Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his close advisors have reached the conclusion that that the "military option" placed on the table by Israel and the West is a mere empty gun, at least until the end of the year because of the elections in the US. The Iranian deterrence is based mostly on money, and more specifically the assumption that an attack on its nuclear facilities would result in a sharp rise in oil prices. Even if the Gulf States increase their oil production, Iran's retaliatory measures (such as mining the Strait of Hormuz) would lead to a shortage of crude oil and expectations of a shortage. The result would be a price hike that would deal a devastating blow to the chance that the economies of Europe, the US, China and India would recover from the deepening global economic crisis anytime soon.
As for an Israeli strike, as frustrating and insulting as it may be, the Iranians are not in the least bit concerned. They believe that Israel's military capabilities alone are not enough to cause any significant or long-term damage to their missile arsenal and nuclear plants. But that's not all. There are other reasons why Tehran estimates Israel won't attack:
- The ayatollahs are convinced that the Israeli government and people are extremely fearful of the response such an attack would trigger from Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas (from Gaza) and perhaps even Syria.
- Khamenei and his aides believe the relations between the US and Israel are a mirror image of the ties between Iran and Hezbollah – classic patron-client relations in which there is concern for the client's military and economic needs, but the client provides services to the patron and follows orders. According to this premise, just as Hezbollah must shower Israel with rockets in the event of an attack on Iran, Israel must refrain from striking at this stage if Washington believes it would hurt Obama's interests.
- The Iranians believe Israel is already isolated in the international community and would not dare isolate itself even more by launching an attack and risk being blamed for deepening the economic crisis.
The regime in Tehran is dealing with a host of internal economic and social problems stemming from the harsh sanctions imposed by the West, but at the same time it is advancing its nuclear and strategic missile programs. Therefore, Israeli officials estimate, only a real physical threat or an actual strike can stop or at least delay Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Officials in Jerusalem, Washington and London believe the sanctions will eventually cause Iran to stop enriching uranium, particularly if Tehran's efforts to bypass these sanctions are also curtailed. But until this happens, in at least two years' time, the nuclear threat will have reached the US as well.
Jeremy Issacharoff, deputy director-general for strategic affairs at the Foreign Ministry, believes the sanctions offer a window of opportunity to resolve the nuclear crisis without military intervention. "As long as the Iranians are under the impression that they are paying a small price for the uranium enrichment – they will continue. But if they realize that the West is determined with regards to the sanctions and that they will suffer even more in the future, then they will stop enriching uranium," he said.
"This is proven by the fact that their key demand in the negotiations with the West is to lift the sanctions. If they realize that the sanctions will not be removed, they may stop enriching uranium or at least make some concessions (that will slow down the pace of enrichment). This is happening now because they are confidant. The real test is not the threats but what is happening on the ground."
In order to achieve nuclear capabilities Iran must create not one but three "immunity zones" (the term was coined by Defense Minister Barak):
Military-technological immunity zone: Protection of its missile stockpiles and nuclear plants from a strike. The nuclear facility in Fordo, for example, was built inside a mountain, covered by layers of rock.
Nuclear-technological immunity zone: A situation in which Iran's ability to produce a number of nuclear bombs will become irreversible – to the point where sanctions, diplomatic pressure and even a strike cannot affect it. In practical terms, such a situation calls for Iran possessing enough uranium enriched to a fissile concentration of 20% and more to produce 2-4 nuclear warheads, as well as the knowledge to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. Such a development would alter the strategic balance in the Middle East and Iran would be able to leverage its position as a nuclear power to soften the sanctions and deter other countries from attacking.
Political immunity zone: Meant to provide Iran's nuclear and missile scientists, as well as its Revolutionary Guards, with enough time to create the other immunity zones. A key factor here is the talks with the West, in which Iran is stalling for time by hinting that it would possibly make concessions with regards to uranium enrichment to 20% if sanctions are eased. But EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton found that the Iranian representatives to the talks have no authority to even discuss such matters.
As part of their efforts to create an immunity zone, Iran is also threatening to mine the Hormuz shipping lane and attack oil fields in the Gulf States – an act that would surely lead to a spike in oil prices. However, this appears to be a false threat, because by mining Hormuz Iran would be mining its own exporting route, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait have other shipping lanes. But this threat – real or not – is causing Europe and the US to all but rule out a military strike.
Israel believes Iran will be crossing the "red line," after which only a military strike can stop it from achieving nuclear capabilities, when it possesses the technological know-how and enough uranium to produce one or more nuclear bombs – even if it has yet to make a "breakthrough" towards building a nuclear bomb. But the Obama administration contends that a military strike should only be carried out if and when the Islamic Republic makes this "breakthrough." But by then, Netanyahu, Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Ya'alon claim, it will be too late – and perhaps too little. Why? First of all, because it is not clear whether western intelligence agencies will learn of such a breakthrough in time, and secondly, after Iran will be "on the brink" of achieving nuclear capability, even the American bombers won't be able to destroy Iran's enriched uranium and stop its plans for a nuclear warhead.
American officials visiting Jerusalem and the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv these days are trying to allay Israel's concerns, saying they have operational plans in place. Our bombers are capable of flying back and forth to Iran until the nuclear weapon components are destroyed, they say; we have large forces deployed in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean that are prepared to carry out these operational plans, and our Air Force has recently announced that the 30,000-pound behemoth bunker buster is ready to be used if needed. Even the Fordo plant cannot be protected from these bombs, they argue, so even if word of a "nuclear breakthrough" arrives a little late – it won't really matter.
It's safe to assume that Israel is currently focusing its efforts on creating a viable and available military option, but Jerusalem has not reached the point where it has to decide whether or not to strike. Israel may reach this point by the end of the year or the middle of 2013 – depending on Khamenei's actions. In the meantime, the "forum of eight," which consists of ministers with vast security-related experience, has yet to discuss this possibility (any decision to attack Iran will likely be reached by the Cabinet).
In summation, it is safe to say that Iran is close to creating the "immunity zones" that will allow it to cross the nuclear threshold. But there remains a period of six months to a year in which even Israel alone would be able to set Iran's nuclear program several years back. In any case, the Americans can halt Iran's race towards a bomb by either attacking its nuclear plants or imposing even harsher sanctions that would be backed by a credible threat of a strike. But in order for this to happen, Israel must convince the US to act with resolve. Therefore, this week's talks with visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are incredibly important.