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reflections

Dec 8, 2009 | 11:32 GMT

5 mins read

Israel Upping the Iranian Nuclear Threat

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
ISRAELI BRIG. GEN. YOSSI BAIDATZ, the head of Israel's Military Intelligence research division, told a closed session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Iran had the technical capability to build a nuclear bomb and that it would only take a political decision in Tehran to follow through with these plans. He specified that Iran had successfully enriched 1800 kg of uranium, which he claimed was enough to build more than one nuclear bomb, and that Iran had spent the past year upgrading its military arsenal with missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons that could reach Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the same Knesset meeting, where he said that Iran had lost its legitimacy in the international community and that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities was Israel's central problem. Though Iran relies heavily on denial and deception tactics to conceal the true status of its nuclear weapons program, Baidatz is likely stretching the truth a bit in describing Iran's nuclear capabilities. There is an enormous difference between being able to enrich uranium to levels between 5 and 20 percent (what Iran is believed to be currently capable of) and enriching uranium to 80 or 90 percent, which would be considered weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). Should Iran develop the capability to produce weapons-grade HEU, it would only need a fraction of Baidatz's claimed 1800 kg of properly enriched uranium to have sufficient raw material for a bomb. In that case, Baidatz's claim of a political decision being the only thing keeping Iran from the bomb would carry more weight. These statements are much more an indication of Israeli intentions in dealing with Iran than an accurate reflection of Iranian nuclear capabilities. That the statements of this closed Knesset session were leaked in the first place is particularly revealing of the message that Israel wishes to send Iran and the international community at this point in time. That message, to put it bluntly, is "time's up." Baidatz is likely stretching the truth a bit in describing Iran's nuclear capabilities. Israel has kept quiet as the United States has made attempt after attempt to extend the proverbial diplomatic hand to the Iranians without success. From Israel's point of view, the diplomatic chapter is closing this month, and the New Year, if Israel has anything to do with it, will bring a variety of unpleasantries to Iran's doorstep, including the threat of military action. But Israel is also operating on a different timeline than that of the United States. Whereas U.S. President Barack Obama would much rather avoid a military conflagration in the Persian Gulf while he attempts to sew up Iraq, make over the Afghanistan war and nurse the U.S. economy back to health, Israel is dealing with a matter of state survival. And that, from the Israeli point of view, takes precedence over its relationship with the United States. This statement from Baidatz is thus likely one of many signals Israel will be sending in the coming weeks to accentuate the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran, however, still may have a few more tools up its sleeve to take some of the steam out of Israel's pressure campaign. Obama hosted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House Monday. Just before traveling to Washington, Erdogan hosted Saeed Jalili, Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary. That meeting followed a recent visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu to Tehran, where he delivered a proposal to store Iranian enriched uranium on Turkish soil under international safeguards. This was yet another compromise on the enrichment issue intended to ease the tension in Iran's nuclear negotiations with the West. It is unlikely that Iran will take Turkey's proposal seriously, but it can certainly entertain such proposals to buy more time in negotiations and complicate any move toward sanctions or military action. Turkey, meanwhile, has a strategic interest in inserting itself as a key mediator in the Iranian nuclear dispute to not only boost its foreign policy credentials, but also stave off a crisis in its backyard. The Israelis can see through such proposals for what they are — delay tactics — and, most likely, so too can the Americans. But the Americans may not mind giving Turkish mediation a shot if it gives Washington another option to restrain Israeli action and another chance to firm up America's currently uneasy relations with the region's rising power: Turkey. But how many times will Israel allow its tolerance to be tested? As long as Iran appears compromising, even on a surface level, the Russians, the Chinese and even the Europeans can skirt around sanctions talk. And as long as the sanctions haven't been seriously attempted, Israel cannot easily claim that the sanctions have failed in order to justify military action. This is an uncomfortable space for Israel to be in, but the Iranians, Turks and even the Americans don't exactly mind seeing Israel in a tight spot right now.

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