Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pushed back against comments by ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan who had made waves by publicly asserting that, referring to Iran’s nuclear program, “An aerial strike on the reactors is a dumb idea that has no benefit.” Challenging Dagan, Barak said, “Any ability to disperse the ambiguousness surrounding the issue of Iran” hurts Israel’s ability to defend itself against Iran, adding that the military option must remain on the table if international efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program are to be effective.
Barak emphasized the importance of ambiguity in deterrence and clarified Israel’s position on a military strike. “There is no decision to attack Iran,” he said, adding, “We don’t make decisions beforehand for hypothetical situations. I don’t think that anyone would be happy to pull the trigger on a military operation against Iran.”
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been pushing hard to keep the threat of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities “on the table,” members of Israel’s security elite have been lining up against an attack. In a recent tally, eight of the 18 former heads of Israel’s security services are working against Netanyahu’s stance on Iran and another four have expressed alarm over the possible drumbeat to war.
Dagan warned an audience at Hebrew University last month that “Any strike against that [the civilian program] is an illegal act according to international law” and that an attack was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
Indeed this distinction between Iran’s civilian and potential military program has caused a great deal of confusion in recent months. The 2011 NIE, despite near constant pressure from Iran hawks to renounce the 2007 NIE, reportedly finds no clear evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program — that is a nuclear program with components that have no possible civilian use (e.g. warhead design). That is not to say that Iran doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon but the evidence available to the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community did not offer proof that a nuclear weapons program was being conducted alongside the civilian program.
Both the 2007 NIE and recent comments by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper present a consistent message that there is little conclusive evidence that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapons program.
The 2007 NIE said:
Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.
Clapper essentially repeated this point in statements made before Congress earlier this year. He said:
We continue to assess Iran keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
New evidence released by the IAEA last month does offer hints that Iran is exploring some technologies that could be related to nuclear weapons but the agency’s allegations did not indicate that Iran was pursuing a full nuclear weapons program.
Barak’s comments about Dagan hurting Israel’s deterrence capability — a questionable statement considering Israel’s presumed second-strike nuclear capabilities — is clear evidence that Netanyahu’s government is threatened by any criticism, regardless of how salient, that questions the assumption that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. Israel’s security elite and some in Washington are expressing growing concern that Netanyahu’s saber rattling could have disastrous consequences. Not the least of which being Iran, facing a threat of military action from Israel, choosing to pursue the construction of a nuclear warhead as a deterrent against perceived Israeli aggression.