(David Makovsky-Washington institute).In a revealing interview with CNN last weekend, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak hinted that Israel and the world may reach the limit of their capacity to effectively strike Iran's nuclear facilities within as little as six months. His comments suggest that unless additional international sanctions deter Tehran's nuclear efforts, Israel is increasingly likely to opt for a military option while it still can.
Barak's statements mark the first time an Israeli official has made clear that the ability to target the program may be limited by technical capacity, firmly indicating that the window for a military option may be closing.
If Barak is to be believed, little time remains for sanctions to have the necessary effect. Indeed, the potency and timing of new sanctions are inversely related to the probability of an Israeli military strike. Israel will presumably try to determine whether the latest sanctions are likely to succeed before it loses its ability to attack.
Although there is wide agreement in Israeli decision-making circles that sanctions are preferable to a military strike, and that they are better led by the United States in its capacity as a superpower, many Israelis also fear that their allies will eventually abandon them on this issue. And their fears are reinforced when U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta comment on the inadvisability of a strike. These comments may therefore have the opposite effect than intended, convincing Israel that no one will come to its aid and that it has no other choice but to attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak likely sparked the latest policy debate in Israel to see whether the assassination plot and the expectedly dramatic IAEA report would provide the political leverage needed to tighten sanctions. Both men believe a strike may be necessary -- although they agree with the rest of the cabinet that sanctions are preferable, they are more skeptical that the international community will muster the political will to pass sufficiently robust sanctions before an attack becomes technically impossible.
This belief is not unfounded. Despite the strong evidence in the latest report, the IAEA deferred action for now, perhaps burying its prospects to do so in the foreseeable future. And European officials have stated that the quantum leap taken in the new report does not augur other such leaps in the near term -- as in the past, the IAEA report slated for next spring is likely to be more incremental, in part because Iran's concealment of the bulk of its nuclear program greatly impedes the agency's efforts to regularly document its progress. Furthermore, the Qods Force will probably not be clumsy enough to allow future assassination efforts to be exposed, so the unique pressure generated by that development may have been a one-time affair.
Israelis may therefore interpret the latest signs of hesitation -- namely, the U.S. and IAEA failure to fully sanction the Central Bank of Iran -- to mean that the clock has virtually run out. If so, this would break the deadlock among the Israeli political and military elite over whether sanctions obviate the need for military action.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.