Israel and the Iranian Nuclear Threat
Jan 31, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
Number 01/07 #10
January 31, 2007
Last week, the annual Herzliya Conference was held in Israel. The Conference is an important event in the political calendar, where all major leaders generally speak, and major initiatives are often announced. (For instance, former PM Sharon announced the disengagement from Gaza at Herzliya.) This year, the conference had one overwhelming focus, mentioned repeatedly by numerous speakers – the grave danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
It was virtually the sole topic of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech, which we reproduce below. He choose to use his speech to “report on the state of the Iranian threat.” He set out the case of why Iran is a such a crucial threat, and also reassures Israelis with his belief that Iran is vulnerable and the international community is increasingly committed to stopping Teheran from getting nuclear weapons. For his comments on the state of the threat, CLICK HERE.
Next up is an editorial from Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-leaning daily, about the fact that nations appear prepared to commemorate the Holocaust, but not to do anything about Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who both denies the Holocaust and implicitly threatens a new nuclear holocaust against Israel. The paper places particular onus on the Europeans to do more and recognise that this is a genuinely urgent crisis. For the paper’s argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, late last year a journalist from the on-line magazine Jewsweek backgrounded the successful Israeli development program for missile defence, which is both a testimony to Israel’s concern about Iran’s non-conventional weapons, and a product of the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit many Israelis bring to bear on such programs. It includes an extensive interview with Eran Shir, one of the founders of the Arrow anti-missile project. The full piece is HERE.
January 24, 2007
I cannot speak tonight without referring to the events of the past day, and the Attorney General’s decision to hold a hearing for the President in light of the possibility that serious charges may be filed against him. In these circumstances, I have no doubt that the President cannot continue to fulfill his role and he should leave the President’s Residence. This is a sad day for the State of Israel.
Ladies and Gentlemen, exactly one year ago less one day, I had the privilege to stand at this podium, at the final session of the Herzliya Conference as Acting Prime Minister, in place of Ariel Sharon, who days earlier had fallen into a coma from which he has yet to awaken. In that speech, I expressed my profound prayer, and that of all those present, as well as the entire nation, that Arik Sharon would return to us. I have carried this hope and this prayer since then.
Today, I would like to focus on a subject which I believe is the most important one, and which was one of the main points of discussion during this Conference over the past few days. This subject is one with significant repercussions for the State of Israel and the region in the next decade. I will present you with a report of the state of the Iranian threat.
Today, there is not one among us who does not sense the dangers inherent in this threat, not only to Israel, but also to the future of the region and to the stability of the world order.
Every Israeli government over the past decade acted vigorously to improve our ability to track Iran’s intentions, increase international awareness of the threat, mobilize international support to stop external assistance of the Iranian plans and prepare appropriate options in the event that these efforts prove unsuccessful in the end.
We achieved considerable accomplishments in each of these areas; however let us not delude ourselves: the primary goal which must be realized still lies ahead.
For many long years, we have followed Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, in the guise of a civilian nuclear program. They are working through secret channels in a number of sites spread out across Iran. In the past few years, we have been witness to especially intense Iranian activity on two tracks – the overt and the covert.
Iranian support of Palestinian terror – through financial support, provision of weapons and knowledge, both directly and through Syria – Iranian assistance of terror in Iraq, the exposure of the capabilities which reached the Hizbullah from Iran during the fighting in Lebanon and the assistance which they offered just recently to Hamas, have demonstrated to many the seriousness of the Iranian threat.
This activity has created an opposing front, which includes, in varying intensities, all the permanent members of the UN Security Council; Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan; and other key countries in the West, such as Germany and Japan. This front is acting to unite forces and prevent this threat from becoming a reality.
Recently, I returned from an important visit to China, and thus ended a round of diplomatic visits. I met with all the leaders of countries which serve as permanent members in the Security Council, and other key countries. The Iranian topic was at the top of our agenda and at the core of the meetings I held, and which various ministers and other professional officials regularly hold.
