Iran could build nuclear bomb in 4-6 months, expert says

Still, there’s time for military or diplomatic action, says former head of military intelligence, and an Israeli attack wouldn’t mean regional war

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence and current head of the Institute of National Security Studies (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence and current head of the Institute of National Security Studies (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Iran has what it needs to build a nuclear bomb in a matter of four to six months, and the civil war in Syria, contrary to the prevailing military assessment, has improved Israel’s national security standing, Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, said Monday.

“Iran has completed in the last two years two components that… give it all of the necessary means to manufacture a nuclear weapon as soon as it chooses to do so,” Yadlin, a former Israeli army intelligence chief, told journalists at a presentation of the INSS’ annual report on Israel’s strategic status.

Regarding Syria, he said that the destruction of its “modern, formidable army,” is a “positive strategic development” that overshadows the dangers of dwindling state control on Israel’s northeastern front.

The assessment, which resembles the sort of briefing Yadlin once gave annually to Knesset as the head of the IDF’s military intelligence directorate, also touched on the erosion of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the diplomatic and public relations battle against deligitimization and the need for either an accord with, or unilateral action against, the Palestinians.

Yadlin said Iran’s race toward the bomb would require a 4-6 month sprint during which Iran would try to enrich its uranium to military grade. That, in the current climate, is a risk the country is not willing to take, he said.

Calling the final sprint for the bomb “the last strategic mile,” Yadlin assessed that Iranian leadership is looking to shorten the break-out period and waiting for a crisis and a subsequent lapse in international attention in order to progress.

He said it was unclear why Israel’s red line had shifted from Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s earlier formulation – of 3,000 centrifuges underground at the facility in Fordo (Iran currently has 2,700, he said) – to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formulation of sufficient medium grade uranium for a single bomb, but noted that “the Iranians can cross the red line of the prime minister whenever they decide.”

Yadlin said that if forced to choose between allowing Iran to attain the bomb and bombing Iran, he would recommend the latter, but argued that the choices had not yet been that whittled down to such extremes. Instead he called for a middle road that might force an agreement that would “turn the Iranian clock back 2-3 years,” and allow for “face-saving, symbolic uranium enrichment in Iran.”

Barring that, he suggested that the confrontation could reach a head in 2013.

After dismissing any comparisons between Iran and North Korea, calling the latter “a Chinese puppet,” and arguing that the former, Iran, represented a clear national security threat to the United States, he said that if Israel chose to strike in Iran, “the Iranian reaction – and there will be a reaction, because they will not be surprised like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad – will be calculated and limited.”

Turning to Syria, the former head of IDF intelligence dismissed what he called “the black headlines,” and contended that the ongoing civil war along Israel’s border is, in the final tally, good news for Israel. He suggested five possible outcomes of the war: One, Assad refrains from antagonizing Israel and Turkey, and manages to maintain Russian protection and in that way survives. Two, the civil war “continues forever. Three, Syria disintegrates into three sectarian states – Allawite, Sunni and Kurd. Four, a largely Sunni state emerges. And five, a “full disintegration” of all sovereignty, reminiscent of Somalia.

“In each one of these developments Israel is less threatened than two years ago when I was still head of intelligence,” he said.

In an interview after the briefing, Brig. Gen. (ret) Shlomo Brom, a former head of the IDF General Staff’s planning division and a senior fellow at INSS, said that he disagreed with this assessment. Bands of terror operatives would hold fewer weapons, he allowed, but they would be very difficult to deter. Shrugging, he said of the disagreement, “we are not China,” and said it was likely that there were similar differences of opinion today within the General Staff.

Discussing Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, Yadlin called them one of “the pillars of national security.” He said the strength of the agreements had been eroded in 2012 but that, in Egypt, even the Muslim Brotherhood realizes that “going to war with Israel is counter-productive.”

In Jordan, he said, people could look over one shoulder at Iraq and the other at Syria and see why revolution might not be in their best interest. “The King,” he said of Abdullah, the ruler of Jordan, “is handling the reforms in the best way.”

In the West Bank, he suggested, Hamas had little chance of taking the seat of government from Fatah by force but contended that change could be ushered in at the polling booths, which would explain why the PA has been “saying elections will be next year for the past four years.”

He estimated that the chances for peace were low but that, in order to “achieve the moral high ground,” Israel had to submit “a decent, moral proposal to the Palestinians.”

If the Palestinians refuse the offer, he said, Israel would “win the blame game,” and then would have to conduct a “unilateral shaping of borders.”

The “disengagement” from Gaza, he said, “was maybe not such a mistake,” but that Israel would have to draw three major lessons from that 2005 withdrawal: it would have to occupy the Jordan Valley and bar weapons from entering the West Bank; the withdrawal would have to be up until the security barrier, incentivizing further talks; and Israel would have to strive for maximal coordination.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, or perhaps even the premise of one, would, he said, allow Israel to forge closer ties to the Sunni world, including Turkey, in its campaign against Iran.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has “a history of 100 years and will be the main issue in the next 100 years.”

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