An interview with Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak — thinly disguised as “the decision-maker” created a sensation in early August, when he suggested that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was imminent:
As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything … For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.
Barak explained that Israel could not depend on an American commitment to destroy the program in the future, even if it were made today:
Ostensibly the Americans could easily bridge this gap,” he believes. “They could say clearly that if by next spring the Iranians still have a nuclear program, they will destroy it. But the Americans are not making this simple statement because countries don’t make these kinds of statements to each other. In statesmanship there are no future contracts. The American president cannot commit now to a decision that he will or will not make six months from now.
So the expectation of such a binding American assurance now is not serious. There is no such thing. Not to mention that President Obama doesn’t even know if he’ll still be sitting in the Oval Office come spring. And if Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to. [my emphasis]
Suddenly last week, Barak began to sing a different tune. In an interview with the UK Daily Telegraph’s David Blair, he backed off:
His gnawing concern is that Tehran will fortify its nuclear plants, particularly the enrichment facility dug into a mountainside at Fordow, to the point where they become invulnerable to the striking power of Israel’s air force. If Iran reaches this “zone of immunity”, Israel would lose its ability to deal independently with a crucial threat, forcing the country to trust the rest of the world and break the principle of self-reliance that underlies its very foundation.
Earlier this year, however, Iran delayed the arrival of that moment. Tehran has amassed 189kg of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity, a vital step towards weapons-grade material. In August, the country’s experts took 38 per cent of this stockpile and converted it into fuel rods for a civilian research reactor, thus putting off the moment when they would be able to make uranium of sufficient purity for a nuclear bomb.
Mr Barak said this decision “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to 10 months”.
We can relax for a while, right?
I don’t think so. The problem is that the conversion of some relatively highly-enriched uranium into fuel rods does not stop Iran’s progress toward the “immunity zone,” even if it may delay the arrival of the day that a bomb can be assembled. The regime can still “fortify and disperse” its facilities so as to reduce the effectiveness of an Israeli attack. And they are doing so, continuing work on the deeply-buried Fordow plant.
Barak’s logic in August was that what was driving Israel’s decision wasn’t Iran’s progress towards a bomb per se, but rather its progress towards the “immunity zone.” And this progress hasn’t stopped. The argument is no less sound today than it was then.
We also need to keep in mind that fuel rods can be reprocessed, and that there are certainly things that we don’t know about the Iranian program (what Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”).