Editor's Notes: The year of engagement

The NIE means not only that US military intervention is out of the question in 2008, but that Israel won't take action either.

The plans to attack Iran's nuclear installations are said to have been ready for months, if not years. In this newspaper last January, our military reporter, Yaakov Katz, wrote of the Israel Air Force's ability to fly more than 300 sorties each day - using long-range attack planes, with fighter-jet cover, backed up by refueling and electronic support. He set out the missiles Israel has at its disposal - Popeyes and Jericho 2s and "bunker busters" and more. He mapped out the choice of routes the raiders might follow - as direct as possible via Jordan and Iraq, with all the attendant need for permissions and codes from Washington and the diplomatic ramifications vi-à-vis Amman, or more circuitous and complex but less invasive alternatives via the Indian Ocean. London's Sunday Times, in a report at around the same time based on plans disclosed, it said, by Israeli military sources, provided further dramatic detail. It said two IAF squadrons were busy training for the mission, and that since the prime Iranian targets are so well protected, the IAF would use conventional laser-guided bombs to open "tunnels" into the targets, and these would be followed by "mini-nukes" - what it called "low-yield nuclear bunker-busters" - each with "a force equivalent to one-fifteenth of the Hiroshima bomb." The three main targets were listed as Natanz, where Iran's uranium enrichment efforts are proceeding apace; a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan; and a heavy water reactor at Arak, Iran's feared plutonium route to the bomb. "As soon as the green light is given, it will be one mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be finished," the British newspaper quoted one of its purported Israeli sources bragging with improbable bravado. Israel's current, generally understated chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, used no such swagger and gave no such detail when relating to the Iranian nuclear threat in a speech this week. He said only that if the international community failed to prevent Iran from going nuclear, then "we in the Israel Defense Forces must prepare for any scenario." To that end, he added that "in the coming years, the need to strike at significant long-range targets will become far more important. Therefore the capability to act both defensively and offensively against various threats will be upgraded greatly - with a strong emphasis on long-range capability." Perhaps the most telling phrase in those brief comments was Ashkenazi's reference to "the coming years." For 2007, once widely regarded as the decisive year in thwarting Iran's push to nuclear status, has come and all but gone. And what happened, decisively, these past 12 months, is that Teheran significantly improved its uranium enrichment capacities, and the international community's half-hearted efforts at diplomacy, sanction and threat significantly failed to deter it. Oh, and that the American National Intelligence Estimate of early December, with its bizarrely narrow definition of what constitutes a nuclear weapons program, decisively deprived George W. Bush of the heightened danger assessment he would have needed to so much as contemplate military intervention in Iran as his parting presidential act. But what has also become clear, in conversations I have had with various Israeli military and intelligence experts in the past few days, is that the NIE report has essentially deprived Israel of the supportive context it would need to put those reportedly honed military plans into action in 2008 as well. No matter how many centrifuges Iran sets spinning, unless it launches an overt, no-holds-barred, "crash program" for a bomb, or is proven to be making rapid headway with a covert program, the IAF's latest F-15s and F-16s will stay tucked away. Even as Iran heightens its defenses and makes any effort at military intervention all the more complex, the plans will rest in Ashkenazi's drawer for at least another 12 months. For 2008, the Israeli experts chorus, will be the year not of military action, but of diplomatic engagement. WHILE SOME determined optimists and mavericks are still desperately trying to find pockets of solace in the devastating aftershock of the NIE bombshell, the sober assessment is that its findings, presentation and reception constitute an extraordinary Iranian success on its journey to the nuclear club. A US president who had keenly internalized the incalculable danger of Iran obtaining regional superpower status through nuclear leverage is not only unable now to counter Iran militarily in his final months in office, but has also lost the capacity to threaten military action and finds himself falsely accused by cynical opponents of having exaggerated the threat in the first place. The international sanctions effort - the ideal means of pressing the Teheran regime into changing course - has not collapsed completely, but it is fading. The State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, tried Tuesday to put on a brave face, insisting that the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany were resolute and united in planning for a new, more forceful sanctions resolution. "What is very interesting about this is that we're not talking about whether or not there's going to be a resolution," he insisted, "but we're talking about what are the elements to a new Security Council resolution." Unfortunately, McCormack was speaking after a conference call among the key world players had failed to produce agreement on a draft sanctions resolution from which several central intended Iranian targets for financial isolation and pressure, proposed by the US, have already been removed. As a consequence of the burgeoning disagreements, all talk of passing this third UN sanctions resolution by year's end has evaporated, McCormack is left talking vaguely about progress "in the next several weeks," and other US officials are wondering mournfully what any resolution will look like "after the Russians and Chinese get through with it." The visiting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was told by his hosts here this week that Israel deeply disputes the NIE's confident assessment that Iran has halted its weapons program. Israel, Mullen heard, believes any such halt was limited and has since been reversed, and that Teheran is proceeding on all aspects of its nuclear drive. Elaborating in an interview conducted on condition of anonymity, a