Perspective 68. Israel and Iran's Nuclear Threat: A Missed Opportunity?
Recent revelations confirm that in 2012 Israel came very close to attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. Was it a mistake to forego this chance to remove the Iranian threat for once and for all?
No. The retaliation on Israel, given the missile arsenal of Iran and its allies (like Hizballah), would have been enormous. And an Israeli attack, even if immediately successful, would not have ended the threat for once and for all. Experts estimated that it would at best delay the Iranian program by a year and a half, The Iranians would have thrown off all pretense of not pursuing nuclear weapons and would have launched a full-scale program to build a bomb.
In perspective, full credit should be given to those in the Israeli intelligence community who "threw themselves over the barbed wire fence" to prevent a calamitous move that would have also endangered close U.S. ties that are crucial to Israeli security. All of this is laid out in a ground-breaking article by Amos Harel that appeared recently in Ha'aretz. Harel relies on the stunning testimony of Zohar Palti, at the time head of the Intelligence Directorate in the Mossad (Israel's equivalent of the CIA).
Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both favored an attack, and were held back only by the "almost wall-to-wall" opposition of the defense establishment. Palti began every high-level briefing with the statement that the Iranians were not building a bomb, which "drove Bibi and Ehud crazy."
But it happened to be true. Both Israeli and U.S. intelligence had solid evidence that the Iranians had abandoned work on weapons design about a decade earlier, when their secret program had been uncovered and heavy pressure brought to bear.
What remained was their program for uranium enrichment, supposedly for civilian use but potentially a source of material for a bomb. This was being addressed by negotiations that led to an interim agreement the following year (2013) and to the nuclear deal of 2015, restricting Iran to a very limited quantity of 3.67% enriched uranium (a weapon requires about 90% enrichment).
In any event, Bibi and Ehud chose not to over-ride the experts, and eventually Barak changed his mind on the subject. All was well until President Trump chose to abandon the 2015 deal, giving the Iranians an excuse to resume uranium enrichment (up to 60% -- so far).
But that's a topic for another day.