Why Israel Hasn’t Struck Iran—Yet

According to Israel’s top defense chief.

For those, like me, who scour media reports hoping to discern what’s really going on regarding Iran, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s interview this week to Britain’s The Telegraph is like striking gold.

Last summer, speculation about a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program was at fever pitch, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared genuinely at the end of his tether in public appearances and statements. A stream of top U.S. political and defense officials came to Israel in what seemed a last pitch to talk Jerusalem out of it.

As we now know, nothing happened. Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly at the end of September, gave a totally new timeline, saying Iran’s nuclear development wouldn’t reach the “red line” until the spring or summer of 2013.

Seemingly that bore out those who claimed Netanyahu and Barak’s warnings all along had just been bluff. Now, Barak discloses that an attack was averted

when Iran quietly chose to use over a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes, delaying the moment when it could have built a nuclear bomb…. Asked whether the critical moment would otherwise have arrived “about now,” Mr Barak replied simply: “Probably yes.”

Iran needs about 250 kg of medium-enriched uranium to make a bomb. By August this year, Iran was closing in with a total of 189 kg. It was at that point that

the country’s experts took 38 per cent of this stockpile and converted it into fuel rods for a civilian research reactor, thus putting off the moment when they would be able to make uranium of sufficient purity for a nuclear bomb.

This picture is generally consistent with a report three weeks ago by Haaretz defense analyst Amos Harel, who attributed his information to “senior defense officials”—possibly Barak himself.

Why, then, did Iran back off? Barak told The Telegraph:

“There could be at least three explanations. One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer. It could…be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] ‘oh we comply with our commitments.’”

Mr Barak added: “Maybe it’s a combination of all these three elements. I cannot tell you for sure.”

Note that, out of the three possibilities, Barak puts Iran’s fear of an attack first.

Presumably, Iran can read developments well enough to have known there was no real chance of an American attack at that point. But if—as seems likely—Iran feared an Israeli strike, it would undercut those American (like Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey) and Israeli (like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan) figures who have been loudly claiming Israel could at most slightly delay Iran’s nuclear program and poses no real military threat to it.

So where do things stand now?

Barak says—concurring with Netanyahu’s timeline—that Iran’s decision “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to 10 months.” As for the sanctions that other Western governments believe in so fervently:

“I am extremely sceptical about the chances that [they] will lead the ayatollahs to sit together at any point in the foreseeable future and decide to give up their intention to go in the footsteps of Pakistan and North Korea and turn into a military nuclear power.”

The sanctions issue is one on which the Israeli leadership has consistently disagreed with all other Western governments. It came up again on Thursday as Netanyahu met in Paris with French president François Hollande, who—like all the rest—opposes an Israeli strike.

Instead, Hollande said: “We must make sure that through pressure, sanctions and later through negotiations, Iran renounces its intention to have access to nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu, for his part, said:

“The sanctions are taking a bite out of Iran’s economy... unfortunately they have not stopped the Iranian program…. Given the history of the Jewish people, I would not sit by and write off a threat by those who say they are going to annihilate us.”

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