Last November, when Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi assumed his post as the new head of
Military Intelligence – otherwise known as Aman – he convened the directorate’s
top brass to show them a movie.
The three-minute film was essentially an
historical review of the various empires that rose and fell throughout the
Middle East starting with the kingdom of Egypt and moving throughout the
Hittites, the Babylonians, Persians, Romans and others up until modern day with
the establishment of nation states and borders.
The officers sat back in
silence and watched the movie listening attentively to the soft music in the
When the movie ended, Kochavi returned to the podium and
explained the significance behind it.
“Everything changes and everything
can change,” he told the intelligence officers. “We need to be prepared for
This was last November, before Tunisia revolted,
Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt, NATO began bombing Libya and the Syrian
people rose up against Bashar Assad.
This does not mean Kochavi predicted
the upheaval in the Middle East. In fact, he certainly didn’t predict this, as
his appearance before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in
late January showed him being quoted as saying Mubarak was not in danger of
falling. The Egyptian president stepped down just two weeks later.
during the past year in office, Kochavi has watched the Middle East he knew on
the eve of his appointment revolutionize before his eyes.
He often tells
people that the upheaval in the Middle East has brought him closer to the Book
of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), which is read over Succot and famously declares: “A
generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures
It has also brought him closer to his combat gear – he
previously served as commander of the Gaza Division – due to some predictions
that the upheaval and instability in the region could potentially increase the
chances of conflict for Israel.
In the more immediate term, this
translates into a major challenge for Aman in trying to collect intelligence on
the region. Trying to analyze what a leader like Assad will do is one thing.
Trying to analyze what the Egyptian people will do is another.
country that continues to gain from the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is
Iran, which with no real risk to the regime in sight is continuing to plow
forward with its nuclear program, leading some analysts to believe the window of
opportunity for a military strike against its nuclear facilities is
Avner Cohen, an Israeli-American expert on nuclear
proliferation, warned of this in an interview earlier this week in The Jerusalem
“The fact that the Iranian nuclear program is further dispersed,
that the time for Iran to reach a breakout capability gets shorter and that
material can be moved quickly from site to site, would require a very dynamic
intelligence capability to know where everything is,” Cohen said.
assessment shared by Cohen and other analysts stems from recent announcements by
the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization that it is installing advanced new
centrifuges at the Fordo facility buried under a mountain near the city of
Existence of the Fordo facility was revealed in 2009 but had
actually been discovered by US intelligence several years earlier. Qom was the
ideal location for a secretive site and represents everything the West has to be
scared of when planning strategy against Iran.
One of the holiest cities
in Shi’ite Islam, Qom is home to some of the greatest Shi’ite scholars and texts
as well as the resting place of Fatimah bint Musa’ al-Kadhim, daughter of the
It was also the city where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
planned the Islamic Revolution before his exile to France in 1965 making the
city the ideal place to hide the facility that was supposed to manufacture the
highly-enriched fissionable material needed for the Shi’ite bomb.
of the existence of additional facilities have been at the focus of Israeli,
American and European intelligence work for the past two decades. The
construction at Qom was the materialization of that fear and is presumed to not
be the last of its kind.
In addition to the installation of centrifuges
at Fordo, another element that leads to the assessment that the strike window is
closing is Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium to 20-percent
Iran has already accumulated a significant quantity of uranium
enriched to 20% – under the claim that it is needed to operate the Tehran
Research Reactor – but it dramatically cuts down the time it will take if the
regime decides to move the dial up and enrich to over 90%, militarygrade
That is why a number of experts have been pressuring US President
Barack Obama to accept an Iranian offer – made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
last month and enter negotiations over a suspension of enrichment to 20% in
exchange for fuel needed to power its reactor.
The Institute for Science
and International Security, headed by world-renowned nuclear expert David
Albright, urged Obama in a recent paper to pursue the Iranian offer that would
then slow down its pursuit of a nuclear weapon at known enrichment
Iran already has over five tons of low-enriched uranium at
around 3% levels, but the uranium enriched to 20% significantly reduces the
amount of time to go to the breakout stage and enrich weapons-grade material to
just a number of months. The reason the strike window is closing is because the
more Iran disperses its enrichment capabilities, the more difficult it then
becomes to destroy them, particularly in a place like the Fordo facility, which
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has already said is immune to conventional
While signing a deal with Iran over the 20% would not solve the
nuclear standoff, proponents of the deal argue it would gain time for the US to
further contain Iran, increase sanctions and prevent an Israeli military
It is questionable today if an Israeli airstrike is really that
imminent. On the one hand, operationally speaking, the winter is never a good
time for a war due to the difficulty in conducting aerial surveillance and
conducting airstrikes when there are clouds.
From a political
perspective, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might be thinking it is in his
interest to wait for the presidential elections in the US next November before
If Israel attacks now, without the support of the US, and
then Obama is reelected for another term, ties between the two leaders will most
definitely be strained. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Israel earlier
this month was aimed at ensuring Israel is not planning any military
Netanyahu might be thinking though, that if, on the other hand, a
Republican candidate wins Israel might have a more sympathetic friend in the
White House and would then receive more support for unilateral
The same applies to the Palestinian front. While Israel will
continue to take steps and make decisions aimed at refuting the claim that it is
the one rejecting peace talks – such as embracing the Quartet’s recent
initiative – Netanyahu might be thinking all he needs to do is get through this
coming year, and then once a Republican is elected everything goes back to
Either option entails a number of risks for Israel but
unfortunately time is not on Jerusalem’s side.
Regarding Iran, the
current assessment, shared by most Western intelligence agencies, is that once a
decision is made to make the bomb it will take Iran approximately one year to
create a first device and then another one to two years to make a warhead that
could be installed on a ballistic missile.
When would a decision be made?
Such a decision is not expected in the coming months but it ultimately depends
on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man who Western intelligence
agencies believe has the final say on nuclear matters and would be in charge of
making such a decision.