Analysis / Will Iran nuke deal bury chances of Israeli attack?
By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: iran nuclear program
It's no surprise the agreement emerging between Iran and the international community is being greeted in Jerusalem with a grain of salt. It is not easy to be weaned off 15 years of suspicions. Not only does Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not inspire much confidence, the entire Iranian regime has earned a reputation of deceptiveness. It will take a long time for Israel's intelligence community and decision makers to accept an assessment that in Vienna, the Jewish state was saved.
According to assessments - or perhaps rumors - from Washington this week, an official agreement will be signed this year by U.S. President Barack Obama, or at least Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Ahmadinejad, scaling back Tehran's nuclear plans. The International Atomic Energy Agency's announcement Wednesday that the parties had drafted an agreement sparked a wave of enthusiastic reactions. The Iranians' final response to the draft is expected Friday. Judging by the past, the Iranians might try to dilute the red lines into pink: A few more minor requests here and there, right before signing, in order to squeeze a slightly more convenient agreement for Tehran.
Precisely because an agreement seems to be at hand, Israel is having trouble joining the "positive thinking." From the very beginning of the dialogue with Iran, Jerusalem declared it was optimistic. It expressed full confidence that Obama would make Iran accept a reasonable agreement, and if that fell through, that he would initiate harsh sanctions to force Tehran to surrender.
However, Jerusalem remained deliberately cautious and vague in its initial reactions Wednesday. It is still concerned. The agreement still leaves Iran with a loophole to continue deceiving the world; it could still make measured progress, albeit much more slowly, toward nuclear capability. On the other hand, the agreement would tie Israel's hands and prevent it, at least in the near future, from winning international legitimacy for a strike on Iran's nuclear sites.
The second round of dialogue with Iran was held this week. In the first round, in Geneva on October 1, the negotiators drew up an outline - Iran would send 75 percent of its enriched uranium to Russia, and from there it would be taken to France. After being treated, it would be returned to Iran as fuel rods, which could be used for medical research as well - but not nuclear weaponry. This would keep Iran from enriching uranium to the level necessary for producing a bomb.
There is a rush to conclude an agreement. Most Western intelligence services believe that by the end of the year, Iran will have enough enriched uranium to produce one or two bombs. At that point, it will be only a few months away from its first nuclear facility (as opposed to a nuclear warhead that can be fitted to a missile, a process that requires more time). American researcher David Albright, a leading expert on nuclear proliferation, says the compromise would buy the West only limited time, as Iran would need a year to reproduce the 1.2 tons of uranium it is being forced to hand over.
As former National Security Council head Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland predicted in September, the compromise the United States will probably accept is much less convenient for Israel. The Obama administration, which is facing so many burning issues, will be happy to push the matter off the top of its list and focus on dilemmas such as the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan.
The yet-to-be-signed agreement still has major unknowns. One of the mysteries is the relationship between Ahmadinejad and his patron, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iranian opposition sources make two points: One is that the West does not realize the full force of the Green Revolution sparked by June's presidential elections, noting that a year and a half of intensive activity was needed to topple the Shah, in 1979. The second argument is that the president has taken a more ideologically belligerent line than his superior and that a major element of this policy involves obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Obama will surely have to ask himself whether it is desirable to have an agreement that lifts all sanctions on Iran, provides for complete normalization with the West and enhances Ahmadinejad's domestic standing - while leaving loopholes Iran could use to gradually develop nuclear capability, even if it would have to do so at a slower pace. This is what Israel will try to explain to the United States, but it is hard to say whether the Americans will accept the arguments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's temporary success in "not being a sucker," as he put it, postponing the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and stalling a freeze on settlement construction, probably did not help generate much sympathy for him in Washington.
Will the agreement bury the chances of an Israeli attack? Theoretically, Netanyahu is bound by his dramatic statements of recent years about not allowing Iran to achieve nuclear capability, especially since he knows the price of a mistake if it turns out the Iranians have managed to fool Obama and produce a bomb. On the other hand, an Israeli strike after an agreement has been reached will not gain even an iota of international support. One must listen to what the American experts say: Israel needs some sort of American consent in order to launch an attack. This would be for various operational reasons related to the bombing itself, as well as the need for backup should Iran retaliate by launching a war. Micronesia's automatic support in the UN General Assembly will probably not help here.
One could also have hoped for a third development: that the Iranian regime would collapse under a popular uprising. However, the chances of such a development might lessen if, as it seems, the Vienna agreement is perceived as constituting an achievement for Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, especially since it would be accompanied by the dropping of sanctions.
That is why Israel and other Western intelligence services will continue to monitor Iranian activities with suspicion, assuming that more lies and deceptions will be uncovered in time. The immediate threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb is being pushed back by at least a year, and 2010 looks somewhat less frightening than it did a few weeks ago. This might lead to a change in the defense establishment's short-term priorities. The focus might shift from the Israel Defense Forces, which would be responsible for an air strike, to the Mossad, which is responsible for diplomatic efforts to thwart Iran's ambitions.
The Iranian affair is far from over. The intelligence community, the media commentators, perhaps even the pilots, can rest assured: Iran will probably continue to provide enough work for all.