Analysis: The best bet for Israel is still sabotage, not an air attack

Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who claims he was kidnapped by the Americans

Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who claims he was kidnapped by the Americans

The much-heralded "switching on" of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr does not mean that an Israeli or American military attack is any nearer.

Despite some alarmist warnings, especially by former American ambassador the United Nations, John Bolton, this is not any sort of "point of no return". With close inspection by the IAEA and the Russian government, the light-water reactor won't give the Iranians the much-sought-after key to the nuclear power clubhouse.

It was still a significant event. The insistence of Iran, one of the countries with the largest oil reserves in the world, on pursuing nuclear energy underlines the fact that the "civil" side of the project is inherently connected to the military side. Bushehr will give the country's nuclear scientists more hands-on experience, useful not only for producing electricity. However tight the inspection regime by the IAEA and the Russians, the size of the facility will give the Iranians space for secret research and development projects.

The head of the IDF Intelligence Branch, Major General Amos Yadlin, stressed last December in his annual lecture at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel-Aviv that the Iranians are continuously pushing forward on two parallel nuclear courses - the overt civil one and the secret military programme. Their aim is to reach a point where they have all the pieces in place to make a quick dash to an actual bomb with an operational delivery vehicle. Most experts still believe that they are over a year away from that point, perhaps much more, but that schedule is flexible on either side.

Jeffery Goldberg of America's Atlantic magazine explained in a lengthy and much-discussed piece two weeks ago why Israel will have to take the decision over the next 10 months whether to launch an attack on Iran or accept the presence of a nuclear Islamic regime in the region. Mr Goldberg accurately sketched the deep feeling in Israel's political and security leadership that it is necessary to do everything possible to prevent a mortal enemy from achieving the tools of Israel's destruction, but he overlooked one significant faction within the defence establishment, one that has serious backing from Israel's main ally, the United States and a number of other Western nations, including Great Britain. The members of this faction, chief among them Mossad head Meir Dagan, argue that while a military strike may be necessary in the future, for now the most effective weapon against the Iranian clandestine nuclear programme is clandestine warfare.

So far, the secret war against Iran waged by Israeli and other Western spy agencies - which, according
to various reports, has included sabotage and assassinations and abductions of central figures in the Iranian programme - has already set back the nuclear project by at least a couple of years. Thus the Israeli leadership gained a valuable breathing period before making a fateful decision
on an operation that may be successful, but will certainly cause critical repercussions, most likely another war on Israel's northern border with Iran's proxy, Hizbollah.

There is, though, a serious downside to this argument. The secret war, while successful, is certainly more cost-effective in every way, but
intelligence agencies can never be sure that they know all they need
to know.

    Last updated: 1:59pm, August 26 2010