In all the contacts I have had, there has been clear agreement that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons or the material to produce them.
The Security Council’s discussion of the Iranian situation and its acceptance of Resolution 1737 are important steps, which brought together all the members of the Security Council. The Resolution was achieved following intense and complex diplomatic efforts. Many parties took part in it, including several agencies in the State of Israel, both on a political level and at a professional level. We know that our efforts contributed greatly to the result.
It is clear to everyone that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue is the preferred solution. We also prefer such an outcome. The direction which the majority of the international community leans towards is a solution which can bear fruit, as long as it is done with the necessary ingenuity and determination, while meticulously adhering to the minimum requirements on which there can be no compromise.
Assuming that all the steps which will now be taken (and those which are already being taken) by the international community are sharper, more significant, clearer and more vigorous, the need to adopt more demanding and harsher solutions in the future will be reduced. Those who believe, as we do, that a diplomatic solution is preferable, must now muster their strength to exert pressure on Iran and thus stay the course until change is achieved.
To turn a blind eye now, while ignoring reality, dragging one’s feet, and attempting to reach dangerous compromises while avoiding taking clear steps, those of us who wish to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power will, down the road, not be left with any choice but to take much more severe steps in the future.
I wish to clarify – Iran is very vulnerable and sensitive to international pressure, despite its defiant, arrogant and provocative stance, and it is already paying the ever increasing price of this behavior, a price which will only increase if it continues in its policy. As serious as the Iranian threat is, the threat of nuclear attack on Israel is by no means imminent.
At this stage, there is still time, while not unlimited, to stop Iran’s intention of becoming a nuclear power which threatens its adversaries, first and foremost, Israel. We are not complacent, we cannot be complacent, and we are responding to the Iranian threats with the necessary seriousness.
Israel is not spearheading the struggle against the Iranian threat. This threat must be dealt with seriously and responsibly, first and foremost by the major powers and by other key nations.
We are at the forefront of the fight to place this issue on the top of the agendas of world leaders and international public opinion. It is our duty to point out the dangers and help in finding solutions.
The Jewish people, on whom the scars of the Holocaust are deeply etched, cannot allow itself to again face a threat against its very existence. In the past, the world remained silent and the results are known. Our role is to prevent the world from repeating this mistake.
This is a moral question of the highest degree. There is a moment during which any rule among the routine diplomatic rules becomes irrelevant. When the leader of a country announces, officially and publicly, his country’s intention to wipe off the map another country, and creates those tools which will allow them to realize their stated threat, no nation has the right to weigh its position on the matter. This is an obligation of the highest order, to act with all force against this plot.
We have nothing against the Iranian people, we are not the enemy of the Iranian people and we have no interest in conflict with Iran. In the past, before the takeover by the radical factions of the country with its exceptional tradition and impressive abilities, we had close and friendly relations.
The Iran of today, whose leadership is motivated by religious fanaticism and ideological extremism, has chosen a policy of confrontation with us and threatens to wipe Israel off the map of nations. It supports terror and undermines stability in the region. The Iranian regime, in its aspiration to regional hegemony, bears responsibility for the riots perpetrated by the Hizbullah today to bring down the Lebanese government.
Threats, hostility and fighting are not our way. Our aspiration was, and will always be, to live in peace with our neighbors, near and far. We will never reject a hand, offered in all sincerity, towards genuine peace, by any nation. For this we yearn.
At the same time, our desire for peace should not be interpreted as weakness, but rather as a source of strength. Anyone who threatens us, who threatens our existence, must know that we have the determination and capability of defending ourselves, responding with force, discretion and with all the means at our disposal as necessary. We will not place the lives of our people, the life of our country, at risk.
We have the right to full freedom of action to act in defense of our vital interests. We will not hesitate to use it. I do not suggest that anyone mistakes our restraint and responsibility, or presume that it will harm our determination and capability to act when necessary.
The Iranian issue preoccupies me and my thoughts constantly. I am coordinating the handling of this matter and follow up on it on a daily basis, of one mind with the ministers involved in the matter and in coordination with the relevant agencies and ministries.
