Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his “distrust, dismantle, verify” speech at the UN on Tuesday, advocated for an all-or-nothing approach in dealing with Iran: a complete cessation of enrichment; a full shut-down of the heavy water reactor being built in Arak; a removal of all enriched uranium from Iran; and the dismantlement of the facilities that enable breakout capacity.
In return: a lifting of the sanctions. If not: a tightening of the screw.
Those goals, constituting a surrender of Iran’s foremost national endeavor, are not likely to be met at the negotiating table.
What, then, might be attainable? What could Israel live with? And what, short of a warm welcome from the NPT as a nuclear-weapon state, might Iran be after in its sudden embrace of the US and the West?
Professor Uzi Even, one of the engineers who helped build Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, in a phone interview this week said Israel should emphasize the reactor in Arak. “The first thing is that all work must stop on the plutonium reactor in Arak. It cannot be allowed to become operable,” he said.
Last year, while most eyes were fixed on the spinning centrifuges in Natanz and Fordo — counting the poundage of enriched uranium that those devices were able to produce and stacking them beneath Netanyahu’s red line of 250 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium — Even argued that the true sands in the hourglass have always been Arak, which is today believed to be close to operational. (The IAEA reported in November 2012 that the operation of the reactor at Arak is “expected to commence in the first quarter of 2014.”)
A uranium-based bomb, Even told the Times of Israel at the time, is difficult to miniaturize. The one dropped on Hiroshima weighed six tons. Iran might be able to halve that weight, he said, but the Shahab-3, Iran’s top inter-continental ballistic missile, can only carry a one-ton payload. The gap has not yet been closed, nor will it be soon. Even China and Pakistan, he said, frustrated with the range of their missiles, abandoned the uranium-based bomb. Syria, on the other hand, in 2007 seemed to have acquired “a plutogenic reactor par-excellence,” he said, and that was why, when he first saw the picture of the Arak reactor, he knew it had to be destroyed.
The reactor in Arak, from the moment it begins working properly, would take one year to create enough plutonium for a bomb.
As for the enriched uranium in Iran — and Even said last year he believed the regime had already covertly created the 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to conduct a successful underground test — he suggested it either had to be removed or rendered inoperable for a bomb.
Beyond that, if Tehran committed to not acquiring or developing missiles with a larger carrying capacity and opened itself to international oversight and unannounced inspections — “not once a year with a two-month advance warning…but constant watch with cameras and very invasive oversight” — Israel could, in opposition to Netanyahu’s statements, live with such an agreement, which would allow Iran to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent and leave the centrifuges intact, he said.
The former head of military intelligence and current director of the INSS think tank, Amos Yadlin, for his part, argued earlier this week that, under the right conditions, an acceptable middle ground could be reached. An agreement that contains a risk of Iran breaking out to a military nuclear capacity, he wrote, either under or in violation of a deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which represents an “excellent foundation for a bomb.”
Yadlin said that a one-dimensional red line, such as the one Netanyahu drew last year, is a “mistake [that] should not be repeated.” Instead, verifiable limits on the number of centrifuges, the amount of low-level enriched material, and the plutonium track could put Iran “years rather than months away from a nuclear bomb” – and that, in place of the obliteration of the entire project, is still an agreement worth signing.
Yadlin might be regarded as a pragmatist, and Even as a dove. Hawks, such as Professor Efraim Inbar, the Director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, feel that Netanyahu should have sent the planes long ago and that the regime, merely buying time to reach its fixed goal of a nuclear weapon, must be stopped with force.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, perched near the finish line of a decades-long project, the regime is pursuing a more comprehensive and fluid set of goals.
The three main components of President Hasan Rouhani’s plan, said Professor Uzi Rabi, the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, are alleviating the economic strain on the country — which has the potential to foment revolution — “whitewashing the nuclear program,” and altering the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East by goading Israel.
Rabi suggested that Iran would offer “half measures” in pursuit of its goals. For instance, he said, Iran could offer up the underground enrichment facility in Fordo in exchange for sanctions relief and international recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
That sort of deal, or, say, an across-the-board cap on uranium enrichment, would be “dangerous and unsatisfactory” for Israel, according to Yadlin, and all too possible, according to Rabi.
“The trouble is that both sides [of the nascent diplomatic negotiations] are eager to claim victory, which is why a short-term ‘solution’ is possible,” Rabi said. But in head-to-head negotiations, in which the essence is in the details, Rabi fears that Iran has a significant edge.
In addition, he said that the Iranians would “grab the bull by the horns” and make every effort to portray Israel as a nuclear-armed vigilante spreading violence and instability throughout the Middle East. At the same time Iran, perhaps also dangling the keys to a resolution of some sort in Syria, could present itself as willing to join the NPT and commit to a nuclear-free Middle East – an Obama objective – if only Israel would do so first.
This emphasis on Israel, once the lesser of the two satans, is growing ever more pronounced. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wrote in his 2008 (Hebrew) autobiography that the regime in Iran perceives Israel as “dry wood” – the easiest branch to be broken off the democratic tree. “They have no doubt whatsoever: first Israel will break, then the Europeans will break and in the end the Americans, too,” Ya’alon wrote.
For now, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds the cards. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, noted that it was the Supreme Leader who had sent Rouhani out to the world, where he was embraced. Later this month, Khamenei will allow his president to advance his doctrine of negotiation in Geneva. In the meantime, the outreach has bought shelter from the Israeli planes, which will surely be docked in the hangars for the coming months, and additional time for the centrifuges to enrich uranium.
If negotiations prove the international powers to be gullible, allowing Iran to sign a deal that lands it within sprinting or slinking distance from the bomb, Rouhani will have proven himself. If not, the Supreme Leader moves to a different part of the chess board, trying all the time to push Israel ever deeper into the corner.
Israel, Zimmt said, “needs to look at this soberly. We can’t be stuck in a conception that says nothing has changed, this whole thing is fraud. And we can’t be drawn to wishful thinking. What we need,” he said, “is an agreement that keeps a reasonable distance between Iran and nuclear weapons.”