Iran's Bomb

09.10.13

A Very Israeli Linkage: Iran's Nuclear Bomb and Peace With Palestine

The last 10 months have seen a slow yet evident sunset of Israeli threats in regards to Iran's nuclear program. The watershed moment was—somewhat unexpectedly—Prime Minister's Netanyahu's United Nations speech, when he drew the Israeli red line (literally) regarding Iran's uranium enrichment.

That speech came after months of speculation in the international and Israeli media on Israel's military option, its probability and possible effect. Netanyahu's speech drew a line that referred to the amount of 20 percent uranium held by Iran, and the Iranians are still—by virtue of this red line or because of other reasons—careful not to cross it. They have been continuously converting some of their high grade material to nuclear fuel rods, thus substantially slowing down the growth of their stockpiles. Meanwhile, the credibility of the Israeli military threat was eroded by a series of off-and-on-the-record quotes, originating both in Israel and the U.S., questioning the Israeli army's ability to carry out a successful and effective strike. Israel had an election, so did Iran, threats from all sides have been diluted and the situation seemed relatively (a crucial word in the Middle East) stable.

This quiet is misleading, argue Israeli decision makers. For one thing, Netanyahu decided to pursue an aggressive line against Iran's new President, describing Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Jerusalem is extremely worried that the international community will adopt a forgiving stance towards the reformist-styled president, and Netanyahu is forever quick to hoist the banner of alarm.

But the issues at hand are much more practical. In 2012 a high ranking Israeli decision maker who actually supported a strike remarked that "the only difference between me and the chief of staff (of the Israeli army) or the head of the Mossad (both were against Israel going at it alone) are the dates. They say 2014 and I say 2012." (he spoke, naturally, off the record). With 2014 quickly approaching, Israeli officials say a decision is now possible. Of course one should be careful with these deadlines, which  for Israeli insiders have come to resemble a sort of folklore ("oh, I remember when they said 2005 was the year of decision, then 2007, 2008").

Yet there are some elements which actually give credibility for approaching 2014 as a crucial year. Some of them are political and quite obvious—the frustration from the ongoing stalemate, Rouhani's rise to power, increased pressure on Iran's economy. Yet the essence lies with the technicalities of Iran's nuclear program. The heavy water Arak reactor is scheduled to become active in the summer of 2014. The reactor has the potential to produce weapon grade plutonium. Any strike after the reactor turns "hot" might result in substantial radiation pollution, which is why the general assessment in Israel is that the reactor's activation should be prevented. Some put it bluntly: They say that if Arak starts working, Iran's bomb is inevitable.

It is not only Arak. The increased numbers of uranium enriching centrifuges theoretically makes it possible for Iran to "breakout" to a bomb at an unprecedntedly rapid pace. According to the latest IAEA report, thousands might become operational soon. When the world learns about this breakout, it will be too late. David Albright from ISIS labels this possibility "critical capability," meaning "technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected."  In relation to such a scenario, Ehud Barak, the former Israeli defense minister, says in private conversations that it is "too early [to strike, N.E], too early, and then it's too late."

Spring 2014 should be important not only because of Iran. The nine month timeline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is supposed to lead to a final statues agreement in March-April 2014. Very few insiders, at least in the Middle East, believe that an agreement will reached according to this schedule, but most agree that a general direction will be known by then. In a rare case of mutual agreement, both sides are highly skeptical.

So the two big issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear program, are coming to a joint juncture— spring 2014. And here comes the linkage theory, which is very popular in Israel these days. According to this theory, the Israeli-Palestinian process is directly linked, in the policies of Israeli and American decision makers, to Iran's nuclear program.

The idea is that there is a tradeoff involved: the Israelis will advance to a final statues agreement, one that includes dramatic compromise, if the Americans lead an international solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis—by any means.

An Israeli minister argued, off the record, that "what Jerusalem understands is that it needs to show good faith, real good faith, in order for the Americans to have leverage to act, if needed, on Iran." He went even further: "if someone thinks that we will reach a historical deal for the formation of another state between the sea and the Jordan River while knowing that Iran has just become nuclea—well, he is mistaken." He meant that Iran's achieving nuclear capability is likely to result in growing influence, which already stretches to some extent to Gaza and the West Bank. Alon Ben David, senior military correspondent for Channel 10, wrote recently in an article for Haaretz newspaper: "the choice for Netanyahu will be cruel: Either give up precious parts of the [historical] Land of Israel or remain alone against what he sees as a threat of destruction."

Will the Obama administration frame the issue in the same terms? It seems unlikely. Obama's commitment to preventing Iran from achieving amilitary nuclear capability cannot be publically linked or conditioned on the peace process with the Palestinians. Yet arguably, if Israel advances to an agreement, the possibility of assembling an international coalition against Iran widens. An agreement will also sharpen the divide between the moderates in the region and the axis of Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. A historic settlement would grant Netanyahu prestige and widen Israeli leverage for a possible preemptive strike. Its hard to imagine Israelis supporting a historic and painful agreement with the Palestinians and discovering, the same spring, that the Iranian bomb is inevitable. This is the stuff of nightmares for an Israeli prime minister.

The whole argument seems a notch too neat for international politics. The negotiations with the Palestinians are not really expected to mature by spring 2014, and Israel's decision on Iran would probably come before any breakthrough with them. Yet creating a linkage provides Netanyahu with a very potent rgument for a peace deal: a compromise not only for the end of the conflict but also to ensure a lasting strategic security. That's a powerful pitch if the Prime Minister wants convince Israelis to vote for his peace deal. Linkage or no linkage, the question as to Netanyahu's intentions remains.