Most Western intelligence services share the assessment that over the course of 2010, Iran will accumulate sufficient fissionable material to produce two or three nuclear bombs. If the Iranians succeed in dispersing this material among a large number of secret sites, it will reduce the likelihood that the project can be stopped.
The impression gained by Israelis who have visited Washington lately is that Obama is gradually backing away from the Bush administration’s fundamental demand that Iran cease to enrich uranium as a precondition for beginning a dialogue.
Subsequently, they believe, the United States will offer Iran the following compromise: The Iranians will be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes (under tight international supervision), the previous sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted and the two sides will reach understandings concerning Iran’s interests in a number of arenas, notably Iraq, ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from there.
Obama would be able to present such an arrangement as an accomplishment. After all, before the election in November he promised to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, not to force it to stop enriching uranium. From Israel’s point of view, however, this will probably not be enough.
According to Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, “The United States was ready to sign an agreement to that effect Thursday. The prospect that Iran will agree, despite the temptation of gaining international recognition for its right to enrich uranium, remains small.”
In his view, “For its strategy to succeed, America needs a broad and binding international coalition. I still don’t see them getting Russia and China to back such a move, and their support is essential.”
Despite its fear that Iran will use the peaceful enrichment go-ahead to continue advancing secretly toward a bomb, Israel might, as a fallback position, accept such a compromise as long as it is clear that the international supervision is strong enough and that, in anticipation of the likely eventuality Iran will be found cheating, a broad coalition to toughen the sanctions is put together in advance.
If the dialogue fails, or never begins, more severe sanctions might be put into place: a ban on the purchase of oil from Iran and on the export of petroleum distillates to it, or even a maritime embargo. But the potential effectiveness of these moves, with Tehran already well past the halfway mark toward achieving its goal, is in doubt.
So, the moment of truth will arrive at some point between the end of 2009 and the middle of 2010: Should Iran be attacked? American experts agree that this would involve an Israeli strike. It is very unlikely that Obama will be the one dispatching American planes to Natanz.
During the past year, military experts and commentators are increasingly coming around to the view that the Israel Air Force is capable of executing the mission. The Israel Defense Forces was significantly upgraded during the tenure of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The goal, it is argued, is not to liquidate the Iranian project but to set it back. According to this line of thought, if an attack, American or Israeli, causes a couple of years’ delay in the project it will have achieved its aim.