Is an Israeli military attack against Iran truly off the table? Conventional wisdom certainly seems to think that it is. In the aftermath of the signing of an interim nuclear deal in Geneva this past November, the foreign policy cognoscenti in Washington, and elsewhere, have been vocal about the fact that they believe the bell has effectively tolled on the possibility of Israeli military action.
The view from Israel, however, is far less settled. Take a new report in Israel Defense, a well-regarded strategic intelligence newsletter, which suggests that planning for a military option against Iran hasn't been tabled, just postponed pending the outcome of the current negotiating track between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the U.S., France, Russia, China, Great Britain and Germany). As the analysis points out, for Israel the operative element of the diplomatic thaw now underway between the Islamic Republic and the West is whether it truly results in an end to Tehran's pursuit of the atomic bomb.
For the moment, at least, Tehran appears to be playing ball with the international community. On Monday, the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, certified that the Iranian government had ceased enriching uranium above five percent purity, as mandated under the terms of the so-called "joint plan of action" hammered out with the West in Geneva. That deal also stipulates a number of other conditions that Iran will need to fulfill, including a cessation of work at its plutonium reactor at Arak, in exchange for a lifting of some economic sanctions.
Yet virtually no one believes that this moratorium will be permanent. Indeed, Iranian officials from the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down have intoned repeatedly that nuclear development constitutes an "inalienable right" for the Islamic Republic—one that they plan to pursue at all costs. That means that, at some point, Iran's nuclear momentum is bound to be revived. And when it is, it will rekindle Israel's fears that this progress will bring Iran within striking distance of at long last becoming a nuclear-weapon state.
"For Jerusalem… the existing political circumstances allow no viable political option for an attack, but the situation can change within months," the Israel Defense report concludes. "If Israel manages to gather intelligence evidence that Iran continues to 'work' on the atomic bomb, the Cabinet may convene dramatic meetings and order [an] attack in the near summer or fall months."
The message is crystal clear. As far as the Israeli government is concerned, the hard choices facing the international community about precisely what lengths it will need to go to in order to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran haven't been resolved. They have only been deferred—and perhaps not for all that long.