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What’s new in the latest speculation over Israel attacking Iran

What’s new in the latest speculation over Israel attacking Iran

The New York Times Magazine is out today with a 7,585-word piece by Ronen Bergman on whether Israel will attack Iran. After speaking with top Israeli civilian, military, and intelligence leaders, the Israeli journalist arrives at a frightening conclusion: "Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012."

Of course, we’ve heard this claim before. In August 2009, Micah Zenko warned at the Los Angeles Times that if Iran failed to respond to international proposals on its nuclear program by September, the "world should be prepared for an Israeli attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities." In September 2010, the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg noted that "one day next spring," Israeli officials might very well inform their U.S. counterparts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had dispatched fighter jets to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has repeatedly issued timelines regarding an Israeli strike on Iran. Anshel Pfeffer predicts an attack this spring.

But Bergman’s report does serve up some new, newsworthy information that’s worth highlighting:

Three Questions: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak explains that there are three questions Israel must answer in the affirmative before it will order a strike (Bergman adds that some Israeli leaders are now answering yes to all three):

1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?

2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?

3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?

Point of no return: Barak says that sometime in the coming year, it will become impossible for Israel to halt Iran’s nuclear program even if it wants to do so. He believes Iran is close to entering an "immunity zone" — a point, in Bergman’s words, "when Iran’s accumulated know-how, raw materials, experience, and equipment (as well as the distribution of materials among its underground facilities) — will be such that an attack could not derail the nuclear project." Israel estimates that Iran is only nine months away from this point, Bergman adds, while the United States has a timeframe of 15 months.

Iran’s nuclear readiness: "It is believed that Iran’s nuclear scientists estimate that it will take them nine months, from the moment they are given the order, to assemble their first explosive device and another six months to be able to reduce it to the dimensions of a payload for their Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of reaching Israel," Bergman writes.

Israeli capabilities: While Israel believes that its manned and unmanned aircraft "have the capacity to cause enough damage to set the Iranian nuclear project back by three to five years," Bergman explains, others — like Mossad operative Rafi Eitan — don’t believe that Israel has the capabilities to attack Iran effectively and definitively. 

Natanz leak: Bergman reports what until now had generally been the subject of speculation: When Israel discovered the existence of an Iranian uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz in 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided not to authorize an attack. Instead, Bergman explains, "information about the site was leaked to a dissident Iranian group, the National Resistance Council." The news eventually made its way to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which sent a team of inspectors to the site.

Two viruses: We’ve all heard about Stuxnet, but Bergman writes that "two lethal computer viruses" infected "the computer system of the nuclear project and cause widespread damage, knocking out a large number of centrifuges."

American suspicion: Bergman quotes a 2009 memo in which an anonymous American official notes, "It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe [that Iran would have a complete nuclear arsenal by 2012] or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States." But Bergman adds that "Western intelligence agencies, in particular the CIA, have moved closer to Israel’s assessments of the Iranian nuclear project."

Israeli suspicion: The Israelis, for their part, are worried that the United States has abandoned its aggressive posture toward Iran. "The Israelis find evidence of this in the shift in language used by the administration, from ‘threshold prevention’ — meaning American resolve to stop Iran from having a nuclear-energy program that could allow for the ability to create weapons — to ‘weapons prevention,’ which means the conditions can exist, but there is an American commitment to stop Iran from assembling an actual bomb," Bergman writes.

Egypt analogue: Bergman quotes a fascinating conversation between former Mossad chief Meir Amit and former CIA chief in Tel Aviv John Hadden in 1967, in the lead-up to the Six-Day War. Amit argues that Israel should preemptively attack Egypt and Hadden responds, "Help us by giving us a good reason to come in on your side. Get them to fire at something, a ship, for example." According to Bergman, the exchange demonstrates that "since 1967, the unspoken understanding that America should agree, at least tacitly, to Israeli military actions has been at the center of relations between the two countries."

Latin America connection: Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, suggests that Iran is establishing bases in Latin America and developing relationships with drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexican border to smuggle ordnance into the United States for use in attacks. "It is, of course, important for Ya’alon to argue that this is not just an Israeli-Iranian dispute, but a threat to America’s well-being," Bergman points out.