SPIEGEL: The Israeli Air Force recently simulated an attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in a top secret maneuver over the Mediterranean. Do you have such a low opinion of Western sanctions?
Isaac Ben-Israel: Neither the sanctions nor diplomacy have had much of an effect. Today, the Iranians are one to two years away from building a nuclear bomb. We held this military exercise to prepare for the eventuality that the international community will not be able to put a halt to Irans nuclear program. It was not the first exercise, and it wont be the last.
SPIEGEL: Are the sanctions useless, in your opinion?
Ben-Israel: They do have a certain effect, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is prepared to pay this price to achieve his strategic objective: the bomb. Due to the economic boycott to date, Iran is unable, for instance, to refine enough crude oil. This has forced the government to ration fuel for cars. Today, every Iranian receives 100 liters (26.5 gallons) a month, which is not much for such a large country. And sanctions against Iranian banks have led to financial difficulties. But that is not enough.
SPIEGEL: What do you suggest?
Ben-Israel: Refusing to allow Iranians to enter Europe, for example, or excluding Iran from the Olympic Games in Beijing. Trade also needs to be significantly more restricted. These days everyone can do business with Iran, as long as they are not dealing in military goods.
SPIEGEL: The West is demanding that the Iranians stop enriching uranium. What can Iran receive in return?
Ben-Israel: We also have to offer something to the Iranians. For example, if they put a stop to the uranium enrichment, then we will help them build up their economy. It requires the right combination of the carrot and the stick. We have to make it clear to the Iranian president that he stands to lose more than he can win.
SPIEGEL: Do you think the international community can convince Tehran to make concessions?
Ben-Israel: I still have not given up hope. If Russia and China endorse the sanctions, the United Nations may be able to achieve their goal. One thing is certain: Israel will not stand by idly while Iran builds a nuclear bomb. If necessary, we will use force.
SPIEGEL: You took part in the planning of the 1981 air strikes on Iraqs Osirak nuclear reactor. An air raid on the Iranian nuclear facilities will be considerably more difficult because they are spread out over a number of different locations and some of them are underground.
Ben-Israel: It may be more difficult, but it is possible. We could do it today. There is only one thing that keeps us from acting: The problem can still be solved another way. Only once the critical point is reached will we choose the final option.
SPIEGEL: When will the critical point be reached?
Ben-Israel: The intelligence services will make sure that we know.
SPIEGEL: Iran would not let a military strike go unanswered.
Ben-Israel: Of course they will react, they will launch a few dozen rockets at us, but thats not so bad. And of course they can set the Lebanese Hezbollah on us. They are better armed than two years ago
SPIEGEL: ... when the Shiite militia seriously shook Israel during the Second Lebanon War.
Ben-Israel: We wont repeat the mistake of 2006. At the time, we hesitated too long and did not act resolutely enough against Hezbollah. Of course they could carry out terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli institutions around the world. And they could spark a global crisis of sorts by halting their oil production.
SPIEGEL: Arent those plenty of reasons not to resort to a military strike?
Ben-Israel: We have been living with terror for 80 years. And even if it gets worse, we will continue to live with it. That is not such a big problem. The problem is that Tehran must not be allowed to come into possession of a nuclear bomb.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that the mullahs would also use the bomb?
Ben-Israel: They wouldnt be that crazy, at least they wont launch nuclear missiles at us directly from Iran. But they could, for example, give the bomb to Hezbollah, I think they are that crazy.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Christoph Schult