How far will Israel go to keep Iran from getting the bomb? The question gained new urgency this month when Israeli warplanes carried out a mysterious raid deep in Syria and then threw up a nearly impenetrable wall of silence around the operation. Last week opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu chipped away at that wall, saying Israel did in fact attack targets in Syrian territory. His top adviser, Mossad veteran Uzi Arad, told NEWSWEEK: "I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone."
Official silence has prompted a broad range of speculation as to what exactly took place. One former U.S. official, who like others quoted in this article declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters, says several months ago Israel presented the Bush administration with reconnaissance images and information from secret agents alleging North Korea had begun to supply nuclear-related material to Syria. Some U.S. intelligence reporting, including electronic signal intercepts, appeared to support the Israeli claims. But other U.S. officials remain skeptical about any nuclear link between Syria and North Korea. One European security source told NEWSWEEK the target might have been a North Korean military shipment to Iran that was transiting Syria. But a European intelligence official said it wasn't certain Israel had struck anything at all.
While the Bush administration appears to have given tacit support to the Syria raid, Israel and the United States are not in lockstep on Iran. For Israel, the next three months may be decisive: either Tehran succumbs to sanctions and stops enriching uranium or it must be dealt with militarily. (Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.) "Two thousand seven is the year you determine whether diplomatic efforts will stop Iran," says a well-placed Israeli source, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the government. "If by the end of the year that's not working, 2008 becomes the year you take action."
In Washington, on the other hand, the consensus against a strike is firmer than most people realize. The Pentagon worries that another war will break America's already overstretched military, while the intelligence community believes Iran is not yet on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough. The latter assessment is expected to appear in a secret National Intelligence Estimate currently nearing completion, according to three intelligence officials who asked for anonymity when discussing nonpublic material. The report is expected to say Iran will not be able to build a nuclear bomb until at least 2010 and possibly 2015. One explanation for the lag: Iran is having trouble with its centrifuge-enrichment technology, according to U.S. and European officials.
Douglas Frantz of the Los Angeles Times noted in 2004, however, that Iran was moving toward nuclear readiness:
This month, Iran said it was gearing up to produce large amounts of gaseous uranium, which is used in enrichment. The gas, known as uranium hexafluoride, can be fed into slender centrifuges, which spin at high speed to transform the gas into enriched uranium.
Iran has moved much faster than expected in manufacturing and assembling these centrifuges, diplomats said. The rapid progress means a pilot centrifuge plant near Natanz, in central Iran, could soon be equipped with enough machines to begin large-scale enrichment.
Two senior European diplomats said the pilot plant could be expanded from the existing 164 centrifuges to 1,000 within weeks and produce enough material in less than a year to fashion a crude nuclear device.
The exact timing involved in Iran's nuclear preparations is probably less important than the regime's overall intentions. Ahmadinejad has rebuffed the Security Council on the issue of continuing inspections, and the world body has delayed a vote on tougher sanctions until at least November, a move designed to give Mohamed ElBaradei - the chief IAEA inspector - more time to investigate Iranian compliance with international demands for a halt to enrichment activities.
Israel might not wait too long, particularly as more information on the ultimate significance of the Syrian incursion becomes available. As the Newsweek story indicates:
The Jewish state has cause for worry. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vows regularly to destroy the country; former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered a moderate, warned in 2001 that Tehran could do away with Israel with just one nuclear bomb. In Tel Aviv last week, former deputy Defense minister Ephraim Sneh concurred. Sneh, a dovish member of Israel's Parliament and a retired brigadier general, took a NEWSWEEK reporter to the observation deck atop the 50-story Azrieli Center. "There is Haifa just over the horizon, Ben-Gurion airport over there, the Defense Ministry down below," he said, to show how small the country is. "You can see in this space the majority of our intellectual, economic, political assets are concentrated. One nuclear bomb is enough to wipe out Israel."
The logistics of an Irsraeli attack on Iran's program are difficult but not prohibitive (see here, for example). One interesting scenario - suggested in the Newsweek report - is that an Israeli preventive attack results in Iran's retaliation, with the possible targeting of American assets, which would likely pull the U.S. into the conflict.