By Gary Thomas
Talk of a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is again rumbling in Tehran, Jerusalem, and Washington. Israel is reported to be increasingly anxious about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and at least one U.S. official is reported to be warning that an Israeli attack is not far off.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says the world is running out of time to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is reported to believe Israel could launch strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities within the next five months.
Iranian officials deny any intention to build nuclear weapons and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned Friday Iran will retaliate in full force if its nuclear facilities are attacked.
But there are differences between the U.S. and Israel over how to deal with the situation.
A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran – the highest collective judgment of all U.S. intelligence agencies – said that while Iran was making technical advances, it had not yet committed to actually assembling nuclear weapons.
In a 2009 VOA interview, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta predicted Iran could have a nuclear bomb sometime between 2010 and 2015, but had not yet decided whether to take that final step.
“Well, our view is and our intelligence is that while they are proceeding to develop a nuclear capability in terms of power and low-grade uranium that there’s still very much a debate going on within Iran as to whether they should proceed further,” Panetta said at the time.
Iran Intelligence Revised
A revised intelligence estimate last year came to the same conclusion about Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. officials said.
“They (the Iranians) are certainly moving on that path, but we don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon,” James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told a congressional committee on Tuesday.
But the view is very different in Jerusalem, where Iran’s nuclear program is seen as a threat to Israel’s very existence.
Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, writing in the prestigious New York Times Magazine Jan. 25, quoted top officials in Jerusalem as saying that Israel could not wait much longer before striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran has so far enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent purity. Experts say Iran would have to reach at least 90 percent to use it in a weapon.
“If Iran is indeed enriching to bomb grade – and I haven’t seen anything suggesting that we know that they are or that we strongly suspect that they are – then they’re that much closer to the proverbial one screw turn away (from a bomb),” Thomas Fingar, former chairman of the U.S. intelligence Council, told VOA this week.
“Uranium is the critical dimension, and in the time line that was laid out in the public portion of the 2007 estimate, we’re in the window, the first half of this decade,” Fingar added.
Washington Prefers Sanctions
The Obama administration is opposed to any military action against Iran at this time, and is instead counting on stiffer international sanctions against Iran’s critical oil industry to force Tehran away from any weapons development.
Fingar backs that strategy, adding that a preemptive attack on Iran could backfire.
“If it’s correct that Tehran has not yet made the decision to go for a bomb, attacking the facilities would seem to greatly increase the likelihood of rallying the (Iranian) public behind not just the nuclear program and the government, but the need to have an independent deterrent capability, a nuclear deterrent capability,” Fingar said.
Intelligence analysts say it is difficult to determine when Iran crosses the so-called “red line” into nuclear weapons production because so much of the technical work is “dual use” – usable for both military and peaceful purposes.
CIA Director David Petraeus told a congressional committee this week a key indicator would be if Iran begins enriching uranium to 90 percent purity.
“There’s no commercial use for that arguably- in fact, not arguably,” Petraeus said. “I think factually the amount of 20 percent enriched uranium that they have exceeds any requirement, for example, for the Tehran Research Reactor for the foreseeable future.”
But while Washington has publicly spelled out its so-called “red line” on Iranian nuclear development, Israel has not.
Some U.S. officials worry that the “red line” for Israel may be when Iran moves key sections of its nuclear facilities to hardened underground sites out of the reach of missiles and bombs.
Whatever its threshold, Israeli Defense Minister Barak said this week Israel cannot wait until it is reached. “Whoever says later,” Barak told a gathering of security experts, “may find out that ‘later’ is too late.”
As if to emphasize his point for a Western audience, he switched from Hebrew to English for the phrase.