The clock on Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is ticking. But America's and Israel's clocks show different times.
The one looming over Israel's premier national security conference at Herzliya last week stood at close to midnight. This is defined by the Israeli government as Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear "capability" — the key ingredient being enough highly enriched uranium to fuel a bomb.
Washington's clock is ticking more slowly, attuned to the coming election in November, Israelis say. An Israeli strike against Iran risks destabilizing oil markets and sending gas prices skyrocketing, which could be catastrophic for President Obama's re-election prospects. And midnight in America is not Iran's acquisition of "capability," but its fabrication and assembly of an actual weapon.
"Our red lines and timelines are different," said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence. And these competing "red lines" — points at which military action must be taken to prevent Iran from building a bomb — have been a source of growing angst to Israelis.
But to understand what Israelis and Americans are saying, you must consider their multiple audiences. Washington and Jerusalem are signaling each other. They are signaling as well their North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, and their diplomatic opponents Russia and China, who have done all they can to delay crippling sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's warning that Israel may strike between April and June was, most likely, less an expression of alarm about Israel's threats than an effort to pressure NATO allies to support crippling sanctions against Iran now.
But the ultimate recipient of such declarations and hints is, of course, Iran's not-so-supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Diplomatic chatter about a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear capabilities may well be a bluff intended to prompt Tehran to make diplomatic concessions and suspend its nuclear program, particularly its Furdo enrichment facility near Qom. (Almost no one believes Iran's claims that this facility is intended to produce medical isotopes.) The threat of targeting Iran's much-despised Iranian Republican Guard Corp installations adds weight to such chatter.
Amid all this diplomatic murk, however, one thing seems clear. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the handful of top officials who would be making this call have probably not yet decided on a military strike, as President Obama has suggested.
True, Israeli officials have been weighing the costs and benefits of military action against Iran. But Israel is frustrated, I was told, that Washington hasn't given its ally a firm commitment of support for military action if sanctions, cyber-viruses and assassinations fail to substantially degrade the program or convince Khamenei to suspend his weapons quest.
Israeli officials have been quietly pressing for such a commitment in exchange for deferring unilateral Israeli military action, intelligence officials say. Yet given the two nations' differing timelines and red lines, Israel may well conclude that it must strike before the White House would like it to. It may, in fact, do this despite Washington's assertion that Israel lacks the ability to inflict the damage of an American or joint attack. "We are capable of doing what we need to do," a senior intelligence official told me last week.
Another intelligence official reminded me that Israel got similarly dire warnings about the cost of military action prior to "Operation Opera," its devastating strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. "We were told the strike would delay the Iraqi nuclear program for only a year or two and engender the world's fury," the official said. "But as we learned in 2003, Iraq never rebuilt either that reactor or a serious nuclear capability."
Strikingly absent from the Herzliya conference were efforts to assess the effectiveness of the covert war that Israel is believed to be waging on Iran's nuclear program. This is thought to include the "Stuxnet" worm that slowed enrichment centrifuges at Natanz in 2010, the mysterious explosions at Iranian missile bases and the assassination of at least five Iranian nuclear scientists.
While Washington has denied responsibility for such hostile actions, Israel has maintained a diplomatic silence.
Equally significant was the lack of discussion of the likely consequences of such military action: potential rocket and missile strikes against Israeli civilians by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah in the north and from militant Sunni Gaza in the south.
There was also little open discussion of whether a military strike would shatter years of deliberate, patient work to unite Europe and other allies around tough economic sanctions. Or whether a strike would prompt Iran to throw out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, whose visits have provided so much information about Iran's program. Nor was there much focus on whether a military strike would give a largely discredited, illegitimate regime (in the eyes of many Iranians) the gift of a renewed Iranian patriotism.
Indeed, disdain for what Israelis perceive as Obama's re-election mania and his ostensible strategy of "leading from behind" — which has no translation in Hebrew — was widespread. Perhaps its greatest focus was the mixed signals sent from Washington about President Obama's declaration that an Iranian nuclear bomb was "unacceptable." If that were so, the reasoning runs, why did Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly tell Netanyahu that the U.S. would not participate in a war against Iran initiated by Israel without Washington's prior agreement? Why is the European Union waiting until summer to impose its boycott of Iranian oil and the toughest of the sanctions? Why — perhaps most importantly — did Dempsey state that Iran could be "deterred" from using a nuclear bomb?
Israelis interpreted this formulation as his acquiescence to Iran's inevitable possession of a nuke. Furthermore, Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, argues that nothing in Iranian history suggests that Tehran views deterrence as, say, the former Soviet Union did. "To bet on Cold War-like deterrence involves huge risk," he concluded.
There is, as well, nothing in Israeli history to suggest a willingness to incur such nuclear risk. Israel has always acted aggressively to prevent enemies in the region from building or obtaining atomic bombs. Though taking military action would be far more difficult against Iran's facilities than against Iraq's, it is unlikely that Israel will risk endless waiting to stop the Iranians from getting a bomb. As Israeli Defense Secretary Ehud Barak warned, Israel must always worry that "later may be too late."