This December, the Iranians will present us with an impressive chesslike challenge. From that point onward, the route to checkmate will be a matter of just a few moves. Iran will complete its program to protect its nuclear project, with all its scientific, industrial and military components. Israel considers this stage to mark Iran’s entry into an “immunity space” [term used by Defense Minister Barak to designate the point at which the Iranians will become immune to an Israeli strike]. From this point onward, Iran will be able to continue developing its nuclear program without fear of an effective Israeli strike.
This won’t mean that Israel’s ability to act covertly against an Iranian nuclear program will be neutralized. But it will mean a significant – almost total – reduction in its ability to efficiently execute a massive attack, entailing tons of explosives, to destroy the nuclear facilities. In the race between Israel’s development of offensive weapons, and Iran’s establishment of a defense system, the Iranian’s will register a significant achievement: they had a defense plan, it took them a bit more time to complete it, but the Iranian engineers will deliver the goods at the end of the year.
The Iranian defense program includes a few basic components: moving the nuclear facilities deep underground, scattering them around several sites, and reinforcing the facilities’ physical security. Security for Iranian scientists is also increasing. Alongside those measures, the Iranians have progressed faster than expected in the development of launchers and warheads.
Not only Israel has pointed out the December “deadline” – Western intelligence officials around the world have as well. Most importantly, it also appears in an updated intelligence assessment by US espionage figures, which was recently submitted to the president, and will soon be presented to Congress and publicized.
Not for nothing were the Americans angry at the leaks that came out of Israel from this document. While the administration is trying its hardest to delay the Israeli attack at least until after the US elections, a document ends up on the president’s desk that strengthens the Israeli position on the matter of the “immunity space.” Not only does the document reveal the fact that the Iranians are finishing up the nuclear program’s defense system, it also reveals, so it seems, that the Iranians have more nuclear facilities than they did in the past. They scattered the development and production facilities, such that additional protected facilities were “born.”
So in December it seems that from Israel’s perspective, the military window of opportunity for an attack will close. That doesn’t mean that such a window won’t open again in the future, in a year or two, if Israel acquires military capabilities that it doesn’t have today. The probably is that Iran’s nuclear program will also be in a different place then.
The strategic significance is that from December onward, Israel will find itself in a situation in which it is totally dependent on an external, American actor to remove what it terms an “existential threat” hanging above it. Israeli governments have always done everything they could to avoid being pushed into this corner.
The Americans continue to try and calm things down: the Iranian immunity space in comparison with our own capabilities, they say, is different. Trust us, when the time comes, we’ll do the job. The problem is that there is no guarantee that they’ll fulfill that promise. Israel also doesn’t have the moral authority to demand that they act, if it doesn’t suit their national interests.
This and more: Israel believes that US opposition to an attack on Iran will lessen after the presidential elections, starting Nov. 7. Any Israeli attack on Iran at this point would be seen as Israeli interference in domestic U.S. politics. The current government also nicely succeeded in turning Israeli public opinion against the strike. But they forgot to mention that they’ll be less interested on the day after the election. Though that doesn’t mean that they’ll give Israel the green light after the vote.
The picture that emerges from openly known pre-December military and political timetables is as follows: from a military perspective, it would be more comfortable to strike before November. From a political perspective it would be better after November. Under that type of timetable, and the public bedlam surrounding the issue, the state of Israel is meant to take a fateful decision about its future. This is a situation with the power to paralyze any government. The easiest thing to do in this situation is to decide not to decide.