Faced with the Iranian threat there is not, never was and will never be any difference between opposition and coalition, between right, center and left. We are all united in this regard and the people stand behind us, united and ready to face the dangers lurking at Israel’s doorstep.
There is no human experience we have not undergone. There is no affliction, threat, hatred, jealousy, envy, persecution, violence and bloodshed which have not been seared into our flesh. With unparalleled strength, we built our lives and established a glorious country.
No force in the world can destroy us – and there will never be. We refuse to be dragged into an atmosphere of collective, self-induced fear. We will not allow the people to sink into depression and insecurity. We have immense strength. We have nothing to fear and we will not be afraid.
All of us understand the weight of responsibility and the importance of the hour related to this sensitive subject. Together, through joint internal effort, by joining forces with the world and by speaking in one, responsible voice at home – not overly excited, but rather clear and determined – we will stand up to nuclear threats and prevail.
January 26, 2007
Tomorrow, January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be observed for the third time. Fixed on the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is a memorial for the destruction of the Jews of Europe, which was first established by European countries and later adopted by the United Nations. This welcome initiative is seemingly the climax of a process in which the Holocaust of the Jews has come to be perceived not only as a disaster for our people, but as having universal significance: a reminder of the horrors that people are capable of inflicting on other people, and also a warning – if not an alarm bell – that summons humanity to fight determinedly against present or future dangers of this kind.
The dignity of these ceremonies and memorial days can be assumed. But will they also be accompanied by action? Doubts creep in when one surveys the current state of the world: The international community failed embarrassingly in its handling of the slaughter in Rwanda, and it is now having trouble dealing with the mass murder in Sudan’s Darfur province as well. And for all the denunciations and the shock, it seems that the international community is also standing by helplessly, doing nothing, in the face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Jewish Holocaust and threatens the very existence of the State of Israel.
His open threats of destruction are backed by Iran’s efforts to arm itself with weapons of mass destruction that would be capable of carrying out this threat. Yet the international community is not excited. It has not gone into overdrive in order to at least deny Iran nuclear weapons. It sometimes seems as if this community is more concerned with ceremonies and memorial days to cleanse its conscience over its inaction in the face of past catastrophes than it is with dealing with the catastrophes that are occurring now, or that are on the horizon.
In this context, European countries and their leaders have a special role to play. This continent, on whose soil the horrors of the Holocaust occurred, is admittedly now leading the memorialization efforts, but has it really learned a lesson? Has it, for instance, learned the dangers of appeasing fanatic tyrants, who interpret every concession as weakness, and not necessarily as a sign of goodwill?
History does not usually repeat itself. We are not “in 1938” (as Benjamin Netanyahu warned recently), but in 2007, and there is no point in making endless analogies to the victims of World War II or comparisons to Chamberlain, Churchill and Hitler. This merely interferes with the effort to look with open eyes at the real dangers: the atrocities in Africa and the dangers inherent in the Iranian regime.
In a balanced address about the Iranian threat delivered at the Herzliya Conference, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refrained from putting Israel alone at the forefront of the struggle, but, at the same time, he left no doubt about Israel’s determination never again to allow an existential threat to develop against it. But Israel’s isolation in this struggle does not depend only on itself. The struggle against Iran’s threats and its nuclearization – a struggle in which diplomatic and economic channels have not yet been exhausted – demands international and, especially, European determination against these developing threats, and not just a rallying round memorial days and ceremonies for the holocausts of the past.
Today, the specter of destruction falling from the sky is back. It could come at any time, in any place, and for no reason. Many are asking what should be done about it. But the real question is what can be done.
by Ashley Rindsberg
Jewsweek.com, November 30, 2006
Today, the specter of destruction falling from the sky is back. The US enjoyed a decade’s respite after the fall of the Soviet Union during which American air superiority ensured that virtually no enemy bomb squadron could achieve a successful attack. But today, with Iran’s dubiously peaceful nuclear program and with North Korea’s recent long-range missile test, the possibility of an unconventional ballistic missile reaching American soil is no longer just the remnants of a Cold War nightmare.
