Brig. Gen. (ret) Uzi Eilam, born Uzi Trachtenberg on Kibbutz Tel Yosef in 1934, is not trigger shy.
He fought in five wars. In 1955, in Operation Black Arrow, a bloody and audacious retaliatory raid carried out on Egyptian soil, he won the IDF’s Medal of Courage – storming an Egyptian army base at the head of a four-person squad, detonating the base’s HQ and, after a harrowing retreat under fire, returning to the scene alone — despite having been shot in the arm — to carry on his back the near lifeless body of a fellow officer.
He fought his way into the Old City of Jerusalem with the 55th Paratroop Brigade in 1967 and served as the Director General of Israel Atomic Energy Commission from 1976-1985.
Yet today this battle-hardened veteran believes that an Israeli preventative strike against Iran would be perilously premature. According to Eilam, an Israeli offensive at this time would strengthen the regime and force the Iranian public to unite around its draconian rulers; would lead to the disintegration of the sanctions currently in place; would have little to no chance of long term success; and would allow Iran to walk boldly toward the age of nuclear arms – even though, to his mind, it is “bluffing” about many aspects of its progress and remains many paces shy of nuclear capacity and farther yet from the ability to make a weapon.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Eilam chose to start with the past – the June 7, 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor. “I was against it — not the essence of it, but the timing of it,” he said.
Prime minister Menachem Begin believed at the time that there were two approaching deadlines, both crucial and both several weeks away. The first was elections. He feared that if the Labor Party won, it would not “dare” to bomb in Iraq, Eilam said. Second, Begin had been told, “not by me,” that if the Iraqi reactor went hot, a strike would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths of women and children in Baghdad.
Eilam, the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission at the time, disagreed stridently. He argued that the reactor was under supervision, that the French had sent only “a few kilos” of highly-enriched uranium-235, and that in the next shipment they would switch the nuclear fuel to what the French called “caramel”, a low-enriched uranium. Moreover, the Iraqis were years from achieving plutonium separation capacity—the second manner of powering a nuclear weapon — and the “silent measures” Israel reportedly employed, including the detonation of the reactor’s core within a French warehouse, were very successful.
“I made my opposition heard,” he said, “to the extent that in the end he [Begin] asked that I not attend the Cabinet meetings because I was having too strong an effect on those present.”
Despite the opposition of the heads of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, as well as several of the inner cabinet ministers, the strike went ahead. The pilots returned unscathed; the Arab nations did not unite in war; the international condemnations did not result in sanctions.
Yet even today Eilam feels the raid was a mistake: “I argued that after we bomb the reactor we will lose the ability to know what is happening and that they will make alternate plans, which we will not be able to follow. And in fact when did the Iraqis stop their nuclear plans? Not in 1981 but in 1991…when all of the (UN) inspectors came.”
The nuclear reactor in Iraq and the one that Israel reportedly bombed in Dir a-Zur, Syria, in September 2007, Eilam conceded, were of a different nature than the nuclear facilities in Iran – where the centrifuges are up and running and the threat of attaining nuclear weapon capacity is more credible. Nonetheless, in an argument revolving around technology, military constraints, international politics and a certain degree of faith, he contends that Israel should continue to sound the alarm, continue the secret conversations and the planning, but for now “take a deep breath and wait.”
Eilam suggested that the Iranian threat be examined in light of North Korea. “Ostensibly North Korea is a nuclear power,” Eilam said from a conference room at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, where he is a senior research fellow. They have “conducted two tests. Does that make them a nuclear power? Do they have a weapon? Can someone say for certain?”
Eilam argued, on the basis of the seismographic signatures of their underground tests, that both of North Korea’s test attempts, neither of which was anywhere near the 10-kiloton limit, “were half-failures” and that just because they managed to build a device it “does not mean that they have a weapon.”
Iran has yet to conduct an underground test. Were it to do so, the 50 primary seismic monitoring systems of the Comprehensive Nuclear-test-ban Treaty would be able to identify it. (Eilam was dismissive of the notion that Iran’s recent earthquake might have been caused by an underground test; the geological profiles would be quite different, he said.) Even after that, Eilam said, “we have a lot of time. Months, years, I am not entirely sure, but certainly not weeks or days.”
Action today, during the pre-US-election window, makes no tactical or political sense, he argued. “Those who look at what happened in Iraq and those who know how the facilities are dispersed in Iran and those who understand what needs to be done, know that this is not a one-shot operation. There’s no ‘boom’ and it’s over. Not for the Americans, either. This requires an ongoing bombing campaign. This is, in essence, a war. I’m not sure how long it will take but in essence it requires a war, and a war requires an immense amount of weapons systems and an immense amount of money.”
A multi-pronged attack directed at five or six separate sources could inflict “a significant amount of damage,” he said, but the benefits of a delayed Iranian nuclear program are outweighed by the repercussions of a solo Israeli strike at this stage, he argued.
Were Israel to strike, Eilam predicted the following developments after Israel’s planes returned to their bases: “Natanz is covered in smoke. Qom remains intact. The places where they are developing the weapons, (are in areas) we do not know about and have not hit. The entire Iranian people unites around its leaders. The entire system of sanctions disintegrates. People rush to buy fuel from the Iranians. And Iran, now with full justification, returns to where it was earlier. A not-unlikely scenario, and I am against it.”
In a recent interview in Haaretz, a defense official characterized as “the decision maker,” who bore all of the hallmarks of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, rejected this type of argument out of hand: “We’re not fooling ourselves. Our objective is not to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program. But it must be understood that the real story is the contest between Iran’s nuclearization and the fall of the current regime of the ayatollahs in Iran. If we succeed in pushing off the nuclear program by six or eight or 10 years, there’s a good chance that the regime will not survive until the critical moment. So the objective is delay,” this official said.
“Even if you’re right and the delay achieved by an Israeli operation is only two years, the story doesn’t end there,” the official continued. “The sanctions regime may be hurt for a time but afterward it will recover. As will the diplomatic pressure on Iran. As will the intelligence battle against Iran. This is because the basic interests of the international community regarding Iran will not change. In the end, the combination of all of these elements together will achieve the desired aim. It will greatly increase the odds that the regime will fall before Iran goes nuclear.”
Those who advocate for inaction, he said, presume, illogically, that if Israel does not act, Iran will not go nuclear. The official argued that president Reagan did not want to see a nuclear Pakistan and president Clinton did not desire a nuclear North Korea, and yet so it was — and so it may well be with Iran if Israel does not exercise what is admittedly a less than ideal option of a surgical strike.
In October 1980, prime minister Begin reportedly said to his cabinet, “There is a big clock hanging over our heads, and it is ticking.”
Barak has used a similar argument, saying that Iran, as it moves parts of its nuclear program underground, presumably in the Fordow facility near Qom, is closing in on “a zone of immunity,” which, once attained, would strip an Israeli strike of much of its potency.
Eilam called this either “untruthful” or “ignorant.”
“I feel that the impact of an attack we launch, in terms of stopping the processes at work, will not be different now or in another year. We have plenty of time to attack if that is something we want to do. Let the Americans get through elections, and then we’ll see what they can do.”