Security and Defense: Coping with constant change

Intel chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi finds himself having to assess a region under upheaval, a state of flux that Iran stands to gain from.

Aviv Kochavi 311 (photo credit: IDF)
Aviv Kochavi 311
(photo credit: IDF)
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 background.
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 every possibility.”
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.
But 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 forever.”
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.
The one 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 closing.
Avner Cohen, an Israeli-American expert on nuclear proliferation, warned of this in an interview earlier this week in The Jerusalem Post.
“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.
The 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 Qom.
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 Seventh Imam.
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.
Fears 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 levels.
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 levels.
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 facilities.
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 bombings.
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 strike.
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 taking action.
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 action.
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 action.
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 square one.
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.