Perhaps no country understands this kind of threat better than Israel. It was only a few months ago that the northern region of that country was huddled into shelters as rockets rained from the Lebanon border. And it was only a few years before that when Saddam Hussein launched more than 40 Scud missiles onto Israeli soil in retaliation for the first US-led invasion of Iraq.
Israel’s decision to begin a missile defense program grew in response to this ever-looming threat. Already by the 1980s policy makers and systems designers were discussing the feasibility of a missile defense system that could accurately, and cost-effectively, neutralize an incoming missile attack. In the US, talk about missile defense had begun decades before President Reagan’s famous ‘Star Wars’ plan which he announced in his Strategic Defense Initiative speech in 1983.
Today, after more than a half-century’s worth of discussion regarding the possibility of missile defense, only one country in the world — Israel — has been able to fully develop a reliable and realistic missile defense system: the Arrow.
Eran Shir was a member of the founding Arrow unit in the Israeli army. His unit’s task was to develop operating protocols, find operational snags, and build the skeleton of a new army unit that could successfully deploy the system against future threats. Shir, a young non-commissioned officer, was neither top army brass nor policy pundit. Instead, he was a guy-on-the-ground, an Israeli twenty-something who had been assigned to this unit because of the experience he’d gained, and the sharpness he displayed, working with a previous missile defense system.
Shir later became a computer scientist with a background in physics, in addition to the developer of the largest, most successful internet measurement program, Dimes (Distributed Internet Measurements and Simulations). Sitting in a popular Tel Aviv caf? where Shir had just finished a meeting for his latest high-tech startup, Dapper, he looks around at the packed cafe and reflects on the unit he helped build, and what it means for Israel, its enemies, and the world.
“Think of it like an army startup,” he says of the unit. Much of the unit’s work was devoted to determining the role of the human in the process. Although the system is highly automated, more so than the US Patriot missile defense system, people are still needed to “set the policy” of the system or, in other words, to determine its behavior given various real-world scenarios.
His unit, along with the development visionaries, politicians, and officers who helped give birth to what most analysts considered to be an impossible dream, was successful. The Arrow has proven in recent tests to be highly capable of intercepting long range missiles at extremely high altitudes.
But what does this mean for Israel? Should the public and the government forget about Iran’s blatant aggression and military capability in favor of sitting back to munch sunflower seeds and watch a soccer game, comfortably assured by the Arrow’s presence? Definitely not, says Shir.
“Think of it like the 5 stages of accepting death,” he explains, referring to Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ outline of the process of grieving. “Israeli culture is going through those steps right now, maybe rapidly. We’ve been in denial [the first stage of grieving] for a long time. Part of dealing with the Qassam rockets in the south was denial. We didn’t really want to deal with this issue. And now we’re in the second stage, we’re frustrated and angry. I think that at the end of the day we have to accept the fact that the oref [the homefront] no longer has any meaning. You have to talk about the civilian front and the military front– everyone is part of the front.”
The loss of meaning of the homefront has no better example than the recent Lebanon war. While life in Tel Aviv went relatively unchanged, life in the north did not. Even so, Israelis spoke of a palpable tension in the country’s largest city which came from the possibility that an Iran-supplied long range missile might finally burst the ‘Tel Aviv bubble’. And this, Shir explains, is precisely what Israelis need to accept.
“We need to deal with the fact that in any potential war here, there is a very good chance that right here in this cafe a one ton TNT missile might drop. There’s a very good chance that we might experience London in WWII all over again, only this time high-tech.”
Although the Arrow system smacks of the kind of sci-fi wonder which could prevent such a scenario, it is not a Star Trek-like forcefield, as every one would like it to be. The first reason for this is that 100% accuracy is basically physically impossible. Then factor in human error (and bad intelligence), mechanical failure and, as always, cost.
