Israel’s intentions toward Iran remain unclear

By ramping up its threat to attack Iran’s nuclear development program, Israel appears to have galvanized international attention on an issue it has long sought to bring to the top of the global agenda.

But it remains unclear whether Israel’s unusually public statements about a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities are a bluff designed to spur tougher economic sanctions or a means of preparing the world, politically and psychologically, for what some see as an inevitable confrontation, perhaps as soon as this summer.

Although some credit Israel’s tough rhetoric for the European Union’s recent decision to ban Iranian oil imports, others warn the strategy could backfire by triggering retaliation from Iran or setting Israel on a course that may be difficult to reverse.

Skeptics say that if Israel were actually preparing to launch a military strike against Iran, it would not be talking about the option so openly. No such debate occurred before Israel attacked nuclear sites in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.


“Israel has shot itself in its own feet by exaggerating the Iranian threat,” said Shahram Chubin, an Iranian-born nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program in Geneva.

Recent speculation about an attack — both by Israeli and U.S. officials — has undermined both countries’ deterrence option, he said. “It has banalized the military option, where empty bluster has taken over from quiet, careful preparation, and crying wolf has blurred the red lines, which have been moved consistently.”

But others insist Israel is serious about striking Iran, calculating that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic would represent a far greater danger than the possible repercussions.

“I fear they really mean it,” said Reuven Pedatzur, academic director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “lives for this issue. It’s not just talk to him but a fundamental matter.”

The lack of clarity on which way Israel is leaning is not surprising. In many military matters, including its own arsenal of nuclear weapons, Israel often adopts what it calls a “policy of ambiguity,” designed to keep enemies guessing.

President Obama said Sunday that he did not think Israel had made a decision about whether to attack Iran.

“I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program,” Obama told NBC News, saying there was close military and intelligence consultation between the U.S. and Israel. “We are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically.”

Military affairs analyst Alex Fishman likened the recent campaign of leaks and news reports in the U.S. and Israel to “ante in the regional poker game.” But in his Sunday column in Israel’s daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he also warned that Iran “saw our bet and raised it.”


Iranian officials are reacting with tough talk of their own, including a recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for much of the world’s oil supply. Although Western powers fear that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons, Tehran insists that its nuclear development program is meant for civilian purposes only and has warned Israel and the U.S. of the dire consequences of an attack.

Last week, Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s domestic security agency, said that Iranian agents have been attempting to hit Israeli targets in Turkey, Thailand and other countries in order to make Israel think twice about launching a preemptive strike, Israeli media reported.

Such actions could also be a response to a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and mysterious explosions at Iranian nuclear facilities, which many believe were carried out by Israel and U.S. intelligence agencies.

In Israel, debate rages among government officials and intelligence experts over whether Iran’s purported nuclear arms ambitions represent an existential threat that must be stopped at any cost and whether an Israeli strike would deliver only a short-term setback and potentially trigger a destructive regional war, including a missile barrage from anti-Israel Iranian allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.


After saying last month that a decision to attack Iran was “very far off,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly shifted gears last week, warning that time was running out. “Later is too late,” said Barak, who has warned that Iran will enter an “immunity zone” by September, after which Israel will find it more difficult to carry out a successful operation because Iran has spread its nuclear facilities in dozens of locations, some located deep underground.

Some in Israel and the U.S. have questioned whether it’s already too late for an Israeli strike to make a difference, as they did when Israel was able to make single-location attacks in Iraq and Syria. Several Iranian facilities are built so deeply they are potentially out of reach of even the biggest American “bunker-buster” bombs.

Israel’s military lacks the size, breadth and weaponry needed for the kind of sustained, multi-pronged bombing campaign that could set Iran’s program back by more than a year or two, experts say.

“Americans have the capabilities for carrying out a series of attacks,” said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel might be capable of staging one strike.”


Israeli officials, however, caution against underestimating their military’s reach. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told the 2012 Herzliya public policy conference Thursday that Israel was confident that “any facility in Iran can be hit, and I speak from experience as the [former Israel Defense Forces] chief of staff.”

Yaalon said it was still possible that the Iranian regime would back down voluntarily, but only if leaders believed the government’s survival were at risk. He said the only time Tehran has suspended its nuclear program was in 2003, when it was concerned that the U.S. might invade, as it had in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“If this regime faces this dilemma, it will be rational,” Yaalon said. But the international community needs to demonstrate greater resolve, he added.

“The West has the ability to attack, but as long as Iran isn’t convinced about their determination to carry it out, they will continue their manipulations.”


Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau and Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.