In the latest in a special series, a key figure in the security establishment tells Haaretz's Ari Shavit that if Iran is allowed to develop an atomic bomb, the entire Middle East will go nuclear.
The decision maker is a controversial person. There was a time when he was regarded as a savior, but right afterward he was seen as a pariah. And again as a near-savior and again as a pariah. But even those who loathe the decision maker admits that he is exceptionally intelligent. Even his detractors are aware that he possesses unique strategic experience.
For half a century now, the decision maker has been hovering around Israel’s core security issues. And on a number of occasions, he himself was at the core. Late one night at the beginning of this week, the decision maker greets me at the door of his home wearing light summer clothes and black sandals.
When he sits down across from me in his favorite chair, he says that he’s read with great interest the words of the different strategists who were interviewed for this series. And that he respects those who support an operation in Iran as well as those who oppose it. But having given the matter even more consideration, he would not budge from his position and is absolutely convinced that he is right.
With a black grand piano behind him, the decision maker spends the next two and a half hours laying out his outlook.
“A nuclear Iran is one of the gravest things that could happen to Israel,” the decision maker begins. “If Iran goes nuclear, everything here will be different. Everything. We will shift into a different state of existence. If Iran goes nuclear, down the road Israel will face a threat of existential magnitude. The first aspect of the issue doesn’t only concern us but the international community and the regional alignment. I’m talking about the spread of nuclearization. Up to now the world has found a way to live with two recalcitrant countries: Pakistan and North Korea. If Iran goes nuclear, the world will just lose it. It won’t have any control over the nuclear demon. We know this as a virtual certainty because we’ve heard it straight from the horses’ mouths. If Iran detonates a nuclear device, Saudi Arabia will be nuclear. Within a few years Turkey will go nuclear. The new Egypt will acquire nuclear capability within less than a decade. People ask, what’s our rush? We’re not rushing at all. We waited for years. If Iran’s nuclearization is not halted now, before long we’ll find ourselves in a Middle East that has all gone nuclear.”
Threat to neighbors
The decision maker takes a sip from his cup and forges right ahead. “The second concern is the trickle of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations. Since so many countries that have such a low level of control will have nuclear capabilities, these capabilities could fall into the hands of terrorists. Terrorists cannot be deterred in the way that countries can exert deterrence against one another. The implications of such a development would be extremely grave.
“The third aspect is the threat to neighbors. When you speak with people from the Gulf Emirates these days, you see the fear in their eyes. Iran is a tremendous nation of 80 million people that was once a formidable empire. If it has nuclear weapons, no one will be able to stop it when it provokes neighbors and rivals. What happened in the Rhineland in 1936 will be child’s play compared to what happens with Iran. That will affect us, too.
“If we have to take action against Hezbollah and a nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is equivalent to an attack on Iran, what will we do? I’m not saying that we will definitely be deterred, but our situation will be different. Our situation will be totally different.
“The fourth aspect is political immunity,” he adds. “Let’s say that the Arab Spring skips over the Gulf and becomes the Persian Summer. If Iran is nuclear, the ayatollahs will be able to use unrestrained brutality against freedom-seeking Iranians. The world will stand aside, the regime will survive and it will endure even longer.
“So when we put all of these aspects together, we have to conclude that if Iran goes nuclear, all the moderate forces around us will be significantly weakened and heavy storm clouds will gather over the Middle East. The region will not be the same region and the world will not be the same world, and our lives will not be the same either. We will live under the shadow of a permanent storm.”
I’ve heard you and I understand, I say to the decision maker. I agree: A nuclear Iran would be a disaster and this disaster must be prevented. But why should Israel be so quick to take the lead? Why not let the Americans do the work for us, for them and for the world?
“The United States and Israel currently agree on the diagnosis,” says my interlocutor. “The intelligence assessments are the same and the rhetoric is practically the same. We and the Americans both know that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and that it is deceiving the whole world in order to do this. We and the Americans both say that we will not accept a nuclear Iran and that all options are on the table. But the gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the U.S. and Israel have different abilities.
“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything,” he warns. “For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”
You’re describing a tragedy, I say to the decision maker. Iran’s immunity zone versus Israel begins a little sooner than its immunity zone versus the United States. In the interval between these two immunity zones, there is an election in the United States that is paralyzing its ability to act in 2012. And so, because of this gap of six to nine months, Israel could find itself going into a terrible war all on its own.