“All of these concepts of defending a certain region come down to a scale of economy: how much does it cost an aggressor to send a missile versus how much does it cost to intercept it. Then multiply that by 1000. If we had a Katyusha defense system for which every missile, like the Arrow, cost $100,00, or even $50,000, and you have to send a couple interceptors against each katyusha, and they have 4000 katyushas — well you can do the numbers. It is not something we can withstand.”
But even aside from logistical and economic parameters, the system is simply not designed to intercept other kinds of missiles, particularly smaller, shorter-range ones. The upside of this is that these kinds of weapons cannot (we think) be armed with unconventional warheads. But they are still deadly and they are still terrifying.
“One option is to say that we’re not interested in Scuds and all those missiles. We’re only interested in unconventional missiles. If you send a one-ton conventional warhead against us, it’s not our business. But this has two problems. First, it will be very hard in real time to withstand this position. You have the ability to intercept a conventional missile so it’s very hard to say no. The other issue is the problem of discriminating, knowing which is a conventional missile and which is not. If you have a salvo of 100 missiles, or even 20, it’s not easy to discriminate.”
“So the problem is not solved. But it’s a very good first step.”
Big Step, Tiny Country
It’s a very good first step that most military technology experts had, for decades, thought could not be accomplished. Once it was accomplished — once the Arrow proved successful in repeated tests– many of the former skeptics began to hail the accomplishment in miracle terms. So how did this tiny country, with its relatively tiny military budget (Israel’s defense budget is roughly one quarter that of France), accomplish what no other country could? A preliminary answer comes in the form of a four-letter acronym: BMDO. The Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (now the Missile Defense Agency) helped kick-start this pet project of theirs by anteing up with a large chunk of the cost of development. But if the Pentagon could finance it then why didn’t they just build it?
“This goes back to culture,” Shir says. “Out of everything, it’s culture. In Israel you first do something, even if you know that maybe what you’ve done you might have to re-do from scratch again in a few years, or it doesn’t solve the whole problem, or it’s an improvisation, or proof of concept.”
The Pentagon has in fact tried to push a number — a large of number — of missile defense systems to fruition. There was the Patriot, the THAAD, the Standard Missile 2, and others. Some of them failed and some of them half-worked, but none have been able to achieve the kind of broad-reaching missile defense system that Reagan seemed to be calling for his in his Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, speech.
“In the US,” Shir says, “everything is very planned, with the project and the team and the budget and the timeline. And eventually you end up with nothing. You want to build a pie-in-the-sky system and you end up with pie on your face.”
The Israeli approach, he explains, is somewhat different. In a country whose very existence was a case of geopolitical bootstrapping and where one of the biggest national fears, alongside destruction, is being labeled a ‘freier’, or sucker, people have to think fast and act faster. Improvisation there is not a tactic; it’s a strategy.
“It’s like the startup culture,” he explains as his startup partner leaves the table in search of an outlet to charge his laptop. “It’s very bad in many senses but it’s also very good in many senses. It’s the ability to improvise and start small and not worry about the fact that 10,000 people have failed before you. Just go forward and have this foolish confidence that you can do what no one else could.”
Or, in words that recall the story of the birth of the State of Israel, “You start with what you can, not with what you need. Then life takes its own course.”
“Death is on our doorstep”
With North Korea’s recent nuclear weapons test, we are faced with the question of both what we need to do and what we can do to counter this reemerging threat. North Korea, though, with its fragile economy and ambiguous policies is perhaps not the most crucial threat. Its ‘Axis-of-Evil’ co-designee, Iran, which boasts a large army, relatively stable (and diverse) economy, oil wealth, and military proximity to other oil supplies, poses an entirely different challenge.
Iran has had a long and well-documented relationship with nearly all of the world’s leading producers of advanced arms systems, including the US and Israel. The fruit of this web of weaponry is not only an impressive arsenal but an ability to produce its own weapons or modify Russian, North Korean, or Chinese systems for its own purposes. The most recent news, reported in Jane’s Defense Weekly, is that Iran is now developing a missile with a range of 4,000-5,000 km, which puts Paris, London, Rome, Mumbai and, needless to say, Tel Aviv within range.
