One of Israel’s leading strategic analysts says the country’s leadership believes air strikes can set back the Iranian nuclear programme by three to five years
Ronen Bergman, an investigative journalist and analyst on the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth has written a long piece for the New York Times magazine, asking the question on many people’s minds: WillIsrael attack Iran?
Bergman’s answer, which comes in the last paragraph, is yes:
After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012. Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that. Instead there is that peculiar Israeli mixture of fear — rooted in the sense that Israel is dependent on the tacit support of other nations to survive — and tenacity, the fierce conviction, right or wrong, that only the Israelis can ultimately defend themselves.
Bergman is one of a small circle of heavyweights in the Israeli media who spend a significant amount of time with the politicians, spies and generals who are going to make the ultimate decision. So his assessment carries more weigh that your average Israel-Iran analyst. Here is one of the key paragraphs:
The Israeli Air Force is where most of the preparations are taking place. It maintains planes with the long-range capacity required to deliver ordnance to targets in Iran, as well as unmanned aircraft capable of carrying bombs to those targets and remaining airborne for up to 48 hours. Israel believes that these platforms have the capacity to cause enough damage to set the Iranian nuclear project back by three to five years.
Three to five years seems a very confident estimate. The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, reckoned in December that such strikes could set the Iranians back one or two years “at best”. Bergman also talks to a Mossad veteran, Rafi Eitan, whose own estimate was “not even three months”.
Bergman spent a lot of time in recent months with the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, and is particularly revealing on his strategic thinking. He does not necessarily share Binyamin Netanyahu’s apocalyptic view of Iran’s intentions, but believes a nuclear Iran will be more aggressive and harder to counter.
“From our point of view,” Barak said, “a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”
At that point Barak leaned forward and said with the utmost solemnity: “And if a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some gulf state, who will liberate it? The bottom line is that we must deal with the problem now.”
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East specialist, takes the opposite view, arguing in Lebanon’s Daily Startoday that even with the bomb, Iran would not be an existential threat to Israel. Riedel’s view probably reflects the majority outlook at the CIA and the White House. Bergman examines this divergence in American and Israeli assessments, and wonders how much notice Israel would give Washington of an attack. Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon advisor now at the Council on Foreign Relations, reckons it will be “an hour or two, just enough to maintain good relations between the countries but not quite enough to allow Washingtonto prevent the attack”.
Jeffrey Goldberg has put out a piece in The Atlantic in response to Bergman, suggesting that Bergman’s analysis might be premature, and pointing out that the same people that Bergman talked to had previously convinced Goldberg that the attack would come last summer. Clearly, Israeli has a motive in conveying the impression that an attack might be imminent, to stir up urgency in the West to confront Iran. Ultimately, as Bergman admits, only Netanyahu and Barak really know how much is bluff and how much real intention.
That is a lot more interesting stuff in Bergman’s piece. He is bringing out a book this month, called The Secret War with Iran, (clarification: an updated English version of his 2007 book of the same title) which sounds like it will be a gripping read, and of course the NYT article helps drum up interest and sales. In it, Bergman gives a colourful description of a meeting in January 2011 with the outgoing Mossad boss, Meir Dagan, who has argued vehemently against an attack on Iran.
We were told to congregate in the parking lot of a movie-theater complex north of Tel Aviv, where we were warned by Mossad security personnel, “Do not bring computers, recording devices, cellphones. You will be carefully searched, and we want to avoid unpleasantness. Leave everything in your cars and enter our vehicles carrying only paper and pens.” We were then loaded into cars with opaque windows and escorted by black Jeeps to a site that we knew was not marked on any map. The cars went through a series of security checks, requiring our escorts to explain who we were and show paperwork at each roadblock.
This was the first time in the history of the Mossad that a group of journalists was invited to meet the director of the organization at one of the country’s most secret sites.
Presumably there will be much more of this in the book. However, when it comes to covert operations, as with the nuclear programme, there are things that Israeli journalists know but cannot say, and must attribute to non-Israeli sources. For example, Bergman does not say outright that Israel is behind the assassinations of Israeli nuclear scientists but reports lots of nods and winks in that direction. Here is an example of the journalistic animut (opacity):
Operating in Iran … is impossible for the Mossad’s sabotage-and-assassination unit, known as Caesarea, so the assassins must come from elsewhere. Iranian intelligence believes that over the last several years, the Mossad has financed and armed two Iranian opposition groups, the Muhjahedin Khalq (MEK) and the Jundallah, and has set up a forward base in Kurdistan to mobilize the Kurdish minority in Iran, as well as other minorities, training some of them at a secret base near Tel Aviv.
Is Bergman really channeling Iranian intelligence here, or laundering something he knows by attributing it to Iranian intelligence? Hard to know for sure, but it certainly reads like the latter. So his NYT piece and probably his book will no doubt tell us a lot about Israel’s intentions but not as much as Bergman undoubtedly knows.