Speculation about a possible attack on Iranian nuclear sites has reached a fever pitch over the summer. The talk is so wild that even level-headed commentators on the right like Michael Barone opine aloud that perhaps Israel won’t be the instigator; rather the Obama administration might order a U.S. strike.
This still seems beyond unlikely but there is no question that the climate has changed. True, the president’s National Security Advisor the other day reiterated the administration’s willingness for Obama to meet with his Iranian counterpart assuming certain conditions were met—conditions that no one expects will be met. But inside the White House and national security bureaucracy, opinions about Iranian behavior and intentions appear to be hardening. Robert Kagan recently recounted a briefing by the president and top officials in which they made as clear as they could that their patience with Iran has all but run out.
So what’s next? Various chess pieces have been moving but it would take a Kasparov to divine a clear strategy—on either side—from what can be observed. The United States announced a $60 billion sale of advanced weaponry—including F-15s and Apache helicopters—to Saudi Arabia, and the Israelis, uncharacteristically, have declined to voice even mild reservations. Reports of an Israeli-Saudi deal for overflight rights over the kingdom draw predictable denials but continue to surface—without causing the political uproar one would expect. An Iranian nuclear scientist who vanished last year suddenly turned up in the United States and asked to go home. Al Qaeda figures—some blood relatives of the top brass—who have been living in Iran since shortly after 9/11 have pulled up stakes. Weapons caches of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and (to a far lesser extent) Hamas in Gaza—both key Iranian proxies on Israel’s borders—have been growing. A fourth round of sanctions passed the UNSC with nominal Russian and Chinese support, but Moscow and Beijing undermine them any way they can. Tehran announced that a long-anticipated delivery of coveted S-300 anti-aircraft missiles had finally been made—though not from Russia, the principal seller, but from Moscow-lackey Belarus. American officials cast doubt on the “news” but nobody really knows.
Now comes word that Russia will, after a decade-and-a-half of stop-and-go work, finally fuel and start Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr by August 21st. Similar word has come many times before. The Russians are, in the parlance of the region, adept at selling this particular rug over and over. Somehow the carpet never actually changes hands. Could this time be different?
Only Vladimir Putin and his immediate circle really know. It matters because, once fueled and operational, Bushehr will produce plutonium 239, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. The plant is also large, impossible to conceal or move, and relatively easy to destroy from the air. But once it has gone critical, any attempt to do so would risk the release of a radioactive plume that might kill civilians and poison surrounding areas.
This leaves any would-be attacker of Iran’s nuclear sites with a difficult choice. An attack is likely to cause collateral damage no matter how carefully it’s planned and is certain to result in a PR uproar. A radioactive release would compound both problems by several orders of magnitude. Israel in particular can expect outrage—some, but by no means all, feigned—from virtually the whole world should it move against Iranian nuclear sites. Jerusalem presumably does not wish to intensify the inevitable vitriolic reaction by causing radioactive contamination.
Which means that if the story is true, and if the Israelis judge Bushehr to be a dangerous installation, they will have to move quickly—as in, within the next week. Both are big “ifs.” Reports from inside the Israeli defense establishment suggest that they don’t fear Bushehr nearly as much as the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom. Certainly, the latter have been operating for years and have produced thousands of pounds of highly enriched uranium, whereas Bushehr has yet to produce so much as one gram of pu239 (or one watt of electricity for that matter). Also, it’s far from clear whether Iran has the technology, much less the capability, to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods.