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In Israel, A Nonstop Debate On Possible Iran Strike

Jan 31, 2012
Originally published on February 5, 2012 6:39 am

In Israel, there is daily speculation over whether Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the near future. The debate is not only over whether Israel should strike Iran, but what the costs and benefits might be from such a strike.

Israel believes that Iran is working to build a nuclear bomb, and dismisses Iran's assertion that its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes.

In Washington on Tuesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked America's top intelligence officials the question on everyone's mind: Is Israel preparing to strike Iran's nuclear facilities?

While Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declined to make his assessment public, he did say that "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so."

That echoes an earlier American estimate that Iran could cross the nuclear threshold this year.

The United States and the European Union have agreed on tough new sanctions against Iran's oil industry and central bank, aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Those moves were welcomed in Israel as a sign that the international community was taking the Iranian nuclear threat seriously.

But still, the general feeling in Israel is that sanctions aren't enough.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the director general of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, has been deeply involved in assessing Iran's nuclear capabilities.

"The reason I'm skeptical about [sanctions] is that for the Iranians, the idea of getting a nuclear weapon is so important that even if these sanctions are causing them a lot of trouble, they would still be more inclined to continue the project in spite of the sanctions," says Kuperwasser.

"They are getting closer and closer. They build better and better capability to produce a nuclear weapon. And once they have the capability, it is becoming more difficult to stop them before they turn this capability into a reality and have the weapon," he says.

Limited Strike, Limited Damage

In recent days, there has been a flurry of high-level meetings between the U.S. and Israel — including a visit to Washington last week by the head of Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.

Some analysts in Israel believe that Israel that is preparing to attack Iran's nuclear facilities soon.

Ronen Bergman, one of Israel's foremost military experts, says there is "a high probability" that Israel might strike Iran in 2012." His prediction appeared in the Jan. 30 New York Times Magazine.

Others disagree with him and say Israel is using the threat of an attack to push the international community toward tougher sanctions and to galvanize a reluctant America into action.

They also question whether Israel actually has the capability to inflict serious damage. Analysts and military officials say Iran has been moving some of its critical nuclear facilities deep underground. And not only are Iran's installations protected, they are also scattered around the country.

But Bergman says the objective of an Israeli strike is limited in scope.

"According to the Israeli assessment, a successful strike, a strike that would be conducted according to planning, would be able not to destroy the project — nobody thinks that Israel is able to destroy it, even not the Americans, but to inflict a significant damage that would end with a delay of three to five years," says Bergman.

Threat Of War As Deterrent

And that has led some to go beyond the questions of "will they or won't they?" and "can they?" to "should they?"

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst in Tel Aviv, says that most reports he's seen say that an attack would only set the Iranian nuclear program back two to three years.

"This is not long enough. This is not long enough in any way, shape or form to justify a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program," he says.

"A military strike would rally people around the program, reluctantly even, in some cases," he says. "And it would push the regime to rebuild its nuclear program. It means that Israel may have to keep bombing Iran every three years. Is this the scenario that we want to live?"

Israel has already bombed the nuclear facilities of two countries: Syria and Iraq. Neither government retaliated.

But Bergman says there are several doomsday scenarios if Israel goes to war with Iran.

"A rain of rockets from Hezbollah in the north, Iran and Hamas in the south, that the Israeli population is not really protected against," he says.

And that, Bergman says, more than anything, may stay Israel's hand. He says despite all the recent drills preparing the Israeli population for possible attack, the country isn't psychologically prepared for what a war with Iran could unleash.

"If it wasn't for this consideration," Bergman says, "Israel would have attacked long ago."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Speculation is mounting over the likelihood that Israel would attack Iran's nuclear facilities within the next few months. Iran insists its robust nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes, but Israel believes it is trying to build a nuclear bomb. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem on the debate inside the country over whether or not to attack.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today asked America's top intelligence officials the question on everyone's mind: Is Israel preparing to strike Iran's nuclear facilities? While the director of national intelligence declined to make his assessment of that likelihood public, James Clapper did says that, quote, "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so." That echoes an earlier American estimate that Iran could cross the nuclear threshold this year.

The United States and the European Union have agreed on tough new sanctions against Iran's oil industry and central bank, aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions. That was welcomed here in Israel as a sign of the international community's recognition of the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear threat. But still, the general feeling here is that sanctions aren't enough.

BRIGADIER GENERAL YOSSI KUPERWASSER: The reason I'm skeptical about it is that for the Iranians the idea of getting a nuclear weapon is so important that even if these sanctions are causing them a lot of trouble, they would still be more inclined to continue the project in spite of the sanctions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser is the director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel. He's been deeply involved in assessing Iran's nuclear capabilities.

KUPERWASSER: They are getting closer and closer. They build better and better capability to produce a nuclear weapon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In recent days, there has been a flurry of high-level meetings between the U.S. and Israel, including most recently a visit to Washington by the head of Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad. Some analysts here believe all the signs are that Israel is preparing to attack Iran's nuclear facilities soon.

DR. RONEN BERGMAN: There's a high probability that Israel might strike in 2012.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ronen Bergman is one of Israel's foremost military experts whose prediction of a strike on Iran this year appeared in the weekend edition of The New York Times Magazine. Others disagree with him and say Israel is using the threat of an attack to push the international community towards tougher sanctions and galvanize a reluctant America into action. They also question whether Israel actually has the capability to inflict serious damage. Iran has been moving some of its critical nuclear facilities say analysts and military officials deep underground. And not only are Iran's installations protected, they're also scattered. But Bergman says the objective of an Israeli strike is limited in scope.

BERGMAN: According to the Israeli assessment a successful strike, a strike that would be conducted according to planning, would be able not to destroy the project, nobody thinks that that Israel is able to destroy it, even are the Americans, but to inflict a significant damage that would end with a delay of three to five years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that has led some to go beyond the questions of will they or won't they and can they, to should they.

MEIR JAVADANFAR: How long would an attack set the Iranian nuclear program back by? The longest estimate I've heard is two to three years. This is not long enough in any way shape or form to justify a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Meir Javadanfar, an Iran analyst in Tel Aviv.

JAVADANFAR: A military strike would rally people around the nuclear program, and it would push this regime to rebuild the nuclear program, which means that Israel may have to keep bombing Iran every three years. Is this the scenario that we want to live?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel has bombed the nuclear facilities of two countries already: Syria and Iraq. Neither government retaliated. But Bergman says there are several doomsday scenarios out there if Israel goes to war with Iran.

BERGMAN: A rain of rockets from Hezbollah in the north, Iran and Hamas in the south that the Israeli population is not really protected against.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says that more than anything else may stay Israel's hand. He says despite all the recent drills preparing the Israeli population for possible attack, the country isn't psychologically prepared for what a war with Iran could unleash.

BERGMAN: If it wasn't for this consideration, Israel would have attacked long ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.