Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his dismay that the Obama administration is entering into what look like serious negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear enrichment program.
Israeli hawks such as Netanyahu want the US to bomb the Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities in Natanz near Isfahan and in Fordow near Qom. Sometimes they threaten to carry out the bombing raid themselves if the US won’t act. They regularly issue dire prediction that Iran will have a nuclear weapon in six months (Netanyahu has been making such predictions since the early 1990s).
But former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak admitted that Iran has not decided to use its civilian enrichment program, which makes fuel for nuclear reactors, to also produce a bomb. Making a bomb is far, far more difficult than enriching uranium to 5% for fuel or 19.75% for medical isotopes. A bomb would require enrichment to 95% or so. Nor is it the case that just running the centrifuges longer would be sufficient to enrich to bomb grade. Technical problems have to be solved that the Iranians give no sign of having solved.
The danger of the Netanyahu bombing run is great. Such a bombing raid from 30,000 feet is highly unlikely to destroy the enrichment facilities. US generals have pointed out to Congress that in any case, Iran could fairly quickly recover from a loss of centrifuges to bombing, and just make or import more. Only by occupying Iran militarily, as was done to Iraq could the US be sure of mothballing Iran’s nuclear program.
Since the program won’t be destroyed but only somewhat damaged, such a raid will merely push Iran to rebuild the enrichment facilities. In the aftermath, the Iranian authorities could well decide to reverse their public stance and go for a bomb, since their airspace would have been violated and their sovereignty violated.
That is the real lesson of the 1981 Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq. The Osirak reactor was built by the French and was a light water reactor. Light water reactors either can’t be used to make a bomb at all or it would take 100 years to collect enough fissionable material from them.
So Osirak simply was not a threat to Israel. But in bombing Osirak, the Israelis threw a scare into the regime of Saddam Hussein, which tried to use magnets (a magnetatron) to enrich uranium to bomb grade in the period from the early 1980s through 1991. The UN inspectors rolled up this nuclear program after the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
It is not practicable to invade and occupy Iran, which is three times as populous as Iraq (and we all remember how well that went).
Therefore, a missile strike on Natanz and Fordow will leave much of the enrichment program intact. Since Iran is already spinning Centrifuges, it would be easy for it to throw out the UN inspectors and ramp up the program, turning it toward weaponization.
The energy of the street crowds, the fury of prominent of hardliners in the Revolutioanary Guards — all of the furor that will ensue after a bombing will make it difficult for Iran’s leadership to resist the inevitable demands that they go for broke in trying to construct a bomb.
So if what the Israeli leadership really wants is an Iran that is not actively constructing a bomb, the best way to attain that goal is negotiations.
Which is what Obama is trying to do.