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Iran Hasn’t Decided Whether to Build Nukes-Israel Army Chief

Earlier this morning, BBC pushed out a piece headlined “Iran not building nuclear bomb, Israeli army chief says.” Shortly after I tweeted “Not quite what he says,” they changed it to the less provocative but still newsworthy “Iran undecided on nuclear bomb – Israel military chief.”

The head of the Israeli military has said he does not think Iran will develop nuclear weapons.

Chief of Staff Lt Gen Benny Gantz made the statement in an interview with the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. He said Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had not yet made the final decision whether to build a nuclear bomb.

Tehran says it wants nuclear technology for peaceful purposes but the West believes Iran is developing weapons.

In November the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report with new evidence showing Iran was secretly working towards obtaining a nuclear weapon. It did not say that Iran had succeeded in mastering the relevant technology or how long it might take to develop a bomb.

[...]

Gen Gantz says this pressure is beginning to bear fruit. He added that Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided to go the extra mile”. And speaking of the supreme leader he continued: “I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”

But these views appear to put him at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an interview with CNN this week Mr Netanyahu said he would not want to bet “the security of the world on Iran’s rational behaviour”. The prime minister has also warned he would be prepared to take action against Iran to stop it obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Gen Gantz warned: “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year but not necessarily ‘go, no-go’. We’re in a period when something must happen. “Either Iran takes its nuclear programme to a civilian footing only, or the world – perhaps we too – will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of discussions than the middle.”

Haaretz reported that the general believed Iran’s nuclear programme was vulnerable because its facilities were not bomb-proof.

He also expressed concern that “we are the only country in the world that someone calls for its destruction and also builds devices with which to bomb us”. “But despair not,” he said. “The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions must be made carefully out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.” Although Gen Gantz does not think Iran would ultimately go ahead with a nuclear weapon, he said that as a military man he had to be prepared for every eventuality. ”I am preparing for full deployment of our capabilities. The political leadership will have to take courageous, painful decisions,” he said.

This is an amazingly candid and unconventional analysis from an unlikely source. While Gantz isn’t Israel’s intelligence chief, one presumes that he’s fully briefed on the state of Israel’s analysis of this situation.

Most of us in the defense analytic community have operated under the assumption for several years now that, of course, Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. I happen to believe that Iran’s claims that it’s building an atomic energy program are in fact correct–I just dismiss the notion that they don’t intend to also produce weapons.

Further, while I’m likely in the minority in thinking that admitting Iran to the nuclear club is something that we can live with, I’m not sure how much Gantz’ statement changes things. While I’ve never been a Netanyahu fan–going back to his first go-round as prime minister in the 1990s–he’s right here. That is, if the Israelis truly believe that an Iranian nuke is an existential threat, then they can’t take the risk of not pulling out all stops at preventing it from becoming a reality. Indeed, Gantz admits as much: he’s planning for the worst.

That said, Gantz also points to the flip side: there are negotiations underway with Iran to get them to abandon efforts that could lead to nuclear bomb development, stopping at a viable energy program. There is actually, for the first time, reason to be optimistic that they have a shot at succeeding.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    General Gantz’s comments are completely consistent with the 2007 NIE which was updated last year; which is to say his comments agree with the official US position regarding Iranian intentions.

    I agree that most in the so-called defense analytic community believe Iran does intend to build a weapon, but the basis for such conclusions seems rather thin – more of an uncritical assumption than anything.

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  2. Davebo says:

    Imagine you’re Iran’s Leader.

    Look to the northeast.

    Now look to the southwest.

    I can’t imagine why you’d be considering a proactive defense. Under our own guidelines allowing for “preemptive” war, they would have to be nuts not to consider it.

    I guess it’s only OK when we do it.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that the viability of a nuclear power program for Iran is a bit more of an open question than you’re implying, James. To the best of my meager ability to determine Iran does not have the domestic uranium supplies for such a program. A pilot program, yes. An actual functioning nuclear power program, maybe not.

    If that’s the case it would imply one of several things. Either Iran has much vaster domestic resources than are publicly known, it plans to trade oil for uranium ore to enrich, it plans to trade enriched uranium ore for raw uranium ore, or it isn’t really pursuing a viable nuclear power program. There are other possibilities but those would seem the most likely.

    Trading oil for uranium ore itself seems unlikely. Iran is using an increasing proportion of its oil production domestically. Its production, like those of other major oil-producing countries, is slowing. Trading oil for ore doesn’t sound like a practical alternative.

    I find the idea of Iran’s becoming a full-service nuclear technology supplier, the implication of its trading enriched uranium for ore, just as disquieting as I would its producing a bomb.

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  4. Hey Norm says:

    This issue, to me, is the biggest part of the election. It appears real progress is being made, as is pointed out above. The rhetoric of Romney and the make-up of his advisors…Bush43 retreads…does not inspire confidence in the ability to continue on the same trajectory.

    Make no mistake. Romney is dangerous. Un-bounded ambition and un-limited malleability are dangerous characteristics because a person so possessed is infinitely corruptible by others; others who may very well harbor ignoble intentions.

    He has surrounded himself with ignoble people.

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  5. Herb says:

    There is actually, for the first time, reason to be optimistic that they have a shot at succeeding.

