair-trigger “use it or lose it” dynamic. An Israeli attack now on Iran’s nuclear program would be an attempt to prevent this situation from occurring.

3. The benefits of escalation

A strike on Iran’s nuclear complex would be at the outer boundary of the Israeli Air Force‘s capabilities. The important targets in Iran are near the maximum range of Israel’s fighter-bombers. The fact that Iraq’s airspace, on the direct line between Israel and Iran, is for now undefended is one more reason why Israel’s leaders would want to strike sooner rather than later. Israel’s small inventory of bunker-buster bombs may damage the underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, but they will likely have no effect on the Fordow mountain complex. Iran has undoubtedly dispersed and hidden many other nuclear facilities. An Israeli strike is thus likely to have only a limited and temporary effect on Iran’s nuclear program.

If so, why bother, especially when such a strike risks sparking a wider war? Israel’s leaders may actually prefer a wider escalating conflict, especially before Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. Under this theory, Israel would take the first shot with a narrowly tailored attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Paradoxically, Israel’s leaders might then prefer Iranian retaliation, which would then give Israel the justification for broader strikes against Iran’s oil industry, power grid, and communication systems. Even better if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz or attack U.S. forces in the region, which would bring U.S. Central Command into the war and result in even more punishment for Iran. Israel’s leaders may believe that they enjoy “escalation dominance,” meaning that the more the war escalates, the worse the consequences for Iran compared to Israel. Israel raided Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Bashar al-Assad opted to retaliate, very likely because both knew that Israel, with its air power, possessed escalation dominance. Israel’s leaders have good reason to assume that Iran’s leaders will reach the same conclusion.

What about the rockets possessed by Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s proxies north and south of Israel’s population centers? Israel’s leaders may believe that they are much better prepared to respond to these threats than they were in 2006, when the Israeli army struggled against Hezbollah. There is no guarantee that Hezbollah and Hamas will follow orders from Tehran to attack — they understand the punishment the reformed Israeli army would inflict. Hezbollah may now have an excellent reason to exercise caution. Should the Assad regime in Damascus collapse, Hezbollah would likely lose its most important protector and could soon find itself cut off and surrounded by enemies. It would thus be a particularly bad time for Hezbollah to invite an Israeli ground assault into southern Lebanon.

4. Managing the endgame

An Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear complex would probably not lead to the permanent collapse of the program. Iran could dig out the entrances to the Fordow site and establish new covert research and production facilities elsewhere, perhaps in bunkers dug under residential areas. Israel inflicted a major setback on Iraq’s program when it destroyed the unfinished Osirak reactor in 1981. Even so, Saddam Hussein covertly restarted the program. Israel should expect the same persistence from Iran.

So is there any favorable end-state for Israel? Israeli leaders may envision a long term war of attrition against Iran’s program, hoping to slow its progress to a crawl while waiting for regime change in Tehran. Through sporadic follow-up strikes against nuclear targets, Israel would attempt to demoralize the industry’s workforce, disrupt its operations, and greatly increase the costs of the program. Israeli leaders might hope that their attrition tactics, delivered through occasional air strikes, would bog down the nuclear program while international sanctions weaken the civilian economy and reduce political support for the regime. The stable and favorable outcome for Israel would be either Tehran’s abandonment of its nuclear program or an internal rebellion against the regime. Israel would be counting more on hope rather than a convincing set of actions to achieve these outcomes. But the imperative now for Israel is to halt the program, especially since no one else is under the same time pressure they are.

Israel should expect Tehran to mount a vigorous defense. Iran would attempt to acquire modern air defense systems from Russia or China. It would attempt to rally international support against Israeli aggression and get its international sanctions lifted and imposed on Israel instead. An Israeli assault on Iran would disrupt oil and financial markets with harmful consequences for the global economy. Israel would take the blame, with adverse political and economic consequences to follow.

But none of these consequences are likely enough to dissuade Israel from attacking. A nuclear capability is a red line that Israel has twice prevented its opponents from crossing. Iran won’t get across the line either. Just as happened in 1981 and 2007, Israel’s leaders have good reasons to conclude that its possession of escalation dominance will minimize the worst concerns about retaliation. Perhaps most importantly, Israel is under the greatest time pressure, which is why it will have to go it alone and start what will be a long and nerve-wracking war.

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U.N. nuclear talks in Tehran: frustrated hopes

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By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA | Mon Feb 6, 2012 12:01pm EST

(Reuters) – After two days of rare and intensive talks in Tehran, senior U.N. nuclear officials may have felt they were finally making headway towards getting Iran to address suspicions that it is bent on developing the ability to make atom bombs.

Then, on the evening before the third and final session of last week’s meetings in the Iranian capital, the visiting U.N. nuclear watchdog delegation was handed an envelope that dealt a blow to any hopes of substantive progress.

According to one Vienna-based diplomat briefed on the discussions, it contained a procedural “new work plan” at odds with the nature of the discussions until then, in which the U.N. experts had tried to focus on concrete steps required by Iran.

In the view of Western officials, the Iranian move was further proof of the kind of stalling tactics Tehran has often used during the decade-long dispute over its nuclear program.

“It is delay. It is talks about talks,” a senior Western envoy said about the Iranian negotiating strategy.

The team from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, was forced to use much of the last day of the January 29-31 meeting to push back against the Iranian initiative.

“The agency had to spend a great deal of time getting over Iranian obfuscation,” said another diplomat. “It wasted a lot of time, at least a day.”

Neither Iran nor the IAEA have commented on the Iranian proposal or given details about it.

But it evoked memories among Western diplomats of an ultimately doomed plan agreed between the IAEA and Tehran in 2007 to resolve “outstanding issues” that failed to allay international doubts about Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

By putting forward a new such proposal, they suspect, Iran was trying once again to drag talks out while pressing ahead with nuclear work Western powers fear is aimed at acquiring the means and technologies needed to build atomic bombs.

