Israel’s closing attack window
Ronen Bergman’s New York Times Magazine article about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran includes a few interesting nuggets — that there were 2 confirmed cyber-attacks, that Israel was the source of the NCRI’s information in 2002 about the existence of the Natanz facility — but what I think is most noteworthy is what it doesn’t include and instead merely hints at. Bergman concludes that an Israeli strike is likely in 2012, but provides very little detail about what precisely are the redlines that would trigger such a strike. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):
He warned that no more than one year remains to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. This is because it is close to entering its “immunity zone” — a term coined by Barak that refers to the point when Iran’s accumulated know-how, raw materials, experience and equipment (as well as the distribution of materials among its underground facilities) — will be such that an attack could not derail the nuclear project. Israel estimates that Iran’s nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack; America, with its superior firepower, has a time frame of 15 months. In either case, they are presented with a very narrow window of opportunity. One very senior Israeli security source told me: “The Americans tell us there is time, and we tell them that they only have about six to nine months more than we do and that therefore the sanctions have to be brought to a culmination now, in order to exhaust that track.”
I personally have no idea what is meant by “an attack could not derail the nuclear project.” Presumably it has something to do with the dispersal of enrichment between both Natanz and Fordow, with the latter being nearly invulnerable to airstrikes. But that is the situation today, not months from today. Similarly, Iran’s accumulated know-how, materials, and experience are not things that can be wiped away by an airstrike in the next 11 months but not after; those are things that persist no matter when or how Iran falls under attack.
Matthew Kroenig laid out American redlines much more explicitly in his Foreign Affairs article. According to him, they are: expelling IAEA inspectors, beginning enrichment up to 90%, or installing advanced centrifuges at Fordow. Colin Kahl echoed these and added another in his rebuttal: the discovery of new covert enrichment sites. Both Kahl and Kroenig are in a good position to indicate the conventional wisdom about these redlines within the administration, so their lists seem plausible to me. But I was struck by the reference to installing advanced centrifuges at Fordow as a redline that must precipitate an attack. To me, this seemed to be a far lower standard (and a far likelier event) than the others. We know Iran is developing advanced centrifuges; it has declared an interest in using advanced centrifuges for its 20% enrichment program; and it has now moved its 20% enrichment program to the Fordow facility. These three facts point to a pretty good likelihood that Iran is on its way to crossing this redline; far more than any of the others, this one seems to be almost imminent.
All this raises some questions: 1) Are Kroenig and Kahl correct in stating that this is a US redline that would trigger an attack? 2) If so, why has the administration chosen to include this particular redline which (in my view) doesn’t give Iran a fundamentally different capability than it already has today? and 3) What precisely does Israel view as comprising the “immunity zone” and when will it begin?
It is a little bit telling that Bergman didn’t include any explicit references to US or Israeli redlines in his article, so I am inclined to believe that his prediction of an attack is no different than the dozens of incorrect predictions in recent years that preceded it. But I worry that the US or Israel or both might suffer from a lack of clarity about truly meaningful redlines, and the resulting ambiguity could make the risk of confrontation needlessly greater.