Israeli intel. community battle continues on Iran nuke threat - Analysis

All Israeli defense officials frame the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as a major threat.

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran
An outgoing interview by IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom with Yediot Ahronot on Wednesday has once again laid bare some stark differences within Israel’s intelligence community about how best to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
All Israeli defense officials frame the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as a major threat.
But there are substantial disagreements about the degree of the threat, how soon it will be a threat and what to do about it.
This is not the first time there have been disagreements about how to handle a nuclear Iran in the top decision-making levels.
The debate would echo the all-out fight where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak were up against then-IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi in the 2010-and-after period.
During that period, Gantz followed Ashkenazi as IDF chief, and it was especially Ashkenazi who helped block an Israeli preemptive strike along with then-Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo.
Shalom addressed three major issues: overall policy, the timing of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon and Israeli intelligence’s ability to catch the Islamic Republic before it succeeds at breaking out to a nuclear weapon.
On all three points, Shalom’s views and the IDF confirmed that his views represented the current consensus of the analysis wing of IDF intelligence, work neatly into those of other top former and current IDF officials, while clashing with the views of Netanyahu and top current echelons of the Mossad.
The outgoing IDF intelligence analysis chief said that, to date, leaving the Iran nuclear deal and the maximum pressure campaign have not proven to be the best policy or slowed Tehran’s drive toward a bomb. The main point to support this would be that the Islamic Republic has much more enriched uranium now than before the maximum pressure campaign.
Next, he said that even if the ayatollahs decided tomorrow that they were ready to develop a nuclear bomb, it would take another two years.
Finally, he said that, while there is a good chance that Israeli intelligence would detect such an Iranian attempt to dash over the nuclear threshold, this was no sure thing.
In contrast, Netanyahu and the current top echelons of the Mossad have said that leaving the Iran agreement and the maximum pressure campaigns were major improvements in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
They have declared that Tehran is only three to four months away from enriching enough uranium for a nuclear weapon.
Finally, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen and others have given the impression that the coverage of Israeli intelligence in Iran at this time is virtually unlimited for knowing of any major developments.
This summer’s series of seemingly endless explosions in Iranian nuclear and other installations, some of which have been attributed by foreign sources to Israel, supported the view of how deeply Israel has penetrated Iran.
One difference in the debate on the timing is officials are talking about different markers.
Four months refers to how long it would take Iran to weaponize its current uranium stock if it made a push.
The two years Shalom mentioned include an additional period after that time to sort out a variety of unique problems with placing a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and delivering it against a distant target.
But there are real differences in timing.
When Shalom mentions two years, there is more of an assumption that activities for placing and delivering a nuclear weapon will wait until the uranium is weaponized.
But other top officials who view Iran as much closer to developing a nuclear bomb say that it could carry out many of these missile delivery activities in parallel to weaponizing uranium.
While the split on these issues with current officials to a large degree pits the IDF against Netanyahu and the Mossad, former top Mossad and IDF intelligence officials do not necessarily fit neatly into that divide.
One example is former Mossad Iran desk head and current INSS Iran desk head Sima Shine.
Noting that she has tremendous personal respect for Shalom, Shine told the Post that she agrees with the idea that exiting the deal and Trump’s maximum pressure campaign “has not proven itself” and that Iran has succeeded in enriching “much more uranium than it would have been allowed under the deal.”
The former Mossad official did qualify her last comment, noting no one can predict whether the maximum pressure campaign might be more successful in the future.
She also agreed with Shalom that Iran is far more than four months away from a nuclear bomb, which is a generic calculation regarding how fast a given volume of centrifuges could weaponize sufficient uranium for a bomb.
Shine said that the true test is for Iran to reach a political decision to try to break out toward a nuclear weapon.
This would include a variety of other assembly and testing activities which could take time, beyond enriching uranium.
Such a decision and these activities could expose Iran to a preemptive strike – exactly why she said the Islamic Republic seems deterred for the foreseeable future.
Shine is far from the only former Mossad official (another is former chief Shabtai Shavit) to tell the Post that the maximum pressure campaign has fallen short.
On the flip side, there was a variety of former officials who said that even if they respect Shalom as a top intelligence analyst, they believe he and others like him are missing the boat on Iran.
They say that the question is not whether Iran is theoretically closer to having enough enriched uranium for a bomb now than before the US pulled out of the Iran deal in May 2018.
Rather, they say the right question is whether the world is now positioned better to deter Tehran from developing a single nuclear weapon than it would have been with a deal which they say could have allowed the ayatollahs to develop a large nuclear arsenal in 2025 or 2030 – without evening violating the deal.
Put differently, they say Iran is more scared of the combined military and economic consequences if it tried to get a nuclear bomb now than it would have been of developing a much larger nuclear arsenal in the context of a nuclear deal destined to expire.
There are also long-standing differences among both defense and political officials about how much risk to take on in operations, including a potential preemptive strike, to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.
If one believes that Tehran is potentially only months from a nuclear weapon, that context could also justify greater risks than if there is still two years on the clock.
These different views are likely to start having more real-world consequences once the US presidential election is decided.