September 4, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: On Striking Iran: Key Issues for Israel and the United States


As of early September 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other key Israeli leaders are again openly threatening to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. These leaders are returning to open discussion of the issue after five months of diplomacy between Iran and the "P5+1" countries (United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany). Three rounds of nuclear talks in April, May and June, followed by working-level technical talks, have failed to produce an agreement under which Iran would limit its enrichment of uranium. Israeli leaders — always skeptical of the prospects for such talks — assert that the negotiations not only have failed to produce an agreement, but have also enabled Iran to use the time to advance its nuclear program even further. Israel is unlikely to alter its stance even if another round of high level talks is announced, viewing those as equally unlikely to produce a breakthrough.  

The Israeli assertions were, to some extent, corroborated by an August 30th report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over the past three months, according to this report, Iran has doubled the number of enrichment centrifuges installed at its hardened site near Qom. The report added that Iran has significantly expanded its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, considered pure enough to be easily enriched further to weapons-grade (90%). Iran also has continued to refuse to finalize an agreement with the IAEA to resolve questions about its alleged past experimentation on a nuclear explosive device.


The Core Issues for Israel

The past five months of diplomacy have not altered the core issues for Israel. Those issues include, first and foremost, that a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, particularly in light of repeated high level Iranian statements calling for Israel's destruction. Second, that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders do not trust that the U.S. will, in the end, use military force if necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. As a corollary of this second point, Israeli leaders want to retain the ability to act unilaterally against Iran, and do not want to allow Iran's program to advance beyond the point where only U.S. military action — and not an Israeli strike alone —  could significantly stall the Iranian program. Leaders in Jerusalem refer to this as Iran entering a "zone of immunity" from Israeli action.

A key question, which even many Israeli figures consider unsettled, is that of Israel's capability to carry out an effective strike should the leadership decide on that course of action. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledge that Israel does not have the capacity to destroy Iran's nuclear program. They do express confidence, however, that Israel can inflict damage sufficient to slow progress toward a nuclear capability and thereby allow time not only for international sanctions to force Iran into a compromise, but perhaps also for another popular uprising that brings a new regime to power in Tehran.

And, the Israeli leadership has downplayed the likely consequences of a strike, asserting that Israel can "handle" the expected Iranian retaliation. That retaliation is likely to take the form of Iranian missile strikes on Israel, terrorist actions against Israeli and Jewish interests worldwide, and directing its main proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, to launch rocket attacks against Israel.


The Core Issues for the United States

Despite Israeli skepticism of the U.S. position, leaders of both parties in Washington are committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. Where Israeli leaders see Iran as committed to producing a nuclear weapon, the U.S. Intelligence Community has openly stated that Iran has not yet firmly decided to do so.  

Unlike Israel, President Obama and other U.S. leaders believe there is ample time for diplomacy to continue, and for crippling economic sanctions to force Iran's leaders into an acceptable bargain. In the U.S. view, sanctions have only begun to significantly reduce Iran's oil export income. Further, Iran's nuclear program is assessed as progressing slowly enough — and is sufficiently well inspected by the IAEA — that there will be ample warning of any Iranian drive toward producing an actual nuclear weapon. These factors, coupled with the U.S. capability to destroy virtually any Iranian installation, produce a U.S. timeline for any decision on military action that is substantially longer than the one governing deliberations in Jerusalem.    


Key Differences Between Allies

Where the United States and Israel appear to differ most is on the consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike. The U.S. view — expressed directly in late August by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey — is that Israel lacks the capacity to significantly undermine Iran's nuclear program. Gen. Dempsey asserted that any Israeli strike would bring about all the consequences of an Iranian retaliatory response but  without the benefit of materially damaging Iran's nuclear capacity. The consensus U.S. view is that a unilateral Israeli strike could only set back Iran's program by about one year.  

Many in Israel agree with this view. Within the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli Air Force (IAF), there are many who assert that a strike on Iran bears no resemblance at all to the 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor, or the 2007 strike on Syria's nuclear reactor at Al Kibar. Iran is much further away than is Iraq or Syria and, more importantly, Iran has many significant nuclear sites, some of which are buried and hardened. The enrichment site near Qom, for example, is tunneled into a mountain and there are some doubts as to whether even the U.S. could completely destroy that site, let alone Israel.

The U.S. military is also concerned that an Israeli strike would produce retaliation against U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf, not just against Israeli interests. U.S. defense leaders, therefore, appear to insist on a forewarning from Israel if it decides to take unilateral action. The U.S. has about 50,000 military personnel deployed in the Gulf region but not all of them are in position, at all times, to man missile defense batteries that would be needed to thwart Iranian retaliation.      


Israel's Central Strategy

The U.S. position — that it does not want a unilateral Israeli strike at this time — has been made clear to the Israeli leadership in repeated statements from President Obama, Defense Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, Gen. Dempsey and others. Although Jerusalem insists on the nation's right to protect itself at all costs, Israeli leaders remain sensitive to the U.S. view. They do not want to risk a rift with the U.S., which could occur particularly if Israel were to act before the November 2012 presidential election.

It appears certain that Israel's fundamental goal is to shift American policy to the point where the U.S. provides Israel with guarantees it will not allow Iran to become a nuclear state. Israel has already significantly benefited from U.S. sanctions against Iran, enacted since December 2011, that have cut Iran's oil exports virtually in half. The Israeli strategy has also succeeded in compelling President Obama to declare in March 2012 that the United States will not be satisfied with "containing" a nuclear armed Iran, but will act to prevent that outcome.

Central to any assessment of probable outcomes — risk mitigation by Washington, political compromise by Tehran, or military action by Jerusalem — is the examination of competing timelines involving American elections, Iranian technical progress, and Israeli patience, with the only controlled variable being the U.S. polls.

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