Good News out of Israel

by Peter Jenkins

There has been good news out of Israel this week – all the more welcome for being relatively infrequent where Iran is concerned.

Sheera Frenkel, a McClatchy correspondent, reported on Monday that Israeli intelligence officials had told the news service over the last two months that they now estimate that Iran will be unable to build a nuclear weapon before 2015 or 2016.

This estimate will have come as no surprise to those who monitor official US statements for insights into related US judgements. Back in August 2012, a National Security Council spokesman stated: “We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.” And since late 2007, US National Intelligence Estimates have been pushing the date at which Iran would reach the nuclear threshold (an ability to make nuclear weapons) towards 2015.

Nor is the latest Israeli estimate unprecedented. On 9 January 2011 the Washington Post reported that outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan had told Israeli reporters that Iran could not build a bomb before 2015 at the earliest.

However, the estimate raises questions about the performance of Israel’s Prime Minister during last autumn’s UN General Assembly. Mr. Netanyahu seemed to want listeners to believe that Iran could make a nuclear device as soon as mid-2013.

For those of us who are outside government, and without access to intelligence reports, reconciling such contradictions is all but impossible. If, though, I had to hazard a speculative guess, I would say that Mr. Netanyahu was focusing solely on Iran’s ability to produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for one device, and that Israeli intelligence officers are looking beyond the production of fissile material to Iran’s ability to produce a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Anyway, what really matters is that this latest Israeli estimate will make it much harder for the Israeli government to convince the US government that the “window of opportunity” for diplomacy is closing and will have closed before 2013 is out.

That is a godsend — all the more helpful as the days and weeks pass, confusion and uncertainty mount, and the prospect of Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) getting into a serious nuclear negotiation recede towards the second half of 2013, after the installation of a new Iranian president (early August). Helpful, too, in quelling the concern some will feel when they read a Reuters report that Iran is at last about to install more efficient centrifuges at the Natanz plant, to produce low enriched uranium (under 5%).

Suggesting that good news, and not just Shakespearian sorrows, come “not as single spies”, a 25 January Daily Beast report from Davos quoted outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak stating that: “What we basically say is that if worse comes to worst, there should be a readiness and an ability to launch a surgical operation that will delay [Iran] by a significant time frame and probably convince them that it won’t work because the world is determined to block them.”

This sentence seems to imply that the Israeli government is now aligned with its US counterpart in drawing a line at a point where there is evidence that Iran has decided to cross the threshold and embark on the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

This would be a significant development. For years Israeli politicians have been saying that Iran cannot be allowed to retain a dual-use uranium enrichment capability, and that Iran’s enrichment plants should be destroyed by force unless Iran agrees to their dismantlement. Now Mr. Barak is saying that the use of force should only be contemplated “if worse comes to worst”. I suppose that could mean: “If Iran refuses to capitulate to Israeli demands”. But “if Iran embarks on nuclear weapon production” seems like a more natural interpretation.

If that is so, it is a second boost in a matter of days to nuclear negotiation prospects. There has never been much likelihood that Iran would agree to surrender its dual-use enrichment capability — and EU insistence on it doing so was the prime cause of the breakdown of the promising negotiation between three EU members and Iran that was launched in October 2003. But Iranians have often alluded to their readiness to back up their word with practical measures when it comes to respecting their non-nuclear-weapon state treaty commitments.

Of course, Mr. Netanyahu has just been re-elected, and, on past form, he may not be deterred from raising a hue and cry by anything as dull as evidence-based logic. Still, the odds on him being taken seriously in Washington seem to have lengthened since last Friday.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.