analysisIsrael at War

Fighting on two fronts, Israel might be asleep at the wheel on Iran

Mark Dubowitz, head of the FDD thinktank, warns: There are nine months before Iran enters a new era of nuclear immunity. 

The Iran nuclear program's heavy-water reactor at Arak. Credit: Nanking 2012 via Wikimedia Commons.
The Iran nuclear program's heavy-water reactor at Arak. Credit: Nanking 2012 via Wikimedia Commons.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This week, Mark Dubowitz visited Israel. His name may not mean much to the general Israeli public, but he is well-known among decision-makers. Dubowitz heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington research institute established after 9/11 to defend the U.S. and the Western world against terrorist organizations, and later also against Iran.

Dubowitz is an expert on the region and a professed lover of Israel. He is influential in Washington and close to leaders and key figures in the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia.

The institute he heads employs dozens of researchers, including Israelis; former Israeli Air Force chief Amir Eshel and former National Security Advisers Jacob Nagel and Eyal Hulata are just examples of the intellect and experience accumulated at the institute.

The last time we met was in August. I wanted to consult with him regarding Saudi Arabia, ahead of my visit there. He wanted to hear from me about the internal turbulence in Israel. When we met this week, he reminded me of a sentence I said to him: For things to get better in Israel, they must first get much worse. The problem is that no one guarantees that after it gets worse, it will actually get better.

Dubowitz wanted to know where we stand now on the scale between good and bad. He knew the answer himself: On that horrific Saturday of Oct. 7, things got much worse. Now Israel needs to decide whether it aspires for things to get much better, or if it continues its downward spiral—from bad to terrible.

I asked him what our situation looked like from his vantage point. He said it’s bad. I wondered if it was because of Gaza, Lebanon or the strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington.

He replied that it’s all of it together, but there’s something that worries him more than all of these. I wondered what could be worse, and he answered: Iran. The next few minutes of our conversation, devoted to Tehran, made me realize that as we were all focused on Gaza (and Lebanon), we could once again be asleep at the wheel.

Preoccupied with terrorism

Dubowitz says that since Oct. 7, Iran has been using asymmetrical methods—the terrorist organizations operating on its behalf and with its funding—to allow it a quiet and safe space to advance the development of its unconventional weapon, the nuclear bomb. I asked him to explain.

Everyone is preoccupied with terrorism, he said. You, the Israelis, are fighting in Gaza and Lebanon and a bit in Syria, and you have no time to deal with anything else. The U.S. is busy with the Houthis and militias in Iraq. And meanwhile, the Iranians are doing as they please.

Two examples. The first is the underground enrichment facility that Iran is building in Natanz. Dubowitz says that all data indicate that this facility will be completed by the end of the year. It is being built at a depth of 100 meters (330 ft), meaning it would be deep enough to withstand Israeli and most likely American bombs as well. The conclusion: There are nine months before Iran enters a new era of immunity. 

The second example is Iran’s nuclear weapons group. The former IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, revealed in an interview in Israel Hayom last year that Iran has secretly resumed this activity, aimed at turning enriched material into an operational weapon.

He spoke then of low-intensity activity, but recently there have been increasing signs that Iran is accelerating the activity, and even seeking to acquire components needed to complete a nuclear bomb.

Dubowitz believes that Iran is not interested in breaking out to a bomb at this time. It has enough enriched material for several bombs, but it has chosen to advance laterally. The idea is to accumulate more enriched uranium (currently at 60% purity, in complete violation of the nuclear deal) and enough knowledge, so that from the moment a decision is made to break out to a bomb, the process will be quick and massive. Iran, he believes, does not want just a single bomb: It wants to establish itself as a leading player.

Significantly immune from attacks

This will take time. The conventional wisdom is that Iran would still need 18-24 months. For those who want to stop Iran, there is much less time. In a few more months, it will reach a point where it will be significantly immune from attacks. It will already have enough knowledge and capabilities to complete the bomb, and even if attacked, it will be able to quickly restore what it will have lost.

Dubowitz is among those who believe that on this issue, Israel is alone. The Americans will provide support, but will not attack themselves—certainly not in an election year. Iran knows this and therefore is moving forward.

To be on the safe side, it is keeping the Americans busy with terrorism. For an incumbent president, casualties on the eve of elections are an electoral disaster. U.S. President Joe Biden wants quiet, as would Donald Trump if he were in power now. The last thing a U.S. president needs now is a regional or global war.

Tehran’s order of priorities

Four immediate thoughts arise from Dubowitz’s words, followed by a disturbing headline.

• The first issue is Iran’s impressive, diabolical strategy, which pins Israel down to the here-and-now of terrorism so that it is not preoccupied with what it has defined over the past three decades as the No. 1 threat to its existence.

