"The Iranians may be distanced up to three years away from the bomb" (Israel Defense)

In the spring of 2015, the Israeli defense establishment is alert: the negotiations between the superpowers and Iran on the permanent agreement that could stop Iran’s dash toward nuclear arms is at a critical point. In Israel, there are numerous doubts regarding the likelihood of Iran actually relinquishing her dream of a nuclear bomb, but does Israel still have the option of a military strike, in the event that the political echelon decides to stage such a strike?
Maj. Gen. (res.) Itzhak Ben-Israel is uniquely qualified to address this question. He is a professor who wrote unique theses about intelligence, and is thoroughly familiar with Israeli technologies as the former head of the Weapon System & Technological Infrastructure Research & Development Administration at IMOD (MAFAT). Today, Professor Ben-Israel heads the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at the Tel-Aviv University and serves as Chairman of the Israel Space Agency, among other duties. In 1981, when IAF attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, Ben-Israel was head of the IAF operations research branch.
Ben-Israel addressed the issue of a possible Israeli attack against Iran during a special symposium, hosted by IsraelDefenseEditor-in-Chief Amir Rapaport last January.
“To destroy everything Iran has by an air strike is a difficult undertaking,” says Ben-Israel, “but let’s assume, theoretically, that it would take them three years to return to the same situation – the big question is will it be worthwhile.”
And what is your answer to that question?
“In my opinion, until 2005-2006 it was worthwhile, namely – up to a certain moment the damage that could be inflicted on the Iranian facilities would have delayed their project by 10 to 15 years. Since around 2006, we passed the point of no return. The maximum damage (that may be inflicted now) will set them back three years away from the bomb. It is not far removed from the extent to which they may be kept away (from the bomb) through agreements. Therefore, the process of negotiating the cessation of the nuclear program is a logical outcome of the Iranians’ current situation. You cannot achieve much more than that. Naturally, if we suddenly find out that the Iranians made a decision secretly that they are dashing for the bomb, it will change the situation. Today, they are nine months away from a bomb (pursuant to the interim agreement). We hope that the full agreement will distance them to about a year away from the bomb, at least. If there is no choice and we decide to strike – in that case, even a setback of three years will be worthwhile.
“I am not among those who think that the danger is imminent or real. In my opinion, the Iranians will not use the bomb, as in their eyes, Israel can retaliate. It would be better if they did not have the bomb, in any case. If there is a way to keep them away from it – then it should be found regardless of the question of whether they would use the bomb.
“As Israelis, it seems to us that the whole world is na�ve. Admittedly, the Americans do not really understand the world outside of America, but we do not understand the world as it is in Europe and America either. We understand the world in which we live. On the other hand, the Americans learn from their mistakes. When they make a mistake – they will correct it. When the USA signed the interim agreement, in Israel we said it was an extremely bad agreement. Today that agreement looks simply wonderful.
“In my opinion, our government was wrong in its (hostile) attitude toward that agreement. The Americans are not drawing up the agreement with the Iranians in order to save Israel. They are doing it because it undermines their global interests almost critically, not to mention the fact that if a country like Iran succeeds in its nuclear plans, this could evolve into a snowball in the Middle East, that would compel the other countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – to arm themselves in the face of the Iranian threat. The Arab countries have somehow come to terms with the notion that Israel has nuclear arms, because they know that Israel will not use those arms against them, but Iran, on the other hand, threatens them, too – repeatedly.”
Have the Americans learned from their mistakes in North Korea, with regard to nuclear arms?
“They are not stupid. They make mistakes occasionally. Recently, their biggest mistake was the way they treated the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, but we make mistakes, too. The primary idea is that mistakes should be corrected, and the Americans learn from their mistakes.”
Regarding the option of an air strike against Iran, in the years 2011-2012 there was talk about the centrifuges being transferred to underground facilities. Will this prevent a strike?
“Absolutely not. You can install the centrifuges under 200 meters of concrete in the ground, but every facility such as this has doors and ventilation shafts and they may be blocked.
“Through the perspective of time, it seems to all of us that the attack against the nuclear reactor in Iraq was easy – as the building was on the ground – but the reactor is not the building. It is a cube of two by two meters, inside which the reactions actually take place. If you failed to touch the reactor core – you accomplished nothing. That core was protected by two meters of concrete on each side, 15 meters under the ground. In 1981 we did not have smart bombs, but we managed to hit it nevertheless.”
Is it possible to attack by means other than aerial bombs?
“If you can attack the centrifuges by cyber warfare means, it will be preferable – as this would present less of an enticement for the Iranians to respond. When you attack, the question is how the other side will respond. We do not want to turn the confrontation with Iran into a ‘hot’ war. The other side should always be provided with some kind of ladder by which they would be able to climb down if they did not want to respond. If you bomb the state capital, it will be difficult for them not to respond.”
“Generally, such an attack using cyber warfare means is more complex, more difficult (with regard to the preparations and intelligence) – but preferable.”
How will the negotiations with Iran be concluded, in your estimate?
“In my opinion, the Iranians will accept the nuclear agreement and that would set them back to the state they were in back in 2006-2007, namely – to a distance of two to three years away from the bomb. It is an important distance, as if they decide, once again, to advance in the direction of the bomb – it will allow sufficient time to rally world support and stage an attack. This means that the Iranians will always have a sword hanging over their heads. It is important to understand that technologies are currently available for detecting activities involving radioactive materials. Additionally, a part of the agreement being consolidated – actually the very core of the agreement – is about supervisory measures.
“The Iranians attempted to cheat a few times in the past, but every time they cheated – they were caught, as the world is highly focused on uncovering such frauds. Everyone is searching for every little thing – from variations in electrical power consumption to other indications.
“For us, this story also has an element of luck. The dropping oil prices have a tremendous strategic influence. They caused the Iranians to develop an immense deficit, which has led to substantial pressure over the economy. This situation greatly improves the chances of reaching an acceptable agreement with the Iranians.”
It should be stated that some people within the Israeli defense establishment are of the opinion that the Iranians will not relinquish their nuclear project, under any circumstances.