Analysis: Israel’s red line

Israel and the West have reportedly spoken about a clear red line that, if crossed, meant military action against Iran.

Natanz nuclear facility_311 reuters (photo credit: STR New / Reuters)
Natanz nuclear facility_311 reuters
(photo credit: STR New / Reuters)
For the past year, Israel and the West have reportedly spoken about a clear red line that, if crossed, meant military action was likely the only way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
This imaginary line has delineated the point where the Iranians go to the so-called “breakout stage,” kick out international inspectors from their facilities, start enriching uranium to military- grade levels and begin building a nuclear bomb.
RELATED:Ahmadinejad, Chavez mock US, joke about bombUS: Iran uranium enrichment a 'further escalation'According to updated intelligence assessments, if this were to happen tomorrow, it would take the Iranians anywhere from six to 18 more months to complete a device.
The announcement on Monday that the Fordow facility near Qom has been activated has the potential of becoming a game-changer and could ultimately lead the Israeli government to move up its attack plans against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
There is a very simple reason for this: Fordow can store several thousand centrifuges as well as between one and two tons of enriched uranium.
It is burrowed under hundreds of feet of mountain and, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said in the past, is immune to conventional military strikes.
This means that the dispersal of such capabilities to Fordow could make a military strike ineffective since even if the other key facilities – Arak, Natanz, Isfahan and Bushehr – are destroyed, the enriched uranium at Fordow would survive and could still be used to build a bomb.
For this very reason, while Israel has agreed with the West that Iran is not yet building a bomb, its timeline has not been based solely on that consideration. Israelis have also always spoken about the parallel, but independent, process that is moving forward all the time – the fortification, dispersion and increasing immunity of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
For Washington, the activation of Fordow is not, in of itself, a red line. This was made clear by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sunday when he appeared on the television program Face the Nation and said that, for the United States, the red line was the development of a nuclear weapon, not just the capability.
It is also not completely clear if the activation of the facility is on its own enough of a red line for Israel that it would prompt a military strike. This is particularly true now that the world appears to be cracking down harder than ever on Iran’s economy – the US recently imposed new sanctions and the European Union is looking to ban Iranian oil.
Israel might prefer to let that move play itself out first.
But even without Fordow in the equation, Israeli and American intelligence agencies need to ask themselves a very basic question: Do they would know if Iran has gone to the breakout stage and is building a bomb.
Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz is under IAEA supervision, and if the military- grade enrichment is done there the world would know.
There is, however, always the possibility that somewhere else in Iran there is nuclearrelated activity taking place that nobody knows about.
While Israel and the US are confident that they have a good handle on developments there, intelligence blunders have cost both countries dearly.
They cannot afford another one when it comes to Iran.
That is why, while the activation of the Fordow facility is a source for concern, Israel is not expected to immediately fuel its jets and fly to bomb Iran.
There is a lot of signaling going on in the region right now – the British are sending a warship to the Persian Gulf, the US and Iran are exchanging threats over the Straits of Hormuz, and the US and Israel are gearing up for the largest-ever joint missile defense exercise.
The announcement that Fordow is being activated could be an attempt by Tehran to increase its leverage ahead of new talks with the West, reported to be scheduled to resume soon in Turkey.
Either way, the nuclear clock is ticking, and today it is moving faster than before.