Why, in his speech to the UN General Assembly late last month, did Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu push back the crunch time for Iran’s nuclear program to next spring or summer? The extended deadline came as a surprise considering that Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak had been saying for almost a year that time was running out fast, and implying that 2012 was the year of decision.
Since Netanyahu’s speech it has been variously claimed that he pushed back the deadline because of successful sabotage of Iran’s Fordo enrichment plant; because of too much opposition to a strike in the Israeli cabinet and top brass; or because Netanyahu expected Barack Obama to win on November 6 and saw improving relations with him as Israel’s cardinal strategic interest at the moment.
On Tuesday Amos Harel, defense analyst of Haaretz, offered still another take on the matter. Iran, he said, has been diverting enough of its enriched uranium for scientific purposes—specifically, making fuel rods for producing medical isotopes—that it won’t have enough bomb-grade uranium for another eight months.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s report in August had already said Iran was diverting enriched uranium for that other purpose. Now, says Harel, “defense sources” have further information to confirm that.
If so, why would Iran be slowing down its bomb program? Harel says it’s “an attempt to reduce international pressure”—thereby allowing Netanyahu and Israel to breathe a tad easier for now.
Typically, though, another report appearing on the same day puts Iran much closer to the finish line—though with a catch. Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security now says Iran could have enough material for a bomb in two to four months—definitely sooner than Netanyahu’s spring deadline.
And if the centrifuges at Fordo—now idle—start operating again, Iran could even, says the ISIS, have enough enriched uranium in three or four weeks.
On the other hand, the ISIS believes that, in any case, it would take Iran much longer to come up with a warhead: Iran would need “many additional months to manufacture a nuclear device suitable for underground testing and even longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile.”
In still another piece appearing on Tuesday, nuclear-weapons expert Prof. Graham Allison of Harvard takes a similar line. While Netanyahu’s timeline of next spring is “essentially correct,” Allison claims Iran would then have to launch a crash program to build the other components of a weapon. That, in turn, would entail ejecting the IAEA inspectors and giving the U.S. and Israel plenty of time—a few months—to act.
A scenario that, in Allison’s view, would make no sense for Iran; instead it would “wait until it has amassed enough material for a half-dozen bombs—allowing it to test one and credibly claim to have a nuclear deterrent against attack.” For that, says Allison, Iran would need at least two years.
In claiming, then, in his UN speech that the West’s red line should be enough Iranian enriched uranium for a single bomb, was Netanyahu being unduly alarmist?
The answer may lie in an interview that appeared in _Foreign Policy_’s The Cable on Friday with Netanyahu envoy Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
Shoval reaffirmed to interviewer Josh Rogin: “Israel doesn’t set dates, but if by a certain point the sanctions have not achieved the desired results, then other measures will have to be very practically considered…. We talk in terms of 6 to 8 months.”
He added: “Israel doesn’t pretend that it can totally eliminate Iran’s nuclear program…. But the general view in Israel is that we could stop the Iranian effort for 3 to 5 years. Well, in the Middle East 3 to 5 years is not such a short time, as we have seen. And the Americans could get into the game if they want to, within that delay.”
Most revealingly, Rogin reports that Shoval said Israel’s red line “is when the Iranians have produced enough fissionable material from which they can produce at least a dirty bomb within a short time….”
Setting off a dirty bomb in a city, of course, would not require the additional components mentioned by the ISIS and by Allison. For large countries, that threat may seem tolerable. For Israel—where a single dirty bomb could cause widespread panic in Tel Aviv and make much of it uninhabitable for years—it would not be.
Netanyahu’s announcement Tuesday night that Israel, too, is going to elections—which he’s expected to win handily—can put him in a stronger position, with a stronger coalition, to act against Iran later in 2013 if it proves necessary. And, it should be added—since much remains speculative—if it hasn’t been done already.
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