Interview'Two, three days of missile fire, not more than that'

‘Iran would barely retaliate if its nuclear program were attacked’

Israel doesn’t need a US green light to strike Tehran’s nukes, says Yuval Steinitz; Iran couldn’t cause much damage in response

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Minister of International Relations and Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz speaks to the press in June 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Minister of International Relations and Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz speaks to the press in June 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Iran is unlikely to unleash a war in response to a military strike on its nuclear facilities, Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said, estimating that possible retaliation would include not more than “two or three days of missile fire” against Israel and/or Western targets in the region, causing “very limited damage.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel earlier this week, Steinitz predicted that Iran’s new President Hasan Rouhani will offer minor goodwill steps to signal his willingness to compromise on the nuclear question, which he will follow up with demands to ease the sanctions while the regime continues to inch toward weapons capability. Steinitz urged the international community not to be fooled by Rouhani’s seemingly moderate rhetoric, and called instead for an internationally endorsed deadline that, if crossed, would be followed by the destruction of the country’s military facilities.

In the second part of an extensive interview conducted in his Jerusalem office (read part 1), Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was not sure whether the United States was currently willing to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. If so ordered, the American army is capable of “relatively easily, or at least quickly and efficiently,” taking out those facilities, the minister said.

“And I don’t think the result would be a world war or even a regional war,” the Likud minister added. “I think Iran’s possibilities to retaliate are very limited. It’s also not in their interest to start a drawn-out war with the US. After all, their relations in the region are rather sensitive. I suppose there would be a response of two or three days of missile fire, perhaps even on Israel, on American bases in the Gulf. But I don’t think it would be more than that — very limited damage.”

Steinitz’s assessment contradicted previous estimations of some Israeli government ministers, who said they expected hundreds of casualties in an Iranian retaliatory response if Israel attacked Iran.

Former home front defense minister Matan Vilnai last year spoke about possibly hundreds of rockets and missiles falling on Israeli population centers each day, with an anticipated 500 deaths. “It could be that there will be fewer fatalities, but it could be there will be more,” he said. Former defense minister Ehud Barak made similar assessments.

The Iranians have repeatedly threatened Israel with all-out war if it intervenes militarily to thwart the nuclear program: “If they attack, Iran’s deterrent power would deal a mortal blow to them and the Israeli death rate would not be less than 10,000,” a senior member of Iran’s Expediency Council and former Revolutionary Guards Corps commander said in October.

‘There is no third way, there is nothing in the middle, there is no more room to maneuver. Enough is enough’

However, Steinitz said, Iran is aware that the US military is far superior to its own armed forces — so much so that it could destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities “within a few hours.” In addition, Iranian targets are exposed and vulnerable to airstrikes, he said. “The Iranians know that; they understand that they are in a sensitive situation and that their capability to retaliate is actually limited.”

Steinitz refused to talk about potential Israeli plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but he did reject reports about Washington vetoing an attack. “Israel doesn’t need a green light or a red light,” he said, noting that US President Barack Obama has said the Jewish state needs to be able to defend itself by itself. “Between Israel and the US there is a relationship of mutual respect.”

Promises by American leaders that Tehran will not be allowed to get an atomic bomb, and their statements “that all options are on the table,” are insufficient, he said. Rather, the US or NATO need to issue an explicit ultimatum, with a deadline, that makes plain that if Tehran does not comply with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions, Iran “shouldn’t be surprised” if its nuclear facilities are attacked.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz in London, July 24, 2013 (photo credit: Spokesperson of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Ministry)
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz in London, July 24, 2013 (photo credit: Spokesperson of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Ministry)

Since Rouhani was elected in June, the new president has signaled an intention to steer away from his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric and achieve a diplomatic solution to the standoff with the West. He has promised a change of course regarding negotiations with Western powers regarding the nuclear program but vowed not to abandon it entirely. “Reconsidering foreign policy doesn’t mean a change in principles because principles remain unchanged,” Rouhani said Saturday. “But change in the methods, performance and tactics, which are the demands of the people, must be carried out.”

According to Steinitz, Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who is planning to win over the West by making minor compromises while buying time to complete the regime’s race toward a nuclear weapons capability. The Iranian leadership needs to be given a clear choice, the Israeli minister said: Give up your nuclear program, enabling the West to ease the sanctions, or continue with your nuclear program and destroy your economy even more, while risking a military attack.

“There is no third way, there is nothing in the middle. There is no more room to maneuver,” Steinitz said. “Enough is enough.”

Steinitz said he was ready to bet that Rouhani’s first step in the forthcoming negotiations with the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany — will be to look for the middle way, neither dropping the nuclear program nor seeking further confrontation.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani waves after his swearing-in ceremony at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran, August 4, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani waves after his swearing-in ceremony  in Tehran, August 4, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“He will come to the West, just like he did in 2003 [when Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator], and say: ‘Let’s make an interim deal. I’ll make a few concessions here, you will make some concessions there,” Steinitz said. The Iranians might even offer unilateral gestures, such as, for example, halting uranium enrichment at the Qom facility for three or four months, in a bid to appease the P5+1, Steinitz predicted.

“But after that, [Rouhani] will request reciprocity. He will say, ‘Now show me that you are easing the sanctions so that I can prove to the Iranian people that this approach pays.’ He will come with a concept of confidence-building measures. He will say there is no trust, and trust is built step by step,” Steinitz said. “That will be his strategy. Therefore it is extremely important not to give him this room to maneuver.”

By voting for Rouhani — billed as the least favorite candidate of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his perceived moderation — the Iranian people made clear that if they have to choose between the economy and the nuclear program, they prefer the former, Steinitz said. “It’s possible that this will lead to something.” However, he emphasized, now is the time not to ease sanctions but to reinforce the message that there are only two options: giving up the nuclear program or face more sanctions and a military attack.

European foreign ministers and intelligence officers have shown “great understanding” for Israel’s position on Iran, asserted Steinitz, who is also international relations minister and recently returned from official visits to London, Paris and Berlin. “I think most European experts, those who are experts in the subject matter, really understand the danger.”

Responding to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s declaration Sunday that she will “soon” meet the new Iranian foreign minister to renew negotiations, Steinitz said: “Ashton is one thing, but Germany, France and Britain aren’t less important parts of this process.”

EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili during May talks in Baghdad (photo credit: Hadi Mizban/AP)
EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks with Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili during May 2012 talks in Baghdad (photo credit: Hadi Mizban/AP)

Still, he warned: “If Catherine Ashton will be impressed by the smile on Rouhani’s face — and he’s going to smile — and by his moderate rhetoric, and offers in exchange for these smiles to ease the sanctions, she hurts the chances for a diplomatic solution.”

The sanctions are “very effective,” Steinitz said, citing research carried out by his ministry that suggests they have cost Iran’s economy $80 billion to $120 billion. The Islamic Republic’s GDP is around $450 billion, he said. If the sanctions are maintained for another six to 12 months, he said, the Iranian economy stood to collapse.

Yet the sanctions can only succeed if they are backed by a credible military threat, Steinitz insisted. If the Iranians feel they are hurting economically but believe they could eventually become a nuclear power, that will galvanize the necessary staying power on their part, the minister argued. But if they know that the international community will destroy their nuclear sites if the program advances beyond a certain point, they will feel they are hurting for no reason and be ready to give up their nuclear ambitions for the sake of their economy, he said.

“Even Persians cannot convince themselves that it makes sense to pay something for nothing,” he said. “Therefore, when you want to increase the chances of achieving a breakthrough through diplomatic means, you have to increase the sanctions and you have to increase the military threat.”

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