    Oh let us hope…

    I’m also in the minority with you on Iran’s membership in the nuclear club and worry that an attack from Israel, rather than ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will only reinforce them. If Iran’s going to go nuclear, and they probably will at some point, I’d much rather they did it as a deterrent rather than as payback.

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  6. Tano says:

    @Andy:

    I agree that most in the so-called defense analytic community believe Iran does intend to build a weapon, but the basis for such conclusions seems rather thin – more of an uncritical assumption than anything.

    I think it is a systemic problem with them. Hyping the threat from enemies, both potential and real, is highly incentivized in such circles. The lesser the threat, the less the need for “expert” analysis, the less the need for resources directed toward defense. the less the need for deference toward any issue position that can be spun as necessary to address such threats.

    Its all about power and limited resources.

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  7. Andy says:

    @Tano:

    No, I think it’s just groupthink combined with ignorance regarding Iran especially its changing strategic circumstances.

    @Dave Schuler:
    You’re quite right about Iran’s uranium ore reserves. The experts in this area say that it’s unlikely Iran has significant undiscovered reserves. They have enough to fuel one or two reactors.

    If that’s the case it would imply one of several things. Either Iran has much vaster domestic resources than are publicly known, it plans to trade oil for uranium ore to enrich, it plans to trade enriched uranium ore for raw uranium ore, or it isn’t really pursuing a viable nuclear power program. There are other possibilities but those would seem the most likely.

    IMO, the most likely scenario is that Iran was using a domestic nuclear power program as a cover for a weapons program in response to the existential threat posed by Iraq. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the intel community believes (with high confidence) that Iran stopped weaponization work in 2003, the year Iraq cease to be any kind of threat to Iran. After that, the Iranians have been in the position of having to justify their previous work as purely peaceful. They can’t admit they had a weapons program and they are far enough along now that it makes sense to hedge against the future by developing the capability to weaponize relatively quickly.

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  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tano:

    Hyping the threat from enemies, both potential and real, is highly incentivized in such circles. The lesser the threat, the less the need for “expert” analysis, the less the need for resources directed toward defense.

    This has been going for decades. In the 70s it was the threat of the already collapsing Soviet Union. Those of us knew it was BS but the business interests of the Military Industrial Complex needed a threat for the bottom line.

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  9. Dave Schuler says:

    @Andy:

    After that, the Iranians have been in the position of having to justify their previous work as purely peaceful. They can’t admit they had a weapons program and they are far enough along now that it makes sense to hedge against the future by developing the capability to weaponize relatively quickly.

    That dovetails neatly with my view that the Iranian regime has been trying to convince its own people and, possibly, everybody else that they do have a nuclear weapons program while still denying that have such a program.

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  10. Ben Wolf says:

    @Dave Schuler: Were I running Iran I’d work to get to the point of being able to assemble a weapon quickly without actually doing it. I would also want to make it impossible for my enemies to know exactly how far along the program was, while simultaneously telling everyone I have no intention of building a bomb. It’s convoluted, but I think it an entirely reasonable series decisions based on Iran’s vulnerability to U.S. strikes.

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  11. Tano says:

    @Andy:

    No, I think it’s just groupthink combined with ignorance regarding Iran especially its changing strategic circumstances.

    My hypothesis was not inconsistent with the label “groupthink”. The group tends to think along a narrow path because that is the path to power, importance, and the acquisition of resources.

    I don’t think that ignorance is the issue – these people do have access to almost all the available information. The problem is what they do with the information, or what they do not do with it – how they put it together to form a model of what the “enemy” is doing or planning to do.The necessary rationalism that should be applied to building that model may be corrupted by the factors that I have mentioned such that they may downplay certain important facts and elevate less important ones. But I don’t think it comes from ignorance of the facts.

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  12. Dazedandconfused says:

    There is a an economic reason that oil nations seek nuclear power. Their oil is a cash machine. The less they consume domestically, the better their balance of trade is. The more currency they have to participate in the worlds market-place. Saudi Arabia is building some power plants.

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  13. Lee, UK says:

    This wasn’t the only change to the article! If any of you check the same news story on the BBC News website right now, there is a significant edit to the first version.

    The fourth paragraph now reads:

    “In November, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency published a report which complained it had been unable to “provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran” and that it continued to have “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”.”

    There is a big difference between ‘proof that something is happening’ and ‘an absence of proof that something isn’t happening’.

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  14. Andy says:

    @Lee, UK:

    There is a big difference between ‘proof that something is happening’ and ‘an absence of proof that something isn’t happening’.

    There sure is, but there’s a big middle ground of ambiguity. The IAEA has a lot of information that Iran was doing some stuff before 2003 that was likely weapons-related, but it hasn’t been able to verify the information as either accurate or false. So it’s been an impasse for several years now.

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  15. mannning says:

    I wonder if Israel wil bet its nation on one of the two possibilities while there is a chance to stop one of them The first possibiity is that they are not building a bomb technology; the second it that they definitely are building bombs, or at least getting into position to do so rather rapidly.

    It all hinges on intelligence sources whose reporting is not in the public domain, and that has an unknown or poorly known authenticity to us.

    Why, then, are they spinning a massive number of centerfuges?

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