Israel's Closing Window to Strike Iran

By David Makovsky

In a revealing interview with CNN last weekend, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak hinted that Israel and the world may reach the limit of their capacity to effectively strike Iran's nuclear facilities within as little as six months. His comments suggest that unless additional international sanctions deter Tehran's nuclear efforts, Israel is increasingly likely to opt for a military option while it still can.

Israel has repeatedly warned of the need to halt the Iranian nuclear program - whether by sanctions or a military strike - in light of its pace and the quantity of enriched uranium it has produced. Yet Barak's statements mark the first time an Israeli official has made clear that the ability to target the program may be limited by technical capacity, firmly indicating that the window for a military option may be closing.

Whether or not Iran is able to produce a nuclear weapon in the coming years, Barak argued, the regime's efforts to disperse and fortify its facilities mean that attempted strikes against them are unlikely to have the desired impact after next year. As he explained, "It's true that it won't take three years - probably three quarters [of a year] - before no one can do anything practically about it because the Iranians are gradually, deliberately entering into what I call a zone of immunity, by widening the redundancy of their plan, making it spread over many more sites." When pointedly asked about the date at which a strike becomes impossible, he replied, "I cannot tell you for sure, nor can I predict whether it's two quarters or three quarters [of a year]. But it's not two or three years." Yet he refused to answer direct questions about an Israeli strike, insisting that such a subject should not be discussed on television.

Barak has repeatedly made clear in the past that inaction now guarantees inaction later, since a nuclear Iran would be as untouchable as nuclear North Korea is today. From this perspective, a nuclear Iran would profoundly change the balance of power in the Middle East, intimidating moderate forces and unleashing a regional arms race that could even proliferate nuclear technology to nonstate actors.

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If Barak is to be believed, little time remains for sanctions to have the necessary effect. Indeed, the potency and timing of new sanctions are inversely related to the probability of an Israeli military strike. Israel will presumably try to determine whether the latest sanctions are likely to succeed before it loses its ability to attack. And if the window for a strike will close by next fall, waiting until late 2012 to impose even tougher sanctions would already be too late for Israel.

Although there is wide agreement in Israeli decisionmaking circles that sanctions are preferable to a military strike, and that they are better led by the United States in its capacity as a superpower, many Israelis also fear that their allies will eventually abandon them on this issue. And their fears are reinforced when U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta comment on the inadvisability of a strike. These comments may therefore have the opposite effect than intended, convincing Israel that no one will come to its aid and that it has no other choice but to attack.

Impact of the IAEA Report

If Israel does attack Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012, the turning point in its decisionmaking may have already occurred earlier this month. On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors endorsed a report citing "credible" information "that Iran has carried out...activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." Notably, this was the board's first meeting since the discovery that Iran's Qods Force had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on American soil.

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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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