“The Iranians kept trying to push that ‘work plan’ and the agency was not going to go there. They had some very frank engagement,” the senior envoy said.

Iran’s mission to the IAEA was not reachable for comment. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has described the meeting with the IAEA as “very good,” without elaborating.

A second round of talks has been slated for later this month but Western diplomats hold out little hope that the February 21-22 meeting in Tehran will fare much better than the previous round.

One diplomat said the January negotiations ended with a draft “discussion paper” listing the main points the IAEA wants Iran to answer, especially allegations about possible military dimensions to its uranium enrichment program.

The talks coincide with soaring tension in the long-running row, with the United States and European Union adopting sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and the Islamic Republic threatening retaliation by closing the main Gulf oil shipping lane.

IRAN UNDER PRESSURE

The outcome of the IAEA’s meetings in Tehran will be scrutinized in Washington, European capitals and Israel for signs of whether Iran’s leadership may finally be prepared to give ground after a decade of pursuing shadowy nuclear development goals, or whether it remains as defiant as ever.

Many fear a downward spiral towards military conflict and rocketing oil prices if diplomacy and sanctions fail to change the Islamic state’s nuclear course.

The Vienna-based IAEA, tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear arms in the world, is pressing Iran to be transparent.

It wants Iran to explain intelligence findings, detailed in an IAEA report in November, about research and development work pointing to nuclear weapons aims, and grant access to sites, documents and people relevant for its investigation.

Iran has indicated readiness for the first time to answer the agency’s questions but also repeatedly dismissed the allegations as baseless and forged.

It says its drive to stockpile enriched uranium is entirely peaceful and aimed at generating electricity using a future network of nuclear power plants.

The deadlock over the IAEA’s suspicion that Iran is looking into “weaponizing” its nuclear activity dates back over three years.

Nackaerts and his team specifically asked last week for access to the Parchin military site near Tehran, without receiving a clear answer from the Iranian side, diplomats said.

The secretive U.N. agency would not comment on the visit beyond a formal statement in which Director General Yukiya Amano said: “The agency is committed to intensifying dialogue. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues.”

The IAEA said it explained to Iran its “concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions.”

“The IAEA also discussed with Iran the topics and initial steps to be taken, as well as associated modalities,” it said.

Western diplomats said the statement made clear that there had been little progress on substance, but also raised pressure on Iran to deliver tangible results in the next meeting.

Tehran is in the “game of gaining time,” one of them said.

But at least it would be clear who was to blame if the talks failed, he added: “It is going to be Iran’s responsibility.”

The IAEA may also hope that the Iranian side next time will send senior officials such as Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, to the talks.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was the main counterpart in the January meeting. While he is a senior nuclear official, the U.N. agency frequently sees him in Vienna.

“There was nothing achieved on this visit and in fact the agency could not get Iran to engage on possible military dimensions questions at all,” the senior Western envoy said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Obama warned Israel against Iran strike

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With growing concern over Israeli strike, US administration working to receive assurances from Jerusalem it won’t attack nuclear sites, boosting presence in Gulf region

Orly Azoulay

Published:
01.15.12, 09:59 / Israel News

The US administration has spent the last few days working frantically to prevent an Israeli strike on Iran and reinforcing presence in the region in preparation for Iranian counter attacks, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Sunday.

Israeli state officials suggested Saturday that the sanctions against Tehran were not sufficient, which works to enhance US concern over an Israeli strike.

Related stories:

US President Barack Obama is operating several secret channels to deliver messages to all sides. On Thursday, Obama spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned him of the serious consequences of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Wall Street Journal reported that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won’t take military action against Iran and will allow further sanctions to be imposed on the Islamic Republic. It was also reported that US Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week.

US defense officials claim that the Israeli response has been noncommittal. Some American intelligence officials complain that Israel represents a blind spot in US intelligence, which devotes little resources to Israel, the WSJ said.

The officials accused the Israeli security establishment of playing a “good cop, bad cop” routine and increasing uncertainty in Washington.

This ambiguity has led the US administration to believe that Netanyahu has plans to attack and the US is therefore preparing for the outcomes of such a strike.

The US military is preparing for a number of possible responses to an Israeli strike, including assaults by pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq against the US Embassy in Baghdad, the WSJ said.

According to the report, the US has 15,000 troops in Kuwait and has moved a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf area.

It has also been pre-positioning aircraft and other military equipment, officials say. Arms transfers to key allies in the Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have been fast-tracked as a further deterrent, officials say.

Disappointment with sanctions

According to messages by Israeli state officials over the weekend, the US is right to be concerned. Israeli officials did not deny reports of growing American concern and sent a clear message that Israel was disappointed with the sanctions against Iran.

One source said that without an immediate toughening of sanctions which will include action against Iran’s central bank and its ability to export oil, Tehran will never consider halting its nuclear program. They also criticized the fact that the White House failed to adopt a Congress decision to act firmly against Iran’s central bank.

Netanyahu addressed the matter in an interview with The Australian. “For the first time, I see Iran wobble under the sanctions that have been adopted and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank,” he said. “If these sanctions are coupled with a clear statement by the international community, led by the US, to act militarily to stop Iran if sanctions fail, Iran may consider not going through the pain. There’s no point gritting your teeth if you’re going to be stopped anyway.”

US President Obama also sent a firm message to Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and stressed that closing the Strait of Hormuz would be crossing a red line which would lead to counter action by the US.

Yedioth Ahronoth also reported that IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is slated to attend a line of high-profile international events this week. He is scheduled to attend a military chiefs conference in Brussels, hold a meeting with NATO’s chief of staff and host US Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Israel.

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