In the complex chess game that Iran and Israel are playing, Tehran currently has the upper hand, and this is very bad news—much worse than what is happening in Gaza (and Lebanon).

• The second issue is professional. Those who are supposed to deal with this matter in Israel are (in descending order) the Mossad, the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The problem is that their heads are preoccupied with the war.

Mossad Director David Barnea is fully invested in the negotiations for the release of the captives; IDF Intelligence Directorate chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva is focused on intelligence for the Hamas war; and Moshe Edri, the head of the AEC, has taken upon himself the establishment and management of the Tekuma Administration for the rehabilitation of the Gaza border communities. Even if each of them is a superman, a mega-mission like the Iranian nuclear program requires full attention and focus.

• The third issue is Hezbollah. Almost all experts believe that the organization is not interested in an all-out war with Israel. There are quite a few reasons for this—such as the destruction in Gaza and the fear of similar damage to Lebanon—but the main one is that Iran, which built and funded Hezbollah and is largely involved in its management, is not interested in this at the moment.

With all due respect to the Palestinian struggle in Gaza and the sympathies Tehran has towards Hamas’s war, the Iranians have a more important thing to worry about—their nuclear program. Hezbollah is meant to deter Israel from attacking Iran or to respond if Israel decides to attack. And if so, if a war is about to be forced upon us in Lebanon, it might be better to have it start with an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, knowing that the outcome on the northern front will be the same.

• The fourth issue is a derivative of the third. To fight in Lebanon, Israel needs international legitimacy. The world is currently not siding with us, and it will not allow Israel to devastate another country in the region. For this to be possible, close coordination with Washington is required, to provide the IDF with an international umbrella and also ammunition and spare parts, and above all broad backing in case the war ignites additional fronts. 

The chances that Biden will want this on the eve of the elections is virtually zero; on the other hand, he has vowed that Iran will not have nuclear weapons, and he also knows that the Iranian bomb is not intended for Israel alone: In an Iranian paraphrase of Leonard Cohen’s song—first we’ll take Tel Aviv, and then Manhattan.

Dilemma for Israel

In addition to these things, I learned something very disturbing from Dubowitz. Before the war, there was talk of a American-Saudi-Israeli grand bargain. The Saudis were supposed to receive a significant upgrade to their security capabilities, as well as the ability to enrich uranium on their soil, which would put them one step (or decision) away from military nuclear capability.

The Americans were supposed to get money and solidify their foothold in Saudi Arabia for fear that it would drift towards China. Israel was supposed to get normalization with Saudi Arabia, as well as multi-billion dollar contracts for its defense and civilian industries.

This was a real dilemma for Israel, which had not yet been resolved. On the one hand, creating a strong regional alliance against Iran and a significant boost to the Israeli economy; on the other hand, de facto consent to an Arab nuclear program—a stone’s throw away. All the signs then indicated that Benjamin Netanyahu supported this deal, despite its heavy price.

Oct. 7 disrupted things. Saudi Arabia still wants the deal, but unlike in the past, it can no longer ignore the Palestinian issue. The American officials have come and gone in recent months, making it clear that the deal is still on the table but will also require addressing the issue of Gaza as part of it.

They even had a proposal, to make Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states) a key player in the day after, mainly in funding reconstruction. This element also came with a stick—demanding that whoever runs Gaza would be moderate Palestinian elements, a code name for the Palestinian Authority, or elements from within it.

Israel has so far rejected this. The reasons are well-known and have been exhausted in the news. Netanyahu is wary of his coalition partners. Israel is paying a daily price for this vis-à-vis Washington, and an even higher price in other countries. Canada‘s announcement of halting arms sales to Israel is the latest in a string of ominous signs.

Although Canada is not a particularly important supplier of weapons to Israel, this is how it begins: Canada (and earlier Britain, and a court in the Netherlands); there will be attempts to block Israeli arms exports, and eventually, it could even reach Washington.

This is not Israel’s only loss. What Dubowitz told me is that in the meantime, the Americans and the Saudis are advancing their “security agreement” between them. In other words, Israel is not only losing the Saudi potential (which was supposed to bring with it the entire or most of the Muslim world), it is also losing the opportunity to influence the components of the deal—the advanced American weapons to be sold to Saudi Arabia in large quantities, and the possibility that the kingdom will be given de facto admission into the nuclear club.

These things are known and familiar in Jerusalem. It is worth distilling them again: On the table is an Iranian nuclear program and the possibility of a Saudi nuclear program that could be part of a deal with Israel or without it, potentially setting up a real axis of good to counter the axis of evil in the region.

Any level-headed person would agree such a development is crucial in the terrorist reality we have had to face over the past several months. And what is Israel doing? Returning to Oct. 6, under the influence of extremist elements in the government.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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