Iran’s statement earlier this week that it now has the capability to develop a nuclear weapon if it decided to was meant to be a threat to Israel, but one that still maintained opacity regarding its nuclear progress, according to former Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Tamir Heyman.
Heyman is the most recently retired Military Intelligence chief, and in May became executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), viewed by many as Israel’s most prized think tank.
“The statement’s background was a series of loud [Israeli] threats [against Iran] surrounding [US President Joe] Biden’s visit to the region. From politicians, leaders, everyone, the media – it was a festival for threatening Iran,” said Heyman in his first English media interview since taking up the post.
He noted, though, that Iran’s counterthreat came only “after Biden left.”
Heyman explained Tehran’s thinking. “Iran’s threat adds another bargaining chip into the negotiation process,” where it plays a game stating, “‘I won’t do the next step, but we are on the verge of the [nuclear] threshold. We have all the steps to make a nuclear weapon; all it requires is our decision to do it.’ This is the definition of the threshold. He [the Iranian official who made the statement] also knows he was not being exact. They need 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90%,” which the Islamic Republic still does not have, he said.
The former intel chief said this is why the Iranian official carefully qualified his threat, noting that currently they have only 60% enriched uranium, and framed the issue in terms of them being able to jump to 90% quickly, if only they were to make the decision.
He said this could all be to acquire as a “bargaining chip that I am a threshold state – even though that is not really accurate yet.”
Furthermore, he found it interesting that an adviser with some access, but not in the first circle of power, was making the claim.
According to Heyman, there is a group of Iranians who “want to go back to the deal... but [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei does not want to make the same mistake twice.”
He said that Khamenei views the 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal as a failed experiment in which he “drank from the poison chalice of cooperating” with the West against his better judgment in order to rescue the Iranian economy from sanctions, but the US pulled out after only two years, leaving no real achievements and embarrassing him.
“They would need something very substantial to get Khamenei to let them go” back to the deal, so some of his staff are trying to pressure the West into “making a package of promises which would be so attractive that he would say yes,” he said.
However, the Iranian statement might also be more than just a bargaining chip and could eventually become truly dangerous, he stated.
Breaking down the chances of the threat presenting a real danger, he said that some Iran analysts believe that “Iran will never try to get a nuclear weapon – just to the threshold, because Khamenei said nuclear weapons are forbidden” according to Islamic law.
In contrast, he said that the darker scenario of the current message would be that “they are saying there is no legal verdict against. All we need to do is make a decision, and if you goad us too much, we will make a nuclear weapon.”
How long for Iran to accomplish weaponization?
Confronted with estimates that Iran could master weaponization skills beyond uranium enrichment in two years or as few as seven months, he said, “I say a little less than two years, but let’s say it was two years. They have a lot of the technological components, knowledge and broader capabilities for making a weapon.
“They have a satellite which launches off of a rocket. They launched it into space once. Such a rocket which launches a satellite can also launch a nuclear warhead, though its success is not guaranteed,” he explained.
He said that Israeli intelligence knows from the Mossad raid on Iran’s nuclear archives that the Islamic Republic “worked on implosion systems, neutron initiator systems, fast cameras, and that they had attained significant progress. They had also done the math and the physics, even if they had not done a full test.”
Still, “not every area is ready. They have to work on metallurgy issues. Getting gas to become metal and making that into a warhead is complicated. Then to connect it to a fuse, an implosion system and a ballistic missile which will survive the physical conditions which will confront it.”
Even if Tehran has mastered many of these skills in isolation, putting them all together successfully “will take time; it will not be tomorrow.”
By when would Israel need to attack?
All of this led Heyman into a discussion of “when is the deadline to attack?” – with him citing three scenarios.
The first scenario he described would be waiting until the last minute, all the way until everything is done other than placing a specific nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile so that it is ready to fire.
He said no one would wait this long, because it risks missing the window and the nuclear missile firing, or because even if you strike such systems, you could cause a nuclear explosion simply by hitting them.
A second scenario is still latish, but somewhat earlier: striking before Iran has mastered implosion, metallurgy and combining all of the small elements together. He said this is also problematic because many of these activities can take place in very small facilities which are extra hard to find.
His recommendation and many others’ preference is an earlier point: before 90% uranium enrichment is achieved, because there would be a higher probability of disrupting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress.
Heyman is hoping that even though there was no specific US public statement last week on this issue beyond the generic (and viewed by many as toothless) mantra that the US will not let Iran get a nuclear weapon, Biden maybe privately committed to Israel that he would already find Iran enriching to 90% unacceptable. He said it would be a significant achievement if the US would strategize with Israel on a strong response in such a case.
All of this also leads into why Heyman prefers a return to the flawed JCPOA over no deal, contradicting the Israeli government’s position.
