The Iranian Nuclear Program: Some Observations from Israel

By Michael Levi.

Washington was abuzz in late August over Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic about the possibility that Israel might bomb. But Israelis have barely noticed the essay. That doesn’t mean, though, that they haven’t been thinking about the military option. Despite wide-ranging opinions over the wisdom of a military strike (it’s not nearly as popular an idea there as many Americans assume), one theme was consistent: people think that Israel could set the program back by 1-2 years, but that the United States could set it back considerably further, maybe by 6-8 years. (I understand that there’s often an ulterior motive to making such a point: it tends to encourage the United States to execute its own military attack. But I found the underlying arguments for the more basic technical point to be persuasive.) In the United States, setting Iran back by 1-2 years isn’t seen as sufficient to justify an attack. Israelis, though, consistently argued that sharp changes in a country’s leadership, and even basic political structure, can be quick and surprising. Few expected the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1979 Iranian revolution, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq two years before any of those happened. From that vantage, even a 1-2 year setback has the potential to be decisive.

Many Israelis also seem to have a different way of thinking about how far away Iran is from the bomb from their U.S. counterparts. U.S. analyses tend to focus on how long it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb given its existing facilities and stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. Other steps, like producing the actual weapons, are generally assumed to take very little time. That means that the estimated time it would take Iran to “break out” of its program and produce a bomb gets smaller and smaller. Israelis I talked to, though, emphasized the additional time that would be required to reconfigure an enrichment facility to produce weapons-grade uranium, as well as the time required to convert enriched uranium hexafluoride (a gas) into the specially shaped metal required for a bomb. These factors mean that even if Iran was to accumulate a large stockpile of low-enriched uranium, or to build up a much larger (or more capable) enrichment facility (or both), Israel might continue to judge Iran as being about a year away from a bomb.

That said, the time required for Iran to produce enough material for a bomb still matters greatly to Israelis. Fissile material production, while possible to hide, may occur at known facilities. Even if production occurs at covert facilities, it may use material from known sites, and hence be (indirectly) detectable. But once Iran makes enough highly enriched uranium for its purposes, and moves it to another site, it is much more difficult (at best) to track.

It’s also worth noting that for many in Israel, one bomb is not the threshold – or, more precisely, many Israelis don’t think that it’s the threshold that Iran cares about. Having one bomb crosses several important lines, and is very dangerous, but it does not yield a military (or second-strike strategic) capability. Many of my interlocutors suspected that Iran would not try to produce weapons until they were in the position to produce 5-10 of them in relatively short order.

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