Israel, Iran, red lines and ticking clocks

Michael Burleigh

14:03 EST, 5 June 2012


14:05 EST, 5 June 2012

‘Are you carrying a weapon?’ was the question I was asked most frequently this week entering Israel’s National Security Strategy Conference in Tel Aviv.

‘No’ was the sensible answer since the questioners were like walls of muscle, with earpieces and assault rifles in their hands.

We heard both Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak speak about Iran, although the young men with hard stares who ringed the audience at that point did not promote mental concentration. Their own concentration was intense, as they switched about in a careful choreography designed to ensure no lapses of attention.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Ehud Barak

Hawkish: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defence Minister Ehud Barak (right)

Deputy PM and Defence Minister Barak – who once commanded Bibi in the special forces – seemed the most hawkish of the two men, warning Iran that Israel’s ‘red line’ was if Iran does not immediately cease enriching uranium beyond 3.5% – currently the plant at Fordow near Qom is enriching it to 20%, and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are not being allowed in – then they may attack, subject to ‘tactical opportunities’.

Yet the Israeli security establishment also seems highly conflicted about whether this is a sensible course of action. This has been described as the ‘Spies Revolt’.

The critics include the former chief of the general staff and the former heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, the domestic MI5 or FBI. They argue that Israel lacks the air force assets to do enough to set back the Iranian nuclear programme by 3 to 5 years, which is what would define military ‘success’. They also acknowledge that the majority of Iranians would rally around their government since acquiring civil nuclear power is a national goal, to conserve the foreign exchange income they derive from oil and gas. Apart from carpets and pistachio nuts this is all Iran exports. 

Dissent: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned against a war with Iran

Dissent: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned against a war with Iran

This dissent is not a party political thing since last week, former PM Ehud Olmert, a Likud politician, was booed in New York when he explained that it would be his children and grand-children who would be on the receiving end of any war the neocon armchair warriors want to provoke.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, has publicly said that Netanyahu has a ‘messianic mindset’, although that may be a case of Israel ‘mirroring’ the Iranians, since the thrust of Israel’s case against Ahmadinejad and Khamenei is that they don’t care if the world blows up, provided they can put one Bomb on Israel.

I got the feeling that Barak and Netanyahu have convinced themselves that not bombing Iran is worse than an Iran having a nuclear bomb, which will also lead to immediate nuclear proliferation in the Middle East which would lack the sophisticated command and control systems and hotlines which stopped the US and Soviets from blowing us all to pieces.

Israel also does not want to get out of step with an American administration that does not want a war in the Persian Gulf before the November elections. To that end, several senior US speakers (including self-styled ‘rock-ribbed Republicans’) underlined that President Obama does not do bluff and that he is a firm friend of Israel, if not of PM Netanyahu.

The other clear American message was that Israel needs to immediately repair its poor relations with Turkey (mainly by compensating the relatives of the people who died on last year’s Gaza flotilla) which as far as the US is concerned, is the only NATO member other than Britain and France, capable of fighting wars.

So where does this leave us? This is like a hall of mirrors where real intentions are difficult to determine amidst so much bluff and double bluff. It might be a case that the spies do protest too much, and that their dissent is deliberately calibrated to show us that any decision to attack Iran has been reached only after careful consideration of all counter-arguments. That is designed to offset any likely international criticism (or sanctions) stemming from an unprovoked act of aggression.

Alliance: US speakers emphasised that President Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, if not of Netanyahu (pictured left)

Alliance: US speakers emphasised that President Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, if not of Netanyahu (pictured left)

The Israelis are allowing diplomacy and sanctions to run their course too. As far as I can see, Israel does not take Baroness Catherine Ashton’s 5+1 diplomatic efforts seriously. They are right about that since all the recent talks in Baghdad achieved was to decide to hold more talks in Moscow this month.

Iran hopes to string the West along, so as to enter a ‘zone of immunity’ where we don’t know if they have built a Bomb, while hoping that Russia and China will decide to moderate a sanctions regime which is going to get a lot tougher in July, perhaps by relaxing bans on civil aviation spare parts for Iran’s lethally antiquated passenger fleet.

Several Israelis were also concerned that the IAEA’s inspection brief is too narrowly drawn, and does not cover non-nuclear activities, such as making the sophisticated explosive triggers which cause the implosion of the uranium core that sets off fission. For what the Iranians are trying to do is to have all the necessary parts available, with which they could quickly achieve nuclear ‘break out’, with separate work on adapting ballistic missiles to contain a suitably miniaturised and shaped nuclear device in the warhead.

Hardline: EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton should keep up sanctions on Iran

Hardline: EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton should keep up sanctions on Iran

In fact, the worst thing Ashton could do would be to relax sanctions in any way. Iran is already hurting, with its oil tanker fleet unable to sell the oil they contain; an embargo on petrol (40% of which is imported because of inadequate refining capacities) would really damage them.

The Iranians could also find themselves subjected to more Flame style cyber attacks – a virus which seizes control of the computers of Iranian officials, including converting their microphones into listening devices, or randomly switching the cameras on and tracking keyboard strokes. It seems likely that there will be more Iranian scientists and engineers having fatal accidents, while support for ethnic and religious dissidents will be stepped up too. Increased Saudi oil production has also further depressed the price of oil, as has Obama’s decision to make US strategic oil reserves available in the event of war.

Dealing with such slippery customers as the Iranians – who after all invented Chess – means that military action is never to be removed from the table. I was interested when one air force general said that Israel was not interested in regime change in Iran, but in a ‘surgical strike’ against specific nuclear plants. That counters the claim that the West would be embarking on another messy intervention in that region. Since he was the man who as a young pilot bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, I tend to believe what he was saying. That does not mean that Israel has actually taken a decision to attack, which is as much a political as military decision.

Pre-emptive: It is possible that Israel will launch a 'surgical' strike against Iran's nuclear facilities

Pre-emptive: It is possible that Israel will launch a ‘surgical’ strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities

A few further points worry me. First, Israel and Iran will be keenly watching events in Syria, where the Assad regime is Iran’s essential link to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon whose arsenal of rockets Iran has massively replenished. If Assad falls – and only Russia is preventing that happening – then Iran’s regional ambitions are considerably weakened and Hezbollah will have to think twice before launching ‘retaliatory’ rocket attacks.

Second, the Arab Spring means that weak governments around the Middle East will be captive to the outrage any Israeli attack sparks on Arab streets. Israel needs to mend fences with its neighbours rather than antagonising them, particularly in the case of the cold peace which has existed with Egypt for the last thirty years.

Last but not least, there is no communication at any level between Israel and Iran. This means that the possibility of some low level Iranian commander doing something rash is pretty high, thereby giving Israel an opportunity to strike. If they lashed out at America’s 40,000 troops in the Gulf or two carrier groups, then Iran would have a war it would really lose. After the initial spasm of outrage, Iran would go to considerable lengths to shut that down quickly, before the US really took them apart, probably including the Islamic regime too.

The one thing no one talked about, by the way, was the internal politics of Iran, where Ahmadinejad’s final term in office ends next year, and where more liberal figures are slipping into positions of power. I would also have been interested in whether the sanctions might tip such key groups as bus drivers and teachers into strikes, whose effects might be more destabilising than the Green Revolution middle class dissidents who the regime crushed in 2008. The combination of external threats and internal weaknesses might be what ultimately persuades the Mullahs that further breaches of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty they signed is a step not worth taking to acquire a Bomb, use of which would like committing national suicide.

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