From the beginning of Teheran's march towards a nuclear capability, Israel has attempted to convince the world of the danger posed by a nuclear Iran. According to a former Mossad director, should Israel remain alone in its efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, it has only one viable option before Iran achieves its goal: to strike its most important nuclear facilities and set its program back by several years - this, instead of attempting to wipe out its program entirely, which may be beyond Israel's ability. And once the Iranians recover and begin advancing - which they will - strike them again and again, until they decide to pursue a different path.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of next week's Seventh Annual International Institute of Counter-Terrorism (ICT) Conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, former Mossad chief and current ICT chairman Shabtai Shavit says only military force can stop an Iran bent on achieving nuclear capability.
Looking across the Middle East, Shavit argues that the US cannot afford to retreat from Iraq to "Fortress America"; decries the Israeli government's lack of a pro-active strategy against Hamas in Gaza; and says an open conflict between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank is not far down the road.
It hasn't always been easy to convince partners that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, says Shavit, who directed the Mossad from 1989 to 1996. Even today, there are people who still believe the Iranians are enriching uranium for energy purposes.
"When the first Gulf War ended in 1991, we raised the red flag: The Iranians were taking steps to achieve unconventional weapons capability. People looked at us like aliens who landed here from outer space. Nobody believed us. And when nobody believes you, what can you do? You carry on monitoring and collecting intelligence, analyzing and accompanying processes. Along this road you eventually manage to convince people of your assessment, and you win over supporters, both at home and in America. One morning they wake up and say, 'Oh, that's right, the Iranians really are working to produce a nuclear bomb, as well as surface-to-surface missiles with warheads that can carry nuclear bombs.' At that stage the issue becomes very relevant, very acute and very pressing," he says.
Nothing short of military intervention will stop the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapons program, says Shavit, careful with his choice of words: military intervention, not war - as war carries with it connotations of land, sea and air forces. He is equally cautious with his use of the word "stop" - as in stop the Iranian nuclear march. He prefers "set it back."
"Through the use of force, Iran can be set back. I am taking the example of our aerial assault on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak [in 1981]. We did not eliminate their capability entirely. I even remember Saddam Hussein saying after our attack, 'OK, they managed to destroy our metal bars, but they will never be able to destroy what our scientists have in their heads.' And he was correct. You cannot root out the intellectual knowledge and scientific expertise that they have developed over time. So, in any case you're not talking about a strike that is designed to completely obliterate all their capabilities. You're talking about a strike that is designed to set them back - to throw them back a good few years - and to hope this will lead the rulers, and the public, to the realization that it is not in their interest to continue down this path," says Shavit.
What distinguishes the Iranian case from Osirak, is that the Iraqi nuclear reactor was one target, which when hit, caused Saddam irreversible damage.
"The Iranians learned from the Iraqi case, in that they have gone for the centrifuge method of enriching uranium, whereas Saddam was creating weapons-grade plutonium only. These centrifuges you can hide in your chicken coop in your garden, and the Iranians are also developing along a dual track: the protogenic route [chemical reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel], as well as enriching uranium through centrifuges. Iran is also a very large country, and they have used this to hide, disperse and protect their facilities. But still, with good intelligence - and there is good intelligence - it is possible to sift out, identify and strike targets whose destruction will be very significant, if the aim is really to set them back, and not completely destroy their capability," Shavit asserts.
"As far as my knowledge of the security-intelligence relationship between Israel and the US is concerned, America has always done what is in America's national interest. In those cases where their national interests coincided with ours, it was good. And when their national interest did not coincide with ours, they continued doing what was in their own national interest. They never asked us for advice about what do in Iraq, and to the best of my knowledge, we never offered our services, nor did we offer to be involved in their Iraq campaign," Shavit says, jumping into the debate stoked once again by the publication of "The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy," a study by US academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. The pair argue that the Israel lobby in DC [AIPAC] pushed America into toppling Saddam Hussein, and is now pushing the US to attack Iran.
REGARDING THIS week's British pullout from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Shavit says it was inevitable that newly instated UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown would disassociate himself from his predecessor's tight support for American policy in Iraq, which is highly unpopular in Britain.
"Brown is not [Tony] Blair. He won't be Bush's poodle. From the word 'go,' he worked to insert daylight into the relationship between the UK and the US, thus widening his support base and gaining popularity at home, and the Basra withdrawal is one of the outcomes of that," Shavit says, adding that he does not see the Basra withdrawal as indicative of a major strategic coalition change. The British force leaving Basra numbers around 5,000. If you are there with 5,000, your presence is hardly felt, and if you withdraw with 5,000, your absence will hardly be felt," Shavit says.
America, on the other hand, cannot leave Iraq now and hope to maintain its status as the world's policeman, Shavit argues.
"The US cannot afford the luxury of getting out of Iraq now. It is too energy dependent on the Middle East and the Gulf ... and it cannot leave the region until its dependency is reduced. Iraq has oil, and is surrounded by oil, and if 170,000 American troops leave Iraq the way it is now, the whole region is headed for a tailspin. Every nightmare you can imagine will materialize: The Sunni-Shi'ite war spins out of control and becomes even more bloody; Iran gains in strength and deepens its involvement everywhere; Turkey enters northern Iraq and takes control of Kirkuk, mostly for the region's oil; the destruction of the new Kurdish revival; serious destabilization of Saudi Arabia; the Gulf economies, which are among the fastest growing on the planet, are wiped out; the Chinese and Russians increase their strength and become superpowers challenging America," Shavit explains, adding that Israel will be affected by all of the above situations, and, he hopes, has started planning for "a series of responses" to these challenges.
