Hirsh: Will Israel Strike Iran?

Ehud Olmert, like George W. Bush, is trying hard to make it seem that nothing has changed, and that the international diplomatic coalition against Iran is still intact. "The state of Israel is not the main flag-bearer against the quirks of the regime in Tehran," the Israeli prime minister declared testily last week, after officials in his own government seemed to suggest that Israel had been left on its own by Washington. Olmert said that the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran--which stunned leaders around the world by concluding, after years of bellicose rhetoric from Bush officials about Iran's nuclear ambitions, that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003--has "generated an exaggerated debate" in Israel. "Some of us even interpreted the report as an American retreat from its support of Israel," Olmert said. "This is groundless … I trust and am confident that the United States will continue to lead the international campaign to stop the development of a nuclear Iran."

But Olmert is not Moses; he can't hold back elemental forces all by himself. And a rising tide of opinion in Israel's intelligence and national-security circles believes that the NIE does signal American retreat--and, more profoundly, renewed Israeli isolation over what is deemed an existential threat out of Tehran. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister who has warned for years that Israel would eventually have to confront Iran alone, told me that "today we are closer to this situation than we were three weeks ago ... we have to be prepared to forestall this threat on our own." Some prominent American experts think that the NIE all but assures Israeli military action at some point. "I came back from a trip to Israel in November convinced that Israel would attack Iran," Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA official and senior adviser to three U.S. presidents--including Bush--on Middle East and South Asian issues, told me Thursday, citing conversations he had with Mossad and defense officials. "And that was before the NIE. This makes it even more likely. Israel is not going to allow its nuclear monopoly to be threatened."

Riedel said the Bush administration compounded the problem by failing to signal to the Israelis that the NIE assessment was coming. "Something like this should have been presented to the Israelis through professional intelligence channels," he said. Yuval Steinitz, a member of the right-wing Likud Party, told me that he had led a delegation of Knesset members to Washington a few weeks before the NIE was made public Dec. 3. Steinitz said he met with Vice President Dick Cheney, national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and other administration officials, but not even they seemed aware that their 2005 estimate that Iran was definitely pursuing nuclear weapons was about to be repudiated. Even though Iran was discussed, he said, "no one seemed to have any sign this was forthcoming," he says.

Many Israeli experts are appalled by the tone of the report, which concludes with "high confidence" that Iran halted its "nuclear weapons program." The NIE arrived at this finding even though it also asserted that Washington now had concrete evidence of that program, and despite Tehran's brazen pursuit of uranium enrichment. Even formerly moderate European and Russian officials suggest that the report went too far, especially in concluding that the U.S. intel community still has "moderate confidence" that the suspension of the program continues. Uzi Arad, a former Mossad official and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Likud prime minister, said that on a recent trip he made to Moscow, a Russian general poked fun at the naiveté of the NIE, commenting that if the Iranians had halted weapons development in 2003 it was partly because they were satisfied with progress there and wanted to devote investment to harder parts of the nuclear equation, like enrichment. In the end, these critics say, Iran is likely to be further emboldened by the report (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lost no time in boasting of America's "surrender"). "The irony is that the effect of this report may be self-negating--by itself it will accelerate Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons," Arad said.

Some experts question whether the Israelis have the capability to seriously damage Iran's nuclear program, which is secured in secret, hardened facilities around the country. But others point out that the new NIE gives evidence of far better intelligence on Iran--possibly including the whereabouts of its facilities. "It did state for first time that a military nuclear program was in motion until 2003," said Sneh. "That was a major revelation that should have been picked up, and it was very damaging incriminating evidence, justifying much harsher action against Iran."

A few experts, such as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, say the intel still seems scant on the location of Iran's secret centrifuge development and manufacturing complex. Still, Albright points out that the Israelis are likely encouraged by the nonreaction to their September airstrike on what is reported to have been a Syrian nuclear facility, which may have been a test run for Iran, or at least a warning directed at Tehran. "Israel has gotten away with it in a sense," says Albright. He suggests that any Israeli pre-emptive action might not be a "traditional strike" but could involve more "sabotage of equipment." The Israelis also know that the Arab states are terrified of an Iranian nuclear power, possibly to the point of looking the other way at another such strike.

Sneh, like others, isn't conceding failure yet on the official Israeli and U.S. approach, which involves isolating Iran diplomatically and economically. A third U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing economic sanctions against Iran is expected to pass next year, but it is likely to be fairly hollow because of Russian and Chinese opposition. One reason for Bush's abruptly announced nine-day visit to the region in mid-January is to deal with the fallout from the NIE, which includes not only the possibility that Israel will act unilaterally but also that Bush's prized Annapolis peace process will stall. The Bush trip is, in part, an implicit concession to U.S. hawks that the NIE went too far in absolving Iran. It is also a conscious effort to reassure both Israel and the Arab states that Washington will stand up to Iran's increasing intrusiveness and hegemonic tendencies. A dominant conspiracy theory in Arab capitals in the wake of the NIE is that Washington is seeking to cut a deal with Tehran--one that would effectively allow it to keep its nascent uranium-enrichment capability--in exchange for Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq.

Bush may also reassure the Israelis and Arab allies that the NIE overstated things in letting Iran off the hook. In yet another briefing to angry congressmen Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell conceded that "we could have written parts of it more clearly," according to a senior congressman who was there. The ranking Republican member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, says he's calling for an independent commission to probe the report. "Most of the world looks at it and says it's an embarrassment to the United States because once again the U.S. intelligence community has dramatically changed its position," Hoekstra told NEWSWEEK. And it may well be that Washington must take back its words one more time to prevent the Israelis from acting on their own.