Tehran's Last Chance Israel, Iran and the Battle for the Bomb
Israel has been doing everything in its power to stop Iran's atomic program, from targeted killings to computer worms. Now, a bombing raid on Iran's nuclear facilities may be just months away. But an Israeli attack could have the effect of strengthening the regime -- and make it more determined than ever to build the bomb. By SPIEGEL Staff.
Twelve hours is an agonizingly long time for endurance athletes as they punish their bodies, pushing themselves to the ultimate limit in events like triathlons or mountain bike races.
Twelve hours is also an agonizingly long time for politicians, acting under the pressure of an ultimatum, to prevent a war that would mean the inevitable deaths of large numbers of people.
In 1914, the German Reich gave the Russians 12 hours to stop mobilizing their troops. In 1956, the French and the British gave then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser the same amount of time to withdraw his troops from the Suez Canal, which he had just nationalized, and allow Israel to use the waterway again. A war ensued in both cases, partly because those who had threatened to use military force knew that it would hardly be possible to comply with their demands so quickly. In other words, they wanted the situation to escalate.
An Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would apparently also involve a 12-hour lead time. According to intelligence sources in Tel Aviv, Israeli politicians told Martin Dempsey, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Israeli leadership intends to give the White House only half a day's notice once it has decided to proceed with a military strike. In other words, Israel wants to be sure of two things: on the one hand, that US President Barack Obama is not taken completely by surprise by a possible attack, and on the other that he is not in a position to seriously question his ally's decision and undermine it with diplomatic efforts.
Is this how a country should treat its most important ally? Is this the way it should pressure the very power on whose goodwill it depends?
The dispute over whether Iran can be deterred from its shadowy nuclear ambitions through diplomacy and sanctions or solely through a military strike will be the dominant issue in Washington this week.
Already in Turmoil
The hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Barack Obama, the world's most powerful man and a man who Netanyahu has often humiliated in the past with his pigheadedness. These two unequal leaders, who clearly dislike each other, plan to talk about war and peace, and about a region that is already in turmoil.
Of course the meeting, which is already being described as historic before it has even taken place, is about Iran. Most of all, however, it will be a tug of war between Israel and the United States, which are deeply divided in the debate over the possibility of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.
Obama doesn't want Iran to get the bomb, but he also doesn't want war. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is prepared to do anything to put Tehran in its place. He will ask the US president to take a tougher stance on Iran. Obama's insistence that "all options are on the table" is no longer enough for Jerusalem. Netanyahu wants Obama to put his cards on the table. He wants Obama to clearly identify the "red line" that Iran would have to cross for Washington to participate in a military strike or at least support a strike by Israel -- or to let him know if Israel would ultimately be on its own if it decides to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.
In interviews leading up to the meeting, Obama has already affirmed that he will support Israel and instruct the US military to destroy Iran's nuclear program if need be. "I don't bluff," he warned.
There is still no absolute proof -- the famous "smoking gun" -- that Tehran is actually developing a bomb. Even the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), hasn't been able to furnish such evidence. There are indications on which the IAEA bases its assumptions, including a large number of observations by IAEA inspectors, as well as reports provided to the agency by individual intelligence agencies. Based on this information, the IAEA concludes that it cannot rule out that the Iranian nuclear program has a "military dimension."
The Same Trap
Do these indications justify a war, one that could take an already unstable region to the brink of disaster? The experiences from the Iraq war suggest that caution is advisable. The campaign against former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was conducted on the basis of false evidence. The weapons of mass destruction he had allegedly produced and stockpiled never existed. Obama doesn't want to walk into the same trap.
In reality, it would seem as though the war between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program has been underway for some time. It is an undeclared war, a shadow war, which Jerusalem is thought to have begun four years ago. Israeli hit squads are thought to have killed Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran using magnetic bombs, Israeli agents have attacked and leveled Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases and computer viruses were used to cripple Iranian nuclear technology.
Now the Iranians are trying to strike back. Three weeks ago, car bombs targeting Israeli diplomats exploded in India and Georgia, and Iranians were arrested in Bangkok and Malaysia after the bombs they had intended to use exploded early, while they were still in hiding.
Events have been happening fast in the smoldering Israel-Iranian conflict. A new parliament was elected in Iran last Friday. Whether the supporters of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevail could determine Tehran's further handling of the nuclear conflict.
Behind closed doors at IAEA headquarters in Vienna this week, officials will debate the most recent report for the board of governors, which SPIEGEL has obtained. In the report, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stresses his "serious and growing concerns" over Iran's nuclear ambitions. He writes that he is dismayed over how massively Tehran has expanded its uranium enrichment capabilities.
It now seems likely that there will be an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, perhaps on the uranium enrichment facilities near the cities of Natanz and Qom, the conversion plant near Isfahan, the heavy water reactor under construction in Arak or the Bushehr nuclear power plant. According to off-the-record conversations with high-level politicians, military officials and experts from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, it will happen this year, probably between the summer and the fall. Officials in Washington, on the other hand, anticipate a military strike as early as May, an assumption that Berlin also feels is absolutely realistic.