"I don't see the Americans withdrawing any time soon, even if there is a Democratic president in the next administration. Some forces may be reduced, and they may take some actions that, to the outside observer may seem like America is preparing to carry out a withdrawal strategy cooked up by the Democrats, but the US cannot withdraw its army from Iraq."
SPEAKING TO The Jerusalem Post on Monday, hours after rockets struck the courtyard of a Sderot kindergarten, Shavit said that if, as he feared, the government was essentially adopting a strategy of "waiting for babies to die" before sending IDF divisions into the Gaza Strip, it would show that "Israeli deterrence is in the dregs. Our strategy should be one of offense, not defense," Shavit elaborated. " There is no need to send three battalions into Gaza. There are varied means of achieving a pro-active strategy, as we have done in the past. And when we did take a pro-active approach, largely through targeted assassinations, Hamas called for a period of calm [tahadiyeh]. When we were hitting their political leadership, military leadership, and weapons experts, Hamas looked for a cease-fire. We need to change the equation from one of 'They fire at us and we respond,' to 'We attack them and they go into defensive mode,'" Shavit urged. "The Gaza Strip is a thorn in the side of the Mideast as a whole. For the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians, Hamas represents a real threat, because it is part of the idea of radical, fundamentalist Islam threatening the stability of moderate regimes in the whole region. Israel needs to maintain a long-term dialogue with these moderate states, but it should not talk to Hamas. You don't talk to Hamas; you wage a war to the finish with Hamas. Hamas needs to send envoys to us to beg us to talk to them, saying they agree to live by our demands."
AS FOR the West Bank, Shavit notices a certain dynamic taking place there. The radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements are trying to expand their military and political power with the support of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran; the balance of forces, in the meantime, is tipped in favor of the Palestinian Authority; Israel is helping the PA contain the radical groups with its presence there and through its continual arrest raids; America is helping with money and training of the PA security services.
"Down the line, it is quite possible that this dynamic will lead to open conflict between the PA and the terror groups in the West Bank," Shavit said.
This open conflict could be set in motion by a deal between Israel and the PA, hammered out at the international peace conference set for November, in which an IDF withdrawal from West Bank cities would render PA security forces ineffectual in dealing with a resurgent Hamas.
What happened in Gaza could happen in the West Bank, too. Marwan Barghouti hinted as much when he said this week that Hamas could orchestrate an armed takeover in the West Bank. "It would be a mistake if the Palestinian Authority doesn't take this possibility seriously, especially as the security services are so weak," the jailed Fatah leader said in a statement released through his lawyer.
THEN THERE'S Egypt. Recent reports on the possibly deteriorating health of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have reminded Israeli security experts that their large neighbor finds itself at the tail end of the Mubarak era, and that the future course of that country and its relations with the Jewish state may enter a period of relative uncertainty.
Shavit does not see any signs of a takeover by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, as the army and security services are loyal to the current administration. Incessant media reports to the contrary, much focus within IDF training and planning is on the Southwest (Egypt), and not solely the Northeast (Syria and the Hizbullah in Lebanon).
While Egypt remains an important strategic ally both to Israel and the US, growing frustration at Cairo's inability/unwillingness to clamp down on arms-smuggling from the Sinai into Gaza has been registered in Jerusalem and Washington. Egypt's answer is twofold: It is limited by the number and type of forces it is allowed to introduce into the Sinai by its peace accord with Israel; and, "Well, if the mighty IDF can't stop the smuggling, what do you expect from us?"
Shavit thinks Egypt will eventually come to realize the danger posed by "Hamastan" and the larger movement it represents - not to Israel, but to Egypt and the region as a whole. When that realization happens, Cairo will act. But it cannot operate too aggressively against Hamas without tacit support from a coalition of other Arab states.
"If Mubarak acts against Hamas alone, he will be deeply unpopular in the Middle East," Shavit added.
LOOKING AT the results of the Second Lebanon War, Shavit said:
"Hizbullah is in a much worse situation than it was before last year's war, on many parameters. The Lebanese government is managing to function with massive outside help from America and France. We see also that the Lebanese Army, which was always thought to be a caricature army, has been able to defeat the insurgents in the Palestinian refugee camp of Naher el-Bared. What is important to watch now is the upcoming presidential elections to see if a pro-Syrian or pro-independent Lebanon president is chosen."
He also claimed that this year's hype of possible war with Syria was just that.
"All the talk of war, no war, negotiations, no negotiations, is one big exercise in media spin. My assessment is that there won't be a war this summer," he said in a derisive tone.
But what of the Syria-Iran alliance? According to Shavit, Damascus will not break its ties with Teheran without undergoing an arduous process in which it is offered something really big in return.
Which brings us to global terrorism. "Some are trying to characterize it as an octopus, with a big head and many tentacles, and paint it as a very, very large threat," Shavit said. "But if you examine this threat with regard to its results, [the terrorists] haven't managed to pull off an attack similar to that of 9/11. The attacks they have managed to execute since then have been limited in scope, reach, impact and frequency, and are continuing to decrease. The world, by and large, has made a huge jump since 9/11 in the defensive and offensive areas. The motivation exists; the decisions to carry out attacks are taken; but the implementation is lacking. The last major attacks executed were those on the train in Spain and the nightclub in Bali. The rest have been much smaller."