“I don’t see it as a tragedy, but it’s true that there is a built-in gap here. The Americans understand what we’re saying but they want more time. Some people here think this is a plot, but I don’t think so. In terms of sanctions and diplomacy, this administration has done more than any other administration. It has also prepared a military option at various levels. But where you sit is where you stand. And from the point of view of the American president, the moment has not yet come. The United States will be able to act next year, too. So the Americans are telling us that it would be a serious mistake to act now. After all, they could deal the Iranians a knockout blow, while they think all we can do is give them a black eye. So it would seem that it would be worth it for us, too, for them to be the ones to act and not us. But as a sovereign state, we’re saying that on issues vital to our security, we cannot place our fate in the hands of others.
“Five years ago,” the decision maker continues, “the Iranians had 800 kilograms of enriched uranium and today they have more than six and a half tons. If we wait until next spring, they’ll have enough 20-percent enriched uranium to manufacture a first bomb. And the more they advance, the greater the temptation they have to cross the line. To sneak across. So that for us is a real danger − that soon we will not be able to stop them. The problem will remain serious for the world and for us, but only the world will be able to deal with it. We will no longer be a player at that point. For us the question will shift from the realm of the decision makers to the realm of the analysts and historians. We cannot let this happen. So there is a genuine built-in gap between the Americans and us.
“Ostensibly the Americans could easily bridge this gap,” he believes. “They could say clearly that if by next spring the Iranians still have a nuclear program, they will destroy it. But the Americans are not making this simple statement because countries don’t make these kinds of statements to each other. In statesmanship there are no future contracts. The American president cannot commit now to a decision that he will or will not make six months from now.
“So the expectation of such a binding American assurance now is not serious. There is no such thing. Not to mention that President Obama doesn’t even know if he’ll still be sitting in the Oval Office come spring. And if Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to. So the problem here is a serious one. Israel has to responsibly ask itself what a lack of action now would mean. Only a blind man or someone playing dumb would fail to see that the highly likely default is a nuclear Iran.
“I refer you to a speech that [former Iranian president] Akbar Rafsanjani gave a decade ago,” says the knowledgeable decision maker. “Rafsanjani is perceived in the West as an Iranian moderate. But anyone who reads the words of this Iranian moderate will lose all illusions. He will see that what we are facing is a unique rationality that could lead to an apocalypse. For what does Rafsanjani say? He says that between the Muslim world and Israel there is no balance, and therefore there will also be no balance of deterrence. Israel is not a superpower with a continent-wide territory.
It’s not even Japan, that absorbed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and within 15 years became a world power. Israel is a one-bomb state. After a single atom bomb, it will no longer be what it was or what it was meant to be. A single atom bomb is enough to finish off the Zionist story. In contrast, says Rafsanjani, the Muslim world has a billion and a half people and dozens of countries. Even if Israel strikes back hard at the country that dispatched the bomb, Islam will remain intact. A nuclear war will not make the Muslim world disappear, but it will do irreparable damage to Israel.
“Rafsanjani did not mention any other possibilities. But we know that there are other possibilities. If a bomb arrives at the Ashdod port in a container, it will be a bomb without an address. We won’t know which country sent it. We won’t know if it was sent by some terrorist organization that is not a state. This thing is not simple. A situation could arise in which we cannot exercise absolute deterrence. Therefore, there is nothing that frees us today from the need for cold, hard thinking about the implications of taking action against Iran, but also about the implications of nonaction. It’s a lot easier not to do anything. Doing is much harder. The doer bears a heavy burden of responsibility. But there are moments in the life of a nation in which the imperative to live is the imperative to act. So it was on the eve of the Six-Day War. So it was in 1948. And it may be so now, too.”
But what’s the point of acting, I ask the decision maker, if all our action will achieve is a very brief delay. The cost of an Israel attack would be extremely high: a terrible blow to the home front, with hundreds or thousands killed, the collapse of the sanctions regime, the bolstering of the regime in Iran, international denunciation of Israel. If all we get in return for all that is a two-year delay in Iran’s inevitable nuclearization, we come out the loser. Rather than improve our strategic situation, we’ll make it much worse.
The decision maker looks me fiercely in the eye: “The question you have to ask is what is the objective of the operation. We’re not fooling ourselves. Our objective is not to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program. But it must be understood that the real story is the contest between Iran’s nuclearization and the fall of the current regime of the ayatollahs in Iran. If we succeed in pushing off the nuclear program by six or eight or 10 years, there’s a good chance that the regime will not survive until the critical moment. So the objective is delay. Even if you’re right and the delay achieved by an Israeli operation is only two years, the story doesn’t end there. The sanctions regime may be hurt for a time but afterward it will recover. As will the diplomatic pressure on Iran. As will the intelligence battle against Iran. This is because the basic interests of the international community regarding Iran will not change. In the end, the combination of all of these elements together will achieve the desired aim. It will greatly increase the odds that the regime will fall before Iran goes nuclear.”
