It should not come as a surprise that after experiencing a new stalemate in solving the Iranian nuclear crisis, „intelligence sources” leaked that Israel would not warn the US before attempting to destroy Iran’s unchecked and secret nuclear facilities. The real question is what would be the result of such a pre-emptive attack and if it is a viable threat or just a bluff?
Iran and Israel are on a collision course since the Islamic Republic was set up after overthrowing the Shah’s regime in 1979. This stand-off became even more evident since the eighties when Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza and many other countries in the Middle East region and beyond began ‘pointing guns’ at the Jewish State. Today Israel can handle anything that Iran can throw at it- the only game changing moment would come if Iran equipped its advanced ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. The Iranian nuclear threat was and still is a widely debated issue, but since the 2011 November report of the International Atomic Agency, it is clear that at best it is highly probable (if not evident) that Iran is struggling to join the “exclusive club” of countries which have nuclear weapons. Last week a new IAEA report on Iran has leaked out; in it, the Agency is concerned about elevated levels of uranium enrichment. This criticism mostly targets new attempts to quickly enrich uranium to 20%, given that 3-4% enrichment is substantial for nuclear reactors and that from 20% it is much easier to enrich uranium over 90% that is needed for the A-bomb. IAEA further reported that it is disappointed with Iran, because it is not allowing the Agency’s observers to visit the nuclear sites in question, something that should be automatic and obligatory for every country that has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Israeli decision makers are on the edge, since a nuclear Iran would not just present a mortal danger to Israel, but it would also embolden other countries in the region to build their own nuclear weaponry, thus leading to a regional nuclear arms race and destabilization of the Middle East. In the past Israel covertly stopped the nuclear program of Iraq and Syria, but Iran has been cautious and planted a web of well-defended nuclear sites that are scattered around its vast territory. Israel launched a well-planned series of threats in the sense that if Iran does not come clean on the nuclear weapons issue, it would strike its facilities. This threat was followed by heightened attention from the international community, but it died off in a couple of weeks, after new rounds of talks with Iran had come to a dead end. We are experiencing a new stalemate, when Iran is offering the IAEA the opportunity of visiting some nuclear sites, but with the condition that Iran must be informed about such a visit in advance, which indeed completely misses the point of what a credible inspection about, i.e. finding out what is going on in the Islamic Republic.
The odds are that Israel can halt Iran’s nuclear programme, at least for a while if it pushed that far, but the consequences would be great for both parties and for the whole Middle East region as well. Israel would have to face Iranian proxies, like a Hezbollah attack in the north and maybe also a strike from Gaza. In addition, the dying Assad regime of Syria could use the opportunity to draw away attention from its inner struggles to a war against its archenemy. The paradox of the situation is that the stronger counter-attack Israel would have to face, the more casualties would appear among Iranian civilians. In the worst-case scenario, facing a war on all sides, Israel would not be able to launch an aerial assault with precision bombing. It would have to deploy a large part of its air force on its borders, and resort to much cruder tools of destroying the Iranian military and its nuclear facilities, like ballistic missiles for example. Iran strategically placed these facilities in the vicinity of cities and holy sites so as to maximize the potential collateral damage in case of an attack on the nuclear program’s elements.
These days we see that all major powers try to hold back Israel and insist on a peaceful solution for the crisis. This is also in the interest of the Jewish State and Israeli decision makers are perfectly aware of it. So for the time being I would say that these threats are aimed at moving the negotiations forward, keeping the international community on alert and push its foreign allies towards a more aggressive stance on Iran. In the meantime, Israel is working on every ballistic missile defence system it has and prepares for the worst, but a time will come, when the international community must decide between two options. The better option is to take away all manoeuvring space from the Iranian regime and push it to the corner, so that Iran would let the IAEA inspection work, as it should. The other option is to sit and wait until Jerusalem feels that it has no other option but to launch a pre-emptive strike and let the Israelis do the dirty work. The Israeli logic is clear: the deadline is coming closer and with it the international community suspects that Israel might go alone against Iran even without notifying the US as its closest ally. Since the international community does not know if a solution to the crisis can be found in six months or two years, major powers must find a lasting solution as quickly as they can.