The US, Iran, And Israel

Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IR 231, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IR 231, Hoover Institution Archives.

The disagreement with Israel over Iran’s nuclear endeavors long pre-dated the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of July 14, 2015,” which the White House prefers to call “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon”, but which should really be called Barjam, the Farsi acronym that is entering local parlance for any big deal.

The Obama view is of course that the Barjam must be good because it sets limits on Iranian efforts to acquire both highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the Barjam because it removed the crippling sanctions that had constrained Iranian military activities across the board, from the assembly of ballistic missiles to the arming and funding of proxy forces, in exchange for nuclear limits that only last ten years. That was evidently an eternity for the Obama White House, which never mentions the time limit, but hardly so for Netanyahu, who might again be prime minister when the limits expire. He would then confront an Iran entitled to acquire nuclear weapons, and with ballistic missiles already in hand to deliver them, because the Barjam sets no missile limits at all.

For Obama all such objections are simply irrelevant: having sworn that Iran would not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, his choice was between the Barjam and an air offensive very much larger than the one he refused to contemplate when the Syrians crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons, thereby blowing his credibility region-wide (one wonders if bankers will follow his lead, by refusing to make a “fetish” of solvency). That being so, Obama could hardly resist the string of last-minute concessions that have surfaced in dribs and drabs since the agreement was supposedly published in its entirety—the latest to date is that the heavy water removed from the Arak reactor is still controlled by Iranian guards, albeit in forever cooperative Oman, within easy reach just across the water.

Ironically enough, the one thing Americans and Israelis had in common until the Barjam came into effect on January 16, 2016 was that neither wanted to attack Iran, albeit for very different reasons. For the Israelis, the overriding priority was to preserve the sanctions that weakened Iran all round, given that neither their intelligence chiefs nor their air-strike planners manifested any great sense of urgency, in sharp contrast to the public stance of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Mere arithmetic explained the attitude of the airmen: Israeli attack capabilities have been growing faster than the number and hardness of Iranian nuclear-related targets, and while Iran’s vast facilities are x times harder to destroy than Iraq’s single Osirak reactor was back in June 1981, as inane commentators endlessly repeat, Israeli attack capabilities have increased by more than x times since that June 1981 strike by eight fighter-bombers without precision weapons (a growth less than obvious to tail-counters, because Israeli airpower is not used up for the suppression of enemy air defenses in the U.S. style, down to the last inoperable hulk and antique missile).

As for the incongruous serenity of Israeli Intelligence, it reflected a confident expectation that it could reliably monitor Iran’s nuclear activities in great detail, and in near real time. Its chiefs undercut Netanyahu’s claims of urgency whenever they were consulted because they were quite sure that they would know well in advance if Iran actually started to assemble a weaponized nuclear device, allowing sufficient time for properly prepared pre-emptive action. Even though their U.S. counterparts did not share their confidence—while the CIA talks a lot about HUMINT, a.k.a. spying, it hardly practices that art in hostile settings (most of its “covert operators” are bravely manning desks inside embassies), and rightly distrusts the meager fruits of its half-hearted efforts, mostly conducted by officers who are frequently rotated and rarely know the local language. The Israelis by contrast patiently invest in their sources for decades on end, routinely operate under cover wherever they have to (it is no secret that the Stuxnet virus was inserted, not downloaded), have local allies in Iran not entirely confined to peripheral areas, and then work hard to confirm what they hear as best they can, with overhead imagery and intercepts in which the U.S. is far better supplied than they are.

This difference in method has been a major source of friction in the U.S.-Israel Intelligence dialogue over Iranian nuclear efforts, which started not so very long after April 1984, when Iran’s then President and now supreme leader Ali Khamenei told his colleagues in the greatest secrecy that the demiurge Khomeini had changed his mind about nuclear weapons. Having shut down the Shah’s program, Khomeini now wanted nukes pronto, because war with Iraq was bleeding the country. Iran’s nuclear engineers went for the gas centrifuge route but made little progress until they started purchasing ready-made technology from the thief and trafficker A.Q. Khan (the Pakistani schools named after him should logically offer prizes for larceny). By the end of 1987 Iran thereby acquired a centrifuge plant starter kit complete with technical drawings of a P-1 (Pakistan) centrifuge—a straight copy of the Zippe design that Khan had stolen—actual centrifuge components, and detailed instructions for enriching uranium to weapon-grade levels.

This was the prelude to the construction of the necessary facilities in Tehran and seven other localities, including reactor work in Arak, and plants for the conversion of uranium yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas in Isfahan, and the centrifuge separation of that gas in Natanz. The latter is especially much too large (one million square feet) not to generate all sorts of signals.

