Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, this week called the Iranian nuclear issue “a challenge not just for Israel but for the entire world”. He added that “Israel is the strongest country in the region and we have proven in the past that we are not deterred from acting when our vital interests are at stake”.
Barak’s statement reflected the extent of gravity and urgency felt in Israel regarding the ongoing march of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Such remarks do not necessarily portend imminent confrontation. But they point to an underlying dynamic seemingly leading to conflict.
Israel has observed the unfolding of events in Iran over the recent half-decade with increasing trepidation. Israeli concerns are not purely focused on issues of military hardware. The rise within the Iranian clerical-led elite of an ultra-radical faction, centred on the revolutionary guards and represented at the highest level by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has been noted. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s newly-appointed chief nuclear negotiator, is the latest representative of this group to come to international prominence.
The desire of this faction is to revive what it sees as the authentic spirit of the revolutionary period, in the face of the waste, decay and corruption that is the reality of contemporary Iran. The drive to project Iranian power across the region is a vital aspect of this ambition. A nuclear capability would make this possible. Hatred of Israel is a genuinely felt sentiment in such circles. It is also a useful tool for building regional influence.
Israel sees the Iranian nuclear program within this framework. Israeli planners consider that the Iranians have been playing a clever game of buying time, and using the hopes of the international community to avoid conflict at all costs in order to make progress in their nuclear programme.
A recent IAEA report noted evidence that Iran was withholding information on high explosives testing relating to its nuclear programme. The report detailed military activities including attempts to develop a re-entry vehicle system designed to house a new payload for the Iranian Shahab-3 missile system.
The report stated that:
The agency is of the view that Iran may have additional information, in particular on high explosives testing and missile-related activities, which could shed more light on the nature of these alleged studies and which Iran should share with the agency …
Alongside the suspicions of covert Iranian projects to develop the military aspects of its nuclear programme, the IAEA report also noted that Tehran now has 3,500 uranium centrifuges at its facility in Natanz.
The latest revelations indicate that Iran’s revolutionary guards have set up a network of front companies to develop components for the advanced P2 gas centrifuge, which can enrich uranium to weapons grade two to three times faster than conventional P1 centrifuges – which Iran claims are the only kind used at the Natanz conversion facility.
So from Israel’s point of view, what is taking place is that a regime committed to its destruction appears to be in the ongoing process of developing what looks very much like a nuclear weapons programme. The hesitant diplomacy of the international community, meanwhile, appears a poor tool for deterring the Tehran radicals. The incentives packages in return for suspension of enrichment – contemptuously brushed aside by the Iranians, the half hearted implementation of the three UN security council sanctions resolutions, and the evident desire to avoid confrontation at all costs are unlikely to strike fear into an Iranian revolutionary guards man’s heart.
A former senior Israeli defence official, speaking at a private gathering earlier this week, detailed four means, in reverse order of preference, by which the Iranians could be induced to abandon their nuclear programme. These were: as a result of negotiations, as a result of sanctions, as a result of US military action, and, finally and least preferably, as a result of Israeli military action.
The former official gave a pessimistic overview of the progress made in the last years using the first two items. He noted that in a situation of extreme threat and lack of total clarity, the threatened party would have no choice but to act according to the worst-case scenario. Such statements should be taken seriously. They reflect an absolute determination to prevent the reality of Israelis being forced to live under the nuclear shadow of a state committed to their destruction.
Yet for all this, the underlying logic suggests that we are further from the endgame than might appear from the current sabre-rattling. Informed US sources contend that the Iranian enrichment program is beset by technical difficulties and wrong turnings. This means that despite the bluster, the Iranians are still a considerable distance from having nuclear weapons.
Whatever the accuracy of such statements, they suggest that the US is far from giving a “green light” to Israeli action against the Iranian nuclear programme. Without such approval, an Israeli operation would probably, for geographical reasons, be a physical impossibility. So fears of imminent confrontation may be premature. Bluffing, brinkmanship and attempts at intimidation have all been much in evidence in the last days. But excessive focus on the theatrical element should not be allowed to obscure the underlying reality. As it stands, the current situation in the Middle East puts the two countries on a collision course.