very senior Israeli nuclear expert told me this week that Iran "is making steady progress" toward its goal, "encountering hitches and overcoming them," without feeling any pressure "to race ahead." It was likely, he went on, that Iran would continue "to use its declared facilities to accumulate a significant stockpile of low enriched uranium that is quickly and easily, from a technological point of view, convertible to weapons grade material. They can do this without raising any red flags." Should the Iranians then choose to, he went on, "they could declare war on the international community" and launch a final-stage crash push for the bomb. Alternatively, he said, Iran could do what it is known to have toyed with doing in the past "and utilize a covert infrastructure. That's an entirely different ball game. They can draw on the perfected knowledge obtained from their declared program and its industrial infrastructure and human resources. They can disguise their intentions from the international community." This Israeli expert noted that the NIE assessment highlights the dangers and probabilities of such a covert effort. "Are they doing it already?" he asked. "What are the chances of detecting it?" He left the questions hanging, but also assessed that Teheran "is not willing to pay any price" to get to a nuclear weapons capability. "They are sensitive [to international pressures]," he said. "There is debate within the regime." And he predicted that, as early as the first quarter of 2008, European players would begin to engage in a new round of diplomatic contacts with Teheran to try to deter the nuclear campaign, despite the failures of previous such efforts. "For Iran, the name of the game will be obtaining an international commitment to desist from any and all efforts to achieve regime change. They will seek an end to any intervention in their domestic affairs. They will want, obviously, an end to sanctions. They will want recognition of their regional importance under the rubric of regional security issues. And they will insist that they have the right to maintain their enrichment programs. "The Europeans, for their part, will be seeking an end to uranium enrichment or at least its limitation and nondiversification, as well as a cessation of Iranian aid to terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and against Israel, and agreement on 'principles of conduct' by Iran on human rights." While this expert predicted that the Bush administration would oppose such a dialogue, the former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told me he was paying heed to new indications that the US would itself directly engage with Iran in the coming year, and urged Israel to make sure it was not excluded from any such discussions. Israel, Halevy stressed, has no interest in "an ideological war" with Iran. Its overwhelming interest, rather, is in seeing Iran deterred from pursuing a nuclear capability. The Iranian regime "operates in a rational way, based on its interests," he said. "They can be deterred. They have to be deterred." And the timeframe is urgent. Halevy said he regarded the timetable presented in the NIE - which states that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb by late 2009 at the earliest, and certainly during the 2010-2015 period - as "too sanguine." Israel, he said, had to operate "on the basis of the worst-case scenario." While Halevy said he was "not sure" the NIE report had taken the US military option off the table, what was "on the cards" now was US engagement. The US "has already involved Iran in its Baghdad Conference setup," aimed at reducing violence in Iraq, and would need direct engagement with Iran to deal with Afghanistan, the al-Qaida threat and other issues. "In the situation now developing, US-Iranian engagement is coming closer and closer - regardless of whether it's in our interest or not," he said. "The US will [engage diplomatically] whether we want it to or not. And if what is on the cards is engagement, it is essential that Israel have a seat at the table. The future of the region cannot be determined with Israel outside the door." ACCORDING TO Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, the former head of strategic planning in the IDF, Iran is mimicking the Japanese approach to nuclear empowerment, for now - accumulating sufficient quantities of enriched material and mastering the ability to weaponize, ready for a final push if desired. If the US intelligence assessment is accurate, Brom said, then a military strike on Iran would actually be more feasible than previously thought from a purely military perspective, because the NIE minimizes the likelihood of current covert facilities. "The concern, from a purely military point of view, had been that a military strike targeting known facilities would leave covert installations unscathed, enabling Iran to then complete its weaponization and strike back." But equally, of course, the sanguine NIE has rendered the likelihood of military action thoroughly unfeasible from a political perspective - and not just for the US, but for Israel, too. Echoing other Israeli sources, Brom said that Israel could not possibly mount a military strike without coordination with the United States, that "whoever does it, the US will pay the price," and that "the Americans don't want us to act. There is now a considerably reduced prospect," he stressed, "of Israeli military action." CAN IRAN yet be stopped, militarily or by any other route? The thinking in Israel is still that, yes, it can, but that the NIE's intervention means military action, if it proves necessary, will only be possible further down what is a fairly short road. "The Iranians have tried the covert route and been exposed," said Brom. "So we are still in a situation where, if good oversight is maintained, that can make it hard for them to go for broke. If they do, the military option will be restored." "The coming year will be the year of experimentation on the diplomatic front," added the senior nuclear expert. "If Iran keeps on enriching uranium, at the end of 2008 it would still be a year away from the bomb, in a worst-case scenario. That makes 2009 the year of decisions. If there was a reason to panic, I'd say so. But I will say that, by then, the stakes will be higher than ever. And all our nerves will be a lot more exposed." By then, too, according to Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel's ability to act "against various threats will be upgraded greatly - with a strong emphasis," as he so resonantly put it this week, "on long-range capability."