By the year 2000 if not before, Israeli intelligence started hearing enough from sources in Iran and elsewhere to be able to sort out meaningful signals from the “noise” of rumors and deliberate misinformation. It promptly shared the data with the U.S., hoping to elicit confirmation from overhead imagery and intercepts. But there was a problem: the U.S. side did not accept the Israeli assessment that there was an Iranian nuclear-weapon program that needed to be scoped out, presumably as a prelude to doing something about it. Evidently the latter was a disincentive to the former for U.S. officials who had other agendas—including attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as well as avoiding a confrontation with Iran—but there was also the CIA’s contempt for Israel’s human sources that spoke of facilities that did not show up in overhead imagery, or rather, did not yet show up.

Frustrated by their persistent inability to persuade the U.S. side that Iran was on a path to acquire nuclear weapons, the Israelis finally decided to go public via third parties. Most notably, on August 14, 2002, the Iran M.E.K opposition (a.k.a. the Rajavi cult) never before or since a source of useful information, published exact details on the Natanz plant and deuterium oxide facility in Arak. These revelations could not be ignored and duly triggered International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, whose eventual findings forced everyone, including U.S. intelligence skeptics, to confront the evidence of Iranian nuclear activities “in excess of what is needed for a civilian power program.” After years of tergiversation and entirely useless European negotiations (but for their exceptionally luxurious dinners), this evidence finally resulted in United Nations Security Council sanctions on December 23, 2006, which in turn eventually forced Iran to start negotiating the Barjam—whose contents are a tribute to the frivolity of most European participants (exemplified by Mogherini’s prancings before the cameras), the ambivalence of the Russians, the Calvin Coolidge “our business is business” attitude of the Chinese, the transparent eagerness of the Obama Administration to evade the necessity of confronting Iranian hostility,  and also, of course, the undoubted bazaar skills of Tehran’s negotiators, whose task, however, was made all too easy by Kerry’s visible refusal to leave Geneva without his carpet, for which he made more and more concession as the days went by.

It is highly relevant to the question at hand, i.e. Israel’s propensity to act against Iran now that the Barjam has removed the priority of prolonging sanctions, that the interminable process that lead to it was prolonged by an absurd intelligence error, to wit the November 2007 publication by the Director of National Intelligence of a National Intelligence Estimate of the National Intelligence Council, whose opening phrase was to derail action for years: “We judge with high confidence that in the fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Weasel words followed (“we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons…”) but then came the clincher: “we do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” That is to say, the known criminal caught with a full kit of burglar tools in the richest part of town may have been on his way to...fish?

Amazingly, the compilers of this still revealing document missed the decisive significance of the specific date they themselves cited: Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program “in the fall of 2003,” i.e. just after U.S. forces had marched into Baghdad, raising the possibility that they might keep marching to reach Tehran as well. In other words, the Iranians had stopped in 2003 because they were terrified of the Americans, and would resume once they saw them floundering—not least because of their own arming of both Shia militias in Iraq and the (Shia-killer) Taliban in Afghanistan, i.e. well before November 2007 when U.S. intelligence issued its instantly obsolete flash-photograph of the heady days of 2003.

Given the appalling record of U.S. Intelligence on Iran, the Israelis will not be dissuaded from launching a pre-emptive attack they deem necessary by any reassurances offered by U.S. intelligence. For one thing, the Israelis refuse to compartmentalize the available information, as the Obama administration insists on doing by simply ignoring the significance of Iran’s undisputed procurement of ballistic missile technology in, as well as from, North Korea. Given that Iranian missile engineers are in North Korea, why not nuclear engineers as well?

Nor can the Israelis be dissuaded for long by the argument that any attack would undo “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon,” because even if there is no cheating at all, which is wildly improbable, the expiration of its critical restriction is just around the corner in military planning terms (“Iran must reduce its centrifuges to 6,104 for the next ten years”).

To some, the Barjam has made Iran’s regime somehow legitimate, even as the very thin façade of respectability of its determinedly affable negotiators cannot conceal an unending sequence of outrages and provocations. The British have just re-opened their embassy in Tehran, closed since a 2011 mob attack, and trade delegations are in town. But such things cannot inhibit the Israelis who will remain fully entitled to attack Iran any time they choose, because of its continuing acts of indirect and even direct aggression (Iranian officers have been killed on the Golan Heights). No country whose official slogan is “Death to Israel” can claim immunity from attack.

That being so, there will be no waiting around for the lengthy solemnities of the U.S. national intelligence estimating process (which last time presented 2003 realities in 2007) if the Israelis detect the violation that counts—imminent weaponization, perhaps accomplished in North Korea. If the post-Obama U.S. does not act promptly (as it might), they will, and in their own way, transcending the capability limits of the forces they are known to have.