For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
With the report that the country has already installed more than 2,100 centrifuges inside a virtually impenetrable underground laboratory, and that it has ramped up production of nuclear fuel, officials and experts here say the conclusions may force Israel to strike Iran or concede it is not prepared to act on its own.
Whether that ultimately leads to a change in strategy — or a unilateral attack — is something that even Israel’s inner circle cannot yet agree on, despite what seems to be a consensus that Iran’s program may soon be beyond the reach of Israel’s military capability.
“It leaves us at this dead end,” said a senior government official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is involved in the decision-making process. “The more time elapses with no change on the ground in terms of Iranian policies, the more it becomes a zero-sum game.”
The report accentuates the tension with Washington during the hot-tempered atmosphere of a presidential election. President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu often say they have a common assessment of the intelligence about Iran’s progress. What they do not agree on is the time available.
American officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Israelis that they have the country’s back — and to remind them that Israel does not have the ability, by itself, to destroy the facility, built beneath a mountain outside Qum. The United States does have weaponry that it believes can demolish the lab, but in Mr. Obama’s judgment there is still what the White House calls “time and space” for diplomacy, sanctions and sabotage, a combination the Israelis say has been insufficient.
“They can’t do it right without us,” a former adviser to Mr. Obama said recently. “And we’re trying to persuade them that a strike that just drives the program more underground isn’t a solution; it’s a bigger problem.”
The report comes at a critical moment in Israel’s long campaign to build Western support for stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, which virtually every leader here regards as an existential threat. Military professionals concede the potential effectiveness of an Israeli strike is decreasing as Iran moves more of its operations underground. (Already, the best Israel might be able to accomplish, they say, is to close the tunnel entrances around the underground plant, called Fordow, rather than destroy what is inside.)
Politically, Israeli leaders are concerned they will lose leverage after the November presidential election — regardless of the result — but are also worried about a pre-election strike that angers Washington, whose support would be all the more critical in its aftermath.
A month after a blitz of visits by high-ranking American security officials, the frenzy of public discussion here over the imminence of an attack has quieted, as Israelis have returned from summer vacation and begun preparing for the High Holy Days. But several high-ranking government officials said the study, debate and lobbying in the tight circle of decision-makers has intensified, and Israel has taken steps to shore up the home front and prepare its citizens.
Many inside the government, along with independent analysts, say the status quo is not sustainable. Unless the international community finds new ways to apply diplomatic pressure, or the United States issues a clear ultimatum to Iran about its intentions to act militarily, they say, the chances of an Israeli attack this year will climb.
“If the U.S. makes it clear to the Iranians that they may go to war, there will be no need for anyone to go to war,” one top Israeli official said.
Asked about the report, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said, “The president has made clear frequently he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But he set no deadlines, and officials said Mr. Obama was not likely to specify a date or exact set of conditions that would provoke a military response.
Several leaders and analysts in Israel are pinning their hopes on a possible meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu when the prime minister travels to the United Nations General Assembly in late September.
“The tragedy is the failure of these two to get over their grudges and the bad blood and work in an intimate, serious way together,” said Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz. “Rather than the great democracy and the small democracy working together, they seem to be working with deep suspicion of each other.”
The critical difference between the American and Israeli views of the situation has long been one of timing. In Jerusalem, the clocks are ticking — and, as a senior government official put it, “all of them are now ticking at a higher speed.”
“Every week they get closer,” this official said of Iran, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he, too, is involved in the high-level deliberations. “While our side can, every week, seem to be in the same place, their side every week gets closer to this target.” (Iran contends its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes.)
Though Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are crucial to making the final call, attention has turned to a group of 14 ministers known as the inner cabinet, or security cabinet. Yossi Melman, an author of “Spies Against Armageddon,” a history of Israeli intelligence, said military actions typically required “a solid majority” of 12 or 13 members of this group, which is currently divided.
Three or four of the ministers are believed to be opposed to an independent Israeli strike, while six seem to be in favor. Two big unknowns are Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who both declined to be interviewed.
Mr. Netanyahu has been wooing Mr. Yaalon, including him in a small dinner when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was here in July. In a recent Twitter post, Mr. Yaalon warned, “History will judge whether the U.S. faced up to the Shiite threat in time to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability.” But further posts indicated some wiggle room: “Anyone who wants to prevent the exercise of military power must see that additional biting sanctions are applied,” he wrote.
Mr. Lieberman, who frequently diverges from Mr. Netanyahu, said on television last week, “There is no situation in which Israel can accept a nuclear Iran.”
The divisions in the cabinet — and more broadly in Israel — are not along the usual left-right or hawk-dove lines. The disputes are mainly over how best to engage the United States.
“Remember, it’s whether to attack now or attack later; it’s not between peaceniks and warmongers,” Mr. Melman said. “The argument against is don’t hurt the U.S. relationship, don’t risk relations with the president just for the satisfaction of conducting an attack before the election.”
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who spent more than a decade in Israel, said “the center of political gravity could shift very quickly” if the Obama administration does not do something more.
Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel who is now foreign policy director of the Brookings Institution, said he was struck that Israel had in recent weeks begun to distribute gas masks, examine bomb shelters and enact a text-messaging warning system.
Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser for Israel, recalled accompanying Mr. Netanyahu — then the leader of the opposition — to a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2007. The Israelis argued that the only thing with “sufficient punch” to stop Iran from developing a weapon, Mr. Arad said, was crippling sanctions, including measures against the energy sector, “coupled with a clear and present credible military option that continuing the program would not succeed because inevitably it will bring military action.”
Five years later, those around Mr. Netanyahu are saying much the same thing, and may be growing tired of waiting.
Author: Jodi Rudoren and David E. Sanger