Friday, December 18, 2009

Haaretz: Sharon's disengagement urge, delayed opportunity to strike Iran's nuclear

(Haaretz).It is possible that years ago, the problem of Iran's nuclear project could have been solved by one tough blow and with relatively minimal risk. At that time, the project was dependent on one facility: the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan.

If it had been bombed, Iran would have lost large quantities of raw material for uranium enrichment, and its nuclear program would have been set back years. But nothing happened, and the Iranians went ahead and dispersed their facilities and materials into fortified bunkers that would be far more difficult to hit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to do everything in order to prevent the Iranians from acquiring military nuclear capabilities, but if he fails, he can pin the blame on his predecessors, who flinched from attacking at the propitious moment. Perhaps that is what National Security Adviser Uzi Arad was getting at when he blamed previous governments for leaving Netanyahu "scorched earth" in advance of further confrontation with the Iranian threat.

People who spoke about the Iranian nuclear project with Netanyahu after last February's election, but before he took office, got the impression that he is determined to act against Iran and for this reason returned to power. He described the nuclear project as an existential threat to Israel - as the potential second Holocaust of the Jewish people.

In the face of international apathy regarding the Iranians in recent months, he frequently praises U.S. President Barack Obama for his diplomatic moves to thwart the Iranian threat, and talks about the importance of encouraging opponents of the regime and independent Internet sites in Iran.

In every public reference to the subject, Defense Minister Ehud Barak emphasizes that "all the options remain on the table." For his part, former prime minister Ehud Olmert relied on the advice of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, head of the "forum for the political prevention of the Iranian nuclear project." Olmert and Dagan believed the Iranian bomb could be delayed by a few years by diplomatic or other means, without incurring the tremendous risks entailed in a war. Barak, in contrast, sought even then to cultivate an option within his field of responsibility.

The preparations under way in Israel have a mirror image in Iran, which this week tested a long-range missile and signed a defense pact with Syria. Every few weeks a senior Iranian official threatens a painful and destructive response if Israel dares to attack.

But despite the growing tension around the world, senior experts on security and strategy believe that there is little likelihood of an Israeli attack. In not-for-attribution conversations, they say Israel will not act without a green light from the White House. An Israeli attack on Iran would imperil key U.S. strategic interests - its intended military presence in Iraq until late in 2011, the supply of oil, the stability of the Persian Gulf regimes - and therefore will require authorization from Obama. It is very doubtful that Netanyahu will be able or will want to act alone, leaving Israel exposed to Iran's harsh response without a protective American military and political umbrella.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, a former head of the National Security Council, said this week that in his view, Israel will have to decide in the year ahead whether to attack or not. "The question of a decision on attacking Iran's nuclear capability is liable to be very much not theoretical but very practical in 2010," Eiland said at the same conference at which Yadlin spoke. According to Eiland, an Israeli attack will be feasible only in the event that a crisis occurs in nuclear-related talks between Iran and the great powers, followed by a cessation of negotiations altogether and the failure by the United States to cobble together an international coalition against the Iranians.

Even if Obama agrees to an Israeli attack, the real dilemma that will confront Netanyahu, his colleagues in the forum of seven and the heads of the army and intelligence, will lie in assessing the benefits vs. the damage. Israel will survive an Iranian missile attack and a rain of rockets from Lebanon. But an attack also carries strategic costs, which will only be aggravated if the operation against Iran does not succeed: Israel will be denounced as a militant and aggressive state, the price of oil will soar, America and its allies in the gulf are liable to be adversely affected - and worst of all, Iran will be perceived as the victim of Israeli aggression and will obtain international legitimization to renew the devastated nuclear project.