He said that with all of the holes, it would push Iran back, far-off from 90% enrichment, whereas right now Iran has multiple bombs’ worth of uranium enriched to 60%.
This could be the difference between Iran being weeks away from 90% versus several months or more away, which would give enough lag time to plan an attack if necessary.
Heyman was adamant that deferring the Iranian nuclear issue is not a bad word, and could allow Israel to be better prepared if it needs to strike, and to do so at a time of its choosing, not Tehran’s.
Israel should stop talking publicly about regional air defense
Heyman said that Israeli officials should lower their overly important sounding tone about a regional air defense system, which is exaggerating the fruits of normalization, and focus on quiet actions and progress on specific issues.
When asked about Israeli Iron Dome systems and lasers being posted in the UAE or other Abraham Accords countries, he waved off the suggestion as wildly unrealistic or relegated to the very distant future.
Rather, he said the current air defense talk is about radar and sharing data relating to detecting threats.
On a technical level, he said, Israel “can do a [regional] defense system immediately, without it being publicized, with the US and with cooperation and reciprocal respect from all of those involved. We just attach all the radar systems and benefit from having more connected sensors... and need to share the related information.”
But he emphasized that “it is forbidden for Israel to lead it. The US needs to lead.”
What did Defense Minister Benny Gantz mean when he recently said that the Middle East joint defense initiative was already active?
Heyman said he was merely referring to an instance in which the US shot down drones attacking in Iraq. He implied that the issue had been blown out of proportion, with some suggesting there is a Middle East NATO on the way.
"We don’t need an alliance. They don’t want it, and we don’t. An alliance means a requirement for reciprocal retaliation, like in NATO. If one country is attacked, everyone must counterattack the attacker."Tamir Heyman
He said, “We don’t need an alliance. They don’t want it, and we don’t. An alliance means a requirement for reciprocal retaliation, like in NATO. If one country is attacked, everyone must counterattack the attacker. We don’t want to be in this situation” where Israel is obligated to go to war on behalf of a Sunni Arab country. “We don’t want them to intervene [militarily to help Israel] – we don’t need it; we do not want to rely on them.”
On the other hand, he stated, “We do have common threats. There are relative benefits to cooperation, but we need to do it quietly, under the table and with modesty.... Do not talk about an alliance.
“Arab honor dictates that they don’t want the Jews helping them” too much, but if the focus is actions to combat Iran, they will cooperate with Israel and the US because while Israel is 600 kilometers from the Islamic Republic, various Sunni Arab countries are a mere 40 kilometers away – which leaves them “terrified” and far more threatened.
Normalization with the Saudis will be slow
Regarding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he said, “The Saudis have a history of commitment to the Palestinians. They cannot do a sudden U-turn” and accept normalization without progress on that track, he posited.
Moreover, he contended that “the king is old. MBS will soon inherit the throne, but it has not happened yet. There is a competition, and some in the palace think differently. The Saudi street is against normalization with Israel.”
These issues, which could undermine MBS’s ascension to the throne, will hold him back from normalization in the near future (maybe despite his personal leanings), absent a deal or at least significant progress with the Palestinians, said Heyman.
Also, he discussed the complex role that Iraq plays as an intermediary between the Saudis and Iran.
He noted that the Saudis hope open dialogue will reduce the threat from the Islamic Republic, and that where part of Iraq is in Iran’s pocket, part of it is strident about acting independently.
INSS’S critical contribution
All of these tough dilemmas and others need to be handled with deep understanding and nuance, which is why Heyman views INSS as so critical.
He said, “An independent think tank is needed for questions with no answer. If there is an obvious answer, you don’t need an independent think tank – the state can figure it out.”
But the INSS head then referenced the Palestinian issue, where past negotiations sometimes led to failure which pushed the sides farther apart, and where a one-state solution (which some fear is becoming more likely) would cost Israel its Jewish democracy. “What then?” he asked.
The full staff at INSS is dealing with this issue, he said, noting that even if one ruling coalition or another does not adopt their specific recommendations, simply taking on the hard issues without worrying about short-term political concerns facilitates a public debate on the issue.
Furthermore, he said that INSS has a variety of political views among its staff, pushing back against some who say it is more left-leaning (one recent fellow joining INSS was former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat.) “Different opinions and different views are good,” he said.
Also, he said INSS is doing serious and detailed work addressing problems that the government and the media often give short shrift, such as climate change (noting the current meltdown in Europe), food security, the global energy crisis, foreign interference with Israeli democracy via social media, strengthening Israel’s bipartisan status with the younger generation of Democrats who are less colored by the memory of the Holocaust, and the resilience of the society in relations between Arab and Jewish Israelis.
He said that climate change, young Democrats’ support and Israeli social resilience are serious national security issues already having impacts (noting riots within Israel during the May 2021 Gaza war) and with much bigger impacts just over the horizon.