After much saber rattling about possible military action to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, Israeli officials have changed tactics following the release of a report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Now we’re not seeing talk of unilateral action but a call for a broader approach,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“This is all part of an ongoing complex poker game,” he explained. “Before the report’s release, there was more public discussion of a military option because Israel wanted to influence [other nations] to deal with increased sanctions. The threat of military action was the best way to do that. Now that the report is out, Israel has succeeded in making sure the report would be a catalyst for more sanctions; it achieved its goal.”
He said some in Israel believed the Israeli rhetoric — combined with a published report that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak favor an attack, and the test firing last week of a missile said to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could strike Iran — had “gone too far.”
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, pointed out that “various officials deliberately issue inconsistent statements to confuse the Iranians. This is the way to keep the enemy guessing; it is part of the strategic approach.”
For example, before the report was issued, Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was quoted as saying: “A military strike on Iran is growing more likely than the diplomatic option.”
But this week, Peres told CNN that rather than go it alone militarily against Iran, “Israel will first of all see what the world is doing.” He said he would “prefer to see tighter economic sanctions, closer political pressure and what is lacking very much is an attack in the moral sense.”
Netanyahu told his ministers Sunday that the report on Iran’s nuclear weapons development by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, included “only detailed information that could be proven; facts that can be presented in court. In practice, there are many other things we see. Hence the leading states in the world must decide what to do in order to stop Iran. The efforts thus far did not prevent Iran from progressing towards a bomb, and it is closer to acquiring it – sooner than what people think.”
“The international community must stop Iran’s race to nuclear arms in time; this race threatens peace worldwide,” he added.
Ben-Meir noted that there might be another reason for all the talk about a military option – it might compel the Iranians to “take certain logistical measures, which provides Israel with more intelligence. … The business of intelligence gathering is to force the enemy to do things he world normally not do and say in order to engender a reaction.”
All of the talk in the Israeli press and from politicians about possible Israeli military action was largely ignored by the Iranian media, according to Eldad Pardo, an expert in Iranian foreign relations at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
“But after the IAEA report came out, they were surprised by its severity” and reacted harshly, he said.
“They said they would destroy Israel and that it would take only four missiles,” Pardo said. “And no longer did they speak of the Zionist regime occupying Palestinian land or claim that they were helping the downtrodden Palestinians. Now they were saying they were in Lebanon and Gaza because they had missiles there that were aimed at Israel for the purpose of deterrence. This was a major change that showed that Iran is projecting power in the area.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech last week that war with Iran would spread to the region.
“Iran is strong, united and has a one-of-a-kind leader, and it will retaliate harshly,” he said.
Pardo noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week compared Israel to a transplanted kidney that was being rejected by its body.
“The idea of destroying Israel was very much in play,” Pardo said, adding that it is unclear whether Iran is truly ready to go to war with the aim of taking over the Middle East.
“I think they truly want to get the bomb and then scare everyone into believing there would be a disaster it they were attacked,” he observed.
But Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he does not believe Iranian leaders have made the “political decision” to actually manufacture nuclear weapons.
“From the moment they make the decision to manufacture the weapons, it would take around a year [to make a bomb],” he said.
Asked about the IAEA report, Asculai, an expert in Iranian nuclear weapons development, said he did not know many of the details it contained but “in principle anyone who had read previous reports knew what was going on. The details in this report were to convince [readers] that this is a very serious program the Iranians are carrying on.”
The report may put pressure on Russia and China to join with Western nations in tightening sanctions against Iran, according to Ben-Meir. Although they have not yet agreed, President Barack Obama told reporters this week that countries understand the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran and agree Iran cannot get the bomb.
Among the sanctions that could be imposed is one that would restrict the amount of refined gasoline Iran could import. Presently, Ben-Meir said, Iran has few refineries and must import 30 to 35 percent of the fuel needed for domestic use.
Murray Koppelman, former president of American ORT, returned Nov. 1 from a 10-day visit to Iran and said he found long lines now at gas stations.
“There were as many as 10 cars waiting at stations,” he said, adding that Iran, which once charged about $1 for each gallon of gasoline, now charges $4 a gallon and provides a partial subsidy to help cover the increase.
The impact of sanctions in Iran is evidenced by the fact that all transactions are carried out in cash, Koppelman said.
“No credit cards or checks were accepted,” he said.
Ben-Meir said Iran now has enough low-grade uranium to make three or four nuclear bombs if it wanted to enrich it to weapons-grade quality. He said the Israelis he has spoken with tell him it will take the Iranians another 12 to 14 months to master the technology needed to develop a bomb.
“They have been researching nuclear bomb triggers and building large containers to carry out tests for triggers,” he said, adding that a former Russian nuclear expert has been helping the Iranians develop high precision detonators.
An explosion last week at an Iranian military arms depot that killed 17 and wounded 15 may have been sabotage by Israeli agents working with Iranian dissidents despite Iranian claims it was just a work accident, according to various published reports.
Time magazine quoted a Western intelligence official as saying more sabotage is planned.
Ben-Meir said he is convinced that if Israel concludes it is facing “an imminent existential threat and there is no plan by the U.S. to attack, Israel will take action. It is not a question of Netanyahu or Barak being hotheaded. If they believe Iran has achieved the technological ability and capacity to produce a nuclear bomb, Israel will act.”
He noted that Israel has bunker-busting bombs “that penetrate more than 100 feet, and missiles that are similar to cruise missiles that are precise and equipped to handle nuclear missiles.”
Shortly before the uprising in Egypt earlier this year, Ben-Meir observed, Israeli submarines believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons were allowed through the Suez Canal and into the Arabian Sea “in a clear message to Iran not to fool around. The Saudis were very pleased with the demonstration.”
Should a military strike against Iran be necessary, Ben-Meir said he believes Iran’s Arab neighbors would cooperate by allowing Israeli planes to fly over their countries; some might even join in the attack.
“The damage Israel could inflict would not be permanent but could delay the Iranian program for a number of years and change the geo-strategic equation,” he said. “The Arab world feels that Israel is the ultimate barrier when comes to Iran, and when it comes to their very existence I don’t think they would hesitate to cooperate.”
Koppelman said that during his visit to Iran, his guide took him to Estefan, a city of about 3.5 million people. He said he walked into a general store there and found a bald man wearing a black yarmulke selling mezuzot, boxes with the Star of David and other handmade Judaica.
“I was astounded because I had been told [before the trip] to keep away from Jews,” he said.
After “buying out the store,” Koppelman said he learned from the guide where the synagogues were. When he entered one, he and a traveling companion were asked to stay because they were needed for the minyan. But the next morning, he said, about 100 men and women filled the local synagogue; the women prayed upstairs.
“I was told there is no anti-Semitism in Iran,” Koppelman said. “There are about 16,500 Jews there and they live all over the country.”
Ben-Meir said the Jewish community is not harassed because the Iranian leadership “makes a clear distinction between Jews and Israelis — they go out of their way to demonstrate that they have nothing against Jews.”