A U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran has stopped developing atomic weapons is putting a burden on the Jewish state, which has long relied on Washington to lead the international charge against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
With the U.S. now less likely to take military action, an increasingly nervous Israel might feel compelled to strike out on its own if it perceives a dangerous threat.
Israeli officials say their intelligence forces believe Iran is still working aggressively to build nuclear arms. The Islamic regime in Tehran is strongly opposed to Israel’s existence and frequently boasts of its ability to strike the Jewish state with long-range missiles.
“The situation can become tense if they (the Israelis) decided their red line has been crossed,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector who now heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. “They may force a military confrontation.”
A summary made public Monday of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded the Iranians suspended their attempt to build a nuclear weapon four years ago, leading to increased calls within the U.S. for a less confrontational approach to Tehran.
“This forces the Israelis to make a decision instead of being able to take some comfort that the U.S. would take action at some point,” said Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department’s Middle East Intelligence Office.
“With Israel, you can be sure they will be unwilling to tolerate as much risk as the U.S. ... because they can get hit,” he said.
Iran the biggest threat
Israel sees Iran as its greatest threat and maintains that country is aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. It responded to the report with a mixture of skepticism and veiled irritation.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that despite Washington’s assessment, his own intelligence analysis indicates Iran is still trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
“We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the Earth, even if it is from our greatest friend,” Barak said.
Meeting with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said many intelligence assessments around the world have later turned out to have been inaccurate, a statement from his office said.
He did not refer specifically to the flawed 2002 U.S. intelligence estimate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.
Iran’s military said last month it had produced a new missile with a range of 1,200 miles capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases across the Mideast.
Peres, who as Defense Ministry director general in the 1960s spearheaded the development of Israel’s own nuclear program, told Albright that Iran’s heavy investment in missiles could only be intended to deliver a nuclear payload.
“There is absolutely no justification for developing such missiles and equipping them with a conventional warhead,” he said.
Israel has never confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons, but it is widely believed to have a formidable atomic stockpile.
Military action not ruled out
In 1981 Israeli warplanes penetrated deep into Iraq to destroy an unfinished nuclear reactor near Baghdad to prevent its use in a weapons program.
Israel has since taken delivery of about 80 aircraft fitted with long-range fuel tanks that would allow them to reach Iran, and it has acquired three German-built submarines reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed missiles, with two more under construction.
Israel says it prefers a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear issue, but has not ruled out taking military action itself if necessary. Israel lives with the memory of the Nazi Holocaust and has vowed never again to rely on anyone but itself to safeguard its people.
Iran funds Islamic groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, both openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
The mood in the Israeli military command after this week’s U.S. assessment is one of isolation and disappointment, but nobody is talking about any imminent Israeli strike against Iran, defense officials said Wednesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the need not to appear at odds with U.S. policy.
Threat actually reduced?
Yossi Melman, veteran defense writer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said that if the U.S. view of Iran’s nuclear status is correct, it actually reduces the threat to Israel and the likelihood of independent military action.
“If Iran is not heading for a nuclear weapon then you don’t need a military option,” he said, adding that for Israeli officials a strike was never a very likely choice.
“Israel’s ability to carry out a military operation in Iran is limited,” he said. “It’s possible but limited.”
Such a mission would be far more complex that the 1981 Iraq raid, experts say.
It would require heavy precision-guided bombs that can slice into underground bunkers, manned aircraft to bombard multiple targets and possibly commandos on the ground to make sure weapons materials are destroyed.
Melman said Israel’s next step could be to redouble its own intelligence efforts in an attempt to prove its case, but that might antagonize the U.S. agencies.
“If Israel didn’t have a smoking gun before, why should it find one now?” he said. “If they had the evidence they would have given it to the Americans and influenced their report.”