Iran, Dagan and Bibi's failing plan

In a sense Dagan’s remarks are a blessing in disguise for the PM. Letting everyone know that a military strike isn't a realistic option may relieve some of the pressure Netanyahu will face to come through on his word and deal with the Iranian threat.

Dagan 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dagan 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last month, former Mossad head Meir Dagan became the first Israeli official to come clean. In no uncertain terms, he told the public what had been obvious for some time: that at this juncture, an Israeli-led military strike would be a “stupid” option in trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
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Since making his remarks, Dagan has come under a barrage of criticism. This past Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that by “dispersing the ambiguity surrounding the issue of Iran” Dagan had undermined Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. The harshest criticism came from those close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with some even describing Dagan’s outspokenness as "an attempt to topple the prime minister."
That particular accusation is almost as ridiculous as the notion that Israel still possesses a realistic military alternative. Dagan’s remarks were simply a correction of Netanyahu’s populism over the past five years. As for those who still think that this ambiguity is somehow deterring Iran, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. For those who think it is motivating the international community to take action, go get another cup.
To begin, Dagan’s comments reflect what really has been the inevitable conclusion for the past four years.  Previously, whenever Israeli intelligence estimated where Iran’s nuclear program stood, the focus was not on how long it would take for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon but rather on how much time remained until Iran passed the “point of no return.” This was defined as the point after which Iran would no longer be dependent on outside help or materials to continue in its progress towards manufacturing the weapons.
On May 23, 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report which essentially stated that this point was passed. The then-director general of the IAEA, Muhhammad al-Baradai, told The New York Times, “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich [uranium].”
Building a nuclear bomb is never straightforward and numerous technical obstacles must be overcome. Yet, of all the bottlenecks preventing countries from building a bomb, uranium enrichment is the most difficult to master. Up until the release of that IAEA report, a military strike destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities coupled with international sanctions to preclude the import of materiel could have delayed Iran from acquiring the requisite technology for decades.
However, now that Iran has acquired the know-how to manufacture its own centrifuges, operating them in tandem as uranium flows through them, a small scale military strike (which is all Israel can muster) will only set back the clock by a few years at best.
Following such a strike, Iran could easily build a new facility to replace Natanz (the present focus of enrichment activities), filling it with thousands of centrifuges. Only this time, we may not know the facility’s location. Iran may have even built such a reserve facility in secret already, waiting for just such an occasion.
Still, one could try and argue that such a military strike might not be entirely pointless. Even if we could only push Iran back five years, this could help the West buy time needed to develop more reliable anti-missile defenses, especially what is referred to as “boost phase intercept,” (or BPI), which aims to knock out missiles as they take off (i.e. in their “boost phase”).  Not only is it many times easier to track and to intercept a missile at that stage, but by shooting down a missile over enemy territory, any warhead and all of the debris also falls back onto the shooter rather than onto the defender's territory. Effective BPI would be the ultimate in deterrence.
But BPI is still many years away from deployment. And in the meantime, the cost of an Israeli strike on Iran is bound to be enormous: Iranian retaliation would be extensive and painful. It would include Shihab missile strikes on Israel cities and strategic sites, with conventional or even chemical warheads. Hizbullah would use its enormous rocket arsenal to open up a front against Israel along the northern border. Finally, Iran would employ terrorism against various targets abroad, as it did in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, or at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
In short, Israel could use military force, but the gains are minor and costs enormous.The problem is that ever since he lost the 2006 elections, Netanyahu has made stopping Iran’s nuclear program into a paramount theme. It is, of course, a convenient theme to choose - filled with national consensus. After all, who in their right mind thinks that a nuclear-armed Iran is good for Israeli security?
The only problem is that by misleading the public that Israel is in a position to “do something”, Netanyahu risks pushing himself into a corner where failure to take clear steps to stop Iran’s nuclear program would raise questions about his leadership. Failing to take action that he claims is necessary makes him look weak. But failing to acknowledge the reality on the ground makes it look like he has poor judgment.
In a sense, then, Dagan’s remarks are a blessing in disguise. They take the burden off Netanyahu by having a hawkish figure tell us that Netanyahu could not really strike Iran, even if he really wanted.
Finally, for those like Barak who cling to an antiquated belief that somehow the Iranians are still concerned about the potential for an Israeli strike, it is time to realize the jig is up. I say antiquated because by now it should be painfully obvious to us that the Iranians have figured out that they’re the ones who are deterring us from taking action, not the other way around.
Despite some very impressive saber rattling on our part, Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons unabated. Israeli efforts to scare Iran climaxed with a June 2008 exercise over the eastern Mediterranean, which The New York Times reported to have included over 100 F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft, mock search and rescue and mid-air refueling missions. Three years have passed since this mock run on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but Iran continues unfazed. Apparently, they have called our bluff.
If this is the case, then continuing to pretend that we have an option is no longer beneficial. It temps Europe and others into thinking they can stick their head in the sand and someone else (us) will eventually take care of the problem. And it prevents us from discussing the more realistic scenario: when the day comes, how do we deter a nuclear Iran?
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.