Putting aside conjectures of a messianic Iranian will to world destruction, the issue of mutually assured destruction is obscured not only by the high-intensity rhetoric of that country’s government but also by the very presence of a reliable missile defense system in the region.
Some analysts have theorized that because would-be aggressors understand that the chances of a ballistic missile attack on Israel (and now other countries) have been significantly diminished, these aggressors (like the guerilla factions that often brought them to power) are forced to find new and often more brutal methods of attack. Suicide attacks, dirty bombs, and mass poisonings are some of the better known varieties. But as troubling as these scenarios are, it’s what defense experts have not yet anticipated that’s scarier.
It’s a game that Shir calls ‘Circumvention’: “I think of the terrorists, as well, like a startup. You just need to circumvent the problem: if you cannot fight against the Israeli air force then you use Scuds. And if you can’t use Scuds you use Hizbollah. The other side understood Israel and is trying to make the best out of its inferiority. It’s quite understandable. It’s like when you hire a strategic consultant for your company to compete with IBM. They don’t tell you to go head-to-head with IBM, they tell you to go around, go under, go to the side.”
With Iran now engaging the UN, courting the ‘non-aligned’ nations, continuing its nuclear program, and all the while waging a rhetoric war, it seems that that country is doing all three. The question that faces the US, Europe and, most critically, Israel, is what to do about it?
Israel, which sits two houses over from Iran and is ringed by the high-tech picket fence that is the Arrow system, faces particularly complex questions. Shir explains the position of some opponents of the Arrow who believe that the presence of the system withers Israel’s deterrence abilities. The Arrow, this school claims, sends a message to enemies that ‘You can try shoot us and we won’t strike back so hard.’
“Think about this scenario where Iran sends a nuclear missile, intending to destroy Israel, and we manage to intercept it with the Arrow– will we be able, in a situation where not a single Israeli dies, to send a nuclear missile and destroy Teheran?” And if the answer is no, then what stops Iran, or any potential aggressor, from trying again and again until by force of sheer probability it is successful?
“I think we need to develop a new strategy of retaliation. We need to make it clear, beforehand, that the minute we see a missile coming out of Syria or Iran or any other place we will make sure that those countries will be wiped out. We need to get into their minds that the Jews are crazy, on the one hand. On the other hand we need to do as much as we can to remove any excuse: we need to finish up the peace process with the Palestinians and normalize relations with them. And we need to approach Lebanon and make it very hard for them to say no to a peace treaty.”
In this sense peace is its own strategic defense weapon. And this, he explains, is precisely what Yitzhak Rabin understood at least a decade before anybody else in Israeli politics. Rabin expressed this position as early as 1992 when in a speech to Israel’s Knesset on Islamic fundamentalism he remarked that “the danger of death is at our doorstep”, while simultaneously reiterating strong calls for peace with the Palestinians.
Shir explains that this strategic concern is part of the reason why Rabin, who was an experienced military strategist, focused so heavily on achieving peace. He realized that Israel needs to be able to focus its military and political resources on critical threats — in this case on a country whose leader now openly calls for the genocide and destruction of the Jewish state, along with a Shi’a-led redemption of Islam against the West.
“It’s a gloomier future,” Shir says in a matter-of-fact tone. “A gloomier prospect.”
But, returning to his startup-culture wisdom, he says, “Once you get into the mode that the answer is out there so let’s find it, it becomes much, much easier to find an answer. We need to look at the issue through the solution, not through the problem.”
Whatever the solution might be, it will not be simple. It will involve a careful combination of diplomacy, deterrence, partnership, and isolation. But more than all this, it will first require acceptance of the fact that there is a problem and, likewise, that there is a solution. And also that, as with any startup venture, the search for the solution entails both confrontation with failure and the ability to look that failure in the eye and push past it.
Ashley Rindsberg is a writer and journalist with interests in culture, art, and politics.