Israel's Closing Window to Strike Iran

By David Makovsky
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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak likely sparked the latest policy debate in Israel to see whether the assassination plot and the expectedly dramatic IAEA report would provide the political leverage needed to tighten sanctions. Both men believe a strike may be necessary - although they agree with the rest of the cabinet that sanctions are preferable, they are more skeptical that the international community will muster the political will to pass sufficiently robust sanctions before an attack becomes technically impossible.

This belief is not unfounded. Despite the strong evidence in the latest report, the IAEA deferred action for now, perhaps burying its prospects to do so in the foreseeable future. And European officials have stated that the quantum leap taken in the new report does not augur other such leaps in the near term - as in the past, the IAEA report slated for next spring is likely to be more incremental, in part because Iran's concealment of the bulk of its nuclear program greatly impedes the agency's efforts to regularly document its progress. Furthermore, the Qods Force will probably not be clumsy enough to allow future assassination efforts to be exposed, so the unique pressure generated by that development may have been a one-time affair.

Israelis may therefore interpret the latest signs of hesitation - namely, the U.S. and IAEA failure to fully sanction the Central Bank of Iran - to mean that the clock has virtually run out. If so, this would break the deadlock among the Israeli political and military elite over whether sanctions obviate the need for military action. Sanctioning the Central Bank would have prohibited Iran from engaging in dollar-denominated transactions of any kind. Yet the Obama administration fears that such a move would rattle oil markets and already-fragile economies. U.S. officials have also said in the past that there is more time to stop Iran, whether out of trust in America's greater military capacity or a belief that sanctions will ultimately force Tehran to back down. Indeed, in her announcement Monday of new U.S., British, and Canadian sanctions against aspects of the Iranian petrochemical and financial sectors, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that "these measures represent a significant ratcheting up of pressure on Iran, its sources of income, and its illegal activities."

In the meantime, vociferous debate will likely continue in the Israeli cabinet regarding the utility of military action. Apart from Israel's technical capacity, other points of contention include the extent to which a strike would actually set back the Iranian program, as well as potential regional consequences. In a speech this spring, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan argued against the move, hinting that there are other means of stopping Iran. He may have been alluding to the Stuxnet computer worm that infected centrifuges in Iran's Natanz plant in 2010, or the numerous deaths and disappearances among Iran's leading nuclear scientists - both of which Israel is suspected of having a hand in.

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Lesson from Osiraq?

Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the latter's 1981 attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq, once suggested that Washington misread Israeli intentions at the time. Israeli officials had been very vocal in their concerns about the site in closed-door meetings with the United States, but they dropped the issue in the months leading up to the strike. Washington therefore assumed that Israel had lost interest, when in fact preparations for the attack were entering their final stage.

Today, Israeli officials remain firm advocates for international sanctions. Yet if the Osiraq model holds, a military strike may be more imminent than just a few months away if and when Barak and his colleagues cease giving interviews on the subject.

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David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

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