The question of whether Israel is on the brink of a strike against Iran periodically resurfaces as the Persian country’s march to a nuclear weapon continues unabated and Israeli leaders indicate, openly or subtly, that their patience is running out.
With presidential election season in full swing in the US and Iran high on the foreign policy agenda, there is now an added complication to this dilemma — Washington and Jerusalem have different timetables.
These differences are not just election-driven, although there is little doubt that the last thing President Obama wants is an unco-ordinated Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations during the last 100 days of the campaign.
The differences have to do with different threat assessments, as well as strike capabilities. America can afford to wait until the last minute before Iran assembles a nuclear weapon to strike — with its advanced, deep-penetration ordnance, US strategic bombers can elude Iranian air defences and drop thousands of pounds of explosives on deeply buried underground bunkers in a way that no other air force can — including Israel’s.
Israel cannot wait that long, even if it wished to. But Israel does not wish to wait — for Israel, the red line is nuclear-weapons capability, not the weapon itself.
Israel sees Iran as an existential threat and can ill afford to live under the shadow of a rising hegemonic power whose scientists have the technology or the know-how to build a weapon at short notice. For Israel, the strategic implications of Iran being on the brink of building a nuclear arsenal without ever having one are just as dire. For America, they are tolerable, provided that a set of verifiable criteria to ensure Iran does not cross that threshold are in place.
Naturally, the matter of Iran’s capability intersects with the limits of Israeli abilities to thwart Iran’s progress.
The closer Iran gets to the bomb, the closer Israel gets to the point where it might be too late to intervene, which is where the Israeli internal debate comes in. A growing number of former senior Israeli officials — including Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, the former chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and others, think that an Israeli strike should wait and, in the event, be co-ordinated with the US.
Mr Olmert would even prefer the US to do the job. One suspects that in an ideal world that would be the case for Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak. But neither man is inclined, by worldview or past experience, to put Israel’s destiny in the hands of even the most benevolent of allies. Their speeches have repeatedly highlighted in recent months that Israel ultimately must be able to rely on its own strength to fend off existential threats.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington DC