Israeli defense officials spent the better part of Sunday afternoon scrambling to bury claims in a reputable British newspaper that Israel is readying its armed forces for preemptive strikes against nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran. According to The Sunday Times, sources inside Israeli’s “special forces command” said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is mobilizing air and ground units for an elaborate assault on Iranian soil that could begin as early as March.

Sam Singer

Sharon’s decision purportedly arrives on the heels of a long-awaited internal intelligence report that the paper’s sources say documents evidence of secret nuclear processing facilities Iran has thus far concealed from the International Atomic Energy Agency. These same officials – once again alluding to March – warned of a rapidly approaching “point of no return,” whereby Iran’s uranium enrichment program will be advanced enough to manufacture sufficient fissile material to equip a nuclear warhead within two to four years.

The Israeli government’s response was out-and-out denial, first from Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who called the reports “ridiculous” and “baseless,” and later from a senior defense official, who maintained that the Defense Ministry had no specific contingency operations in motion.

It’s certainly possible these officials were being forthright. After all, similar rumors have surfaced before, only to sputter out mid-way through the news cycle. That said, the vast majority of those rumors were speculative; most, if not all, derived from the public statements of outside analysts and hawkish members of parliament. This time around, it’s different. This time it’s an internationally renowned news publication with sources deep inside Israel’s intelligence apparatus. This time the facts are concrete and for the most part verifiable. But most importantly, this time the story makes sense.

Tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran appear to be approaching a climax. November brought news that Iran helped broker negotiations between terrorist leaders from Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in an effort to promote more coordinated violence against Israel. And last week, Russia sold Iran a $1 billion anti-ballistic missile system, a deal that not surprisingly coincided with the test launch of Israel’s long-range Arrow missile. Most recently, Iran’s President went on yet another poisonous invective, coming frighteningly close to denying the Holocaust and suggesting that Israel be permanently relocated to Europe.

March remains close in the backdrop. Testimony from sources in The Sunday Times story appear to fall in place with statements from Israel’s military intelligent chief, who recently told parliament that Israel could wait no longer than March for the U.N. Security Council to consider action. March also marks the release of the IAEA’s next report on Iran, a defining moment for the European-led diplomatic effort that to this day remains dead in the water. Most notably, the timetable laid out in The Sunday Times story ties neatly into the next round of Israeli elections set to begin March 28, when Sharon and his newly minted Kadima faction will face intense pressure from hardliners to address Iran.

By March, all the cards will be on the table. The IAEA’s latest findings will be public. The Security Council, with full knowledge of the true extent of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will be under intense pressure from the United States to draft a resolution threatening the use of force. Security Council holdouts Russia and China will have to stop dancing and face a resolution condemning Iran, one of their most loyal economic allies. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians will be under intense pressure from defense officials to take matters into their own hands.

Absent a Security Council resolution, any efforts to bring Israel into a more diplomatic fold will likely fall short. For sympathizers in Europe, an Iranian nuclear weapon is an instrument of regional power projection; for Israel, it’s a radioactive crater in downtown Jerusalem. Tehran is a hostile neighbor with long-range missiles and intimate ties to some of Israel’s most vile enemies. We don’t know whether this leak was accidental, intentional or just completely erroneous. We do know that there are no circumstances under which Israel will tolerate a nuclear Iran. If the United Nations proves impotent in the face of an increasingly aggressive Iran, expect an Israeli-sponsored fireworks display this spring.

 

Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu.

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