Photo: Dor Malka
"If and when Iran decides to advance to the next stage and produce nuclear weapons, the US and Israel will know about it and share this information," a senior American official said in an effort to allay concerns stemming from reports of differences of opinion between the sides, which may lead to an Israeli surprise attack in Iran.
But the most worrying aspect of this whole debate is the confidence both sides have in the quality of the intelligence information they have obtained. This is critical, because intelligence information indicating that the Iranians have begun to assemble the bomb would result in an immediate attack on its nuclear facilities.
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Jerusalem and Washington agree that Iranian scientists have apparently assured Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that they would be able to build the first nuclear weapons production facility as soon as they are given the order to do so. Intelligence sources in Israel and the US claim they will "know when this happens," but disagree on the response to such a development and on whether a preemptive military strike is necessary.
There is no doubt that the extensive efforts by US and Israeli intelligence agencies over the past decade have significantly increased the amount of intelligence information coming in from Iran. The discovery of facilities the Iranians were trying to conceal, alongside the planting of computer viruses and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists – all acts that were attributed to American and Israeli intelligence agencies – provide further proof of their efficiency. On the other hand, in light of past mistakes, one would expect the intelligence sources and leaders who rely on this information to be a little more modest.
For example, a senior source in Syria who worked for Israel from the 1970s through the 1990s warned on two separate occasions that Damascus was about to attack. These warnings almost resulted in a preventive Israeli strike – which was eventually avoided due to Washington's intervention. The information was found to be false.
Israel and the US also believed they had good intelligence on Iraq during the 1980s, but they completely missed Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, which almost reached the point where Iraq was capable of producing nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, in 2003 the US relied on intelligence information indicating that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, although it wasn't.
What all these examples have in common is exaggerated enthusiasm and complete dependence on a limited number of sources, who are supposedly reliable. But this dependence may result in another blunder of historic proportions. What would happen, for instance, if Khamenei informs the nuclear scientists of his decision through new channels that are not exposed to the CIA or Mossad? And what would happen if the Iranians assemble a bomb at a facility that has yet to be discovered? The US and Israel, who are certain in the quality of their intelligence, may wake up too late and find out that Iran has already produced a nuclear bomb and there nothing they can do about it – at least not militarily.
Moreover, opposition elements may provide information that will lead Israel to attack Iran prematurely, before the diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program, including harsh economic sanctions, are exhausted. Without reliable intelligence information, Israel may be under the impression that it is attacking all of Iran's nuclear plants, when in reality it would only be attacking some of them. The Middle East would pay a heavy price for such a blunder.