But some argue that just the opposite will happen, I challenge him. Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, Kobi Richter and Giora Eiland, too, told me that the danger is that bombing Iran will not stop Iran from getting a bomb but actually hasten its building of a bomb. The Iranians will gain more legitimacy and be more determined than ever to quickly achieve their goal.
“Iran has waited 4,000 years for a nuclear bomb,” replies the decision maker. “It has spent the last 20 years creating its nuclear program. In the past four years, this program has made significant progress. But all along the way the Iranians have shown caution and patience. No one knows what they will do if attacked. But based on their past behavior, it’s reasonable to assume that they would opt to protect themselves even more and progress with even more caution. They will also be very fearful of American intervention. While Israel can only execute a surgical operation to delay the nuclear program, the United States can take action that would threaten the regime’s stability. And in the event of an open sprint to the bomb, the United States would be obliged to act. So I think that the argument of the distinguished people you quote is serious but does not fit the Iranian history of action or the Iranian strategic reasoning.”
But you haven’t answered my main question. Even you admit that Iranian nuclearization is inevitable, the counterargument is that Iran’s nuclearization will be much more dangerous to Israel if we bomb Iran than if we don’t. Even Yehezkel Dror warned about a vengeful, nuclear Iran. Better an Iranian nuclear bomb with no Israeli bombing in 2015 than an Iranian nuclear bomb after an Israeli bombing in 2020.
The decision maker does not like the question. He grows impatient: “There’s a logical fallacy here. People presume that if we do not act, Iran will not go nuclear. But that’s not the situation. If we do not act, it’s almost certain that Iran will go nuclear. If we do act, there’s a good chance that Iran will not go nuclear for a long while. Iran will react and a certain resentment will remain. There will be terrorism. But the main power through which Iran can hurt us is Hezbollah. Hezbollah can operate against us even with no attack on Iran. It might do so even if we act to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or sophisticated materials from Syria to Lebanon. The public should not be subjected to scare tactics.
“Israel is a strong nation,” he continues. “We have good capabilities. The number of dead to be expected on the home front in the event of war with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is less than the number of casualties in the Fourth Battalion of the Harel Brigade in 1948. But in 1948 it was clear to all that there was no choice. And that gave us national strength and resilience. If it turns out that now, too, there is no choice, we will also need that national strength. Remember that in any dimension − including in terms of preserving human life − dealing with a nuclear Iran in a few years’ time will be much more complicated than dealing with preventing a nuclear Iran now. We mustn’t listen to those who in every situation prefer nonaction to action.”
But Israel mustn’t go to war without the backing of a superpower, I say. We take the risk of people charging that we’re trying to force America to join the war. We take the risk of America turning its back and obliging us to deal alone with the consequences of the action we took without coordination with it.
The hour is late and the decision maker is very direct and crystal clear: “We will absolutely not deliberately drag the United States into war. If we decide to undertake an operation, it must be an independent act that justifies itself without igniting some large chain reaction. A country does not go to war in the hope or expectation that another country will join it. Such an act is an irresponsible gamble. But the question is how you define backing. Was there backing in the Six-Day War? Do you think that in 1967 the Americans told Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Mossad chief Meir Amit anything different than what they’re telling us now? But then Eban saw difficulty in the opportunity and Amit saw an opportunity in the difficulty, and the Eshkol government made a decision. And what was that all about? About the closure of the Strait of Tiran? The sword hanging over our neck today is a lot sharper than the sword that hung over our neck before the Six-Day War.
“I promise you: This issue is being dealt with here with the utmost seriousness. And our allies have known for some time what our position is. If the Americans decide that they are going to take action soon − excellent. We won’t stand in their way and we won’t insist on a blue-and-white operation. But let me remind you that Ronald Reagan did not want to see a nuclear Pakistan but Pakistan did go nuclear. Bill Clinton did not want to see a nuclear North Korea, but North Korea went nuclear.
“If Israel forgoes the chance to act and it becomes clear that it no longer has the power to act, the likelihood of an American action will decrease. So we cannot wait a year to find out who was right: the one who said that the likelihood of an American action is high or the one who said the likelihood of an American action is low. We can’t wait to find out one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn’t act in the end. We need to look at the reality right now with total clarity. Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do.”