Brig. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Eilam is an octogenarian who served as the director general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission from 1976 until 1985.
Last Friday Eilam gave a head-scratching interview to Yediot Aharonot’s Ronen Bergman in which he claimed that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is a decade from completion. He said it is far from clear that the Iranians even want a nuclear arsenal. He accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of cynically exaggerating the threat from Iran in order to strengthen himself politically.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eilam’s interview was his absolute certainty in his judgment.
Eilam, who hasn’t had any inside knowledge of nuclear issues since 1985, would have us believe that he knows better than active duty Israeli intelligence chiefs and US intelligence directors about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He even thinks he knows better than the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Israel assesses that Iran already has sufficient quantities of enriched uranium to produce five atomic bombs. As Netanyahu has said, the interim nuclear deal the US and its allies signed with Iran last November only delays Iran’s bomb making capacity by six weeks.
In January, James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence, agreed with Israel’s assessment. In testimony before the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence Clapper said that Iran is already a nuclear breakout state. In his words, “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas – including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles – from which it could draw if it decided to build missile- deliverable nuclear weapons.”
Clapper argued that this doesn’t matter because the US’s monitoring capabilities are so trustworthy and advanced that Iran wouldn’t be able to put nuclear weapons together without the US noticing.
Unfortunately there is no reason to believe Clapper is right. Indeed, Netanyahu said as much to US National Security Advisor Susan Rice when she repeated Clapper’s claim during her visit to Israel last week.
And the UN agrees with Netanyahu.
In two reports released in recent days, UN officials have stated that Iran has developed an advanced capacity to hide its importation of components of its nuclear program. According to a Reuters report, this includes hiding titanium tubes in steel pipes and using its petrochemical industry as a cover to obtain valves and other items for its heavy-water nuclear reactor.
According to an AP report, the IAEA is also concerned because Iran is not cooperating with the watchdog group in revealing information about possible military applications of its nuclear program, or allowing the IAEA unfettered access to all nuclear sites.
Iran’s lack of transparency puts paid to the US’s claim that it can monitor all of Iran’s activities. It is far from clear that the US is even aware of all of Iran’s nuclear sites. So even if the US is capable of perfectly monitoring the known sites, it cannot know what it doesn’t know, and so may very well be monitoring the wrong sites.
And yet, despite US’s acknowledgment that Iran already has breakout capacity, and despite the UN’s conclusion that the Iranians are cheating on their international commitments and bypassing sanctions through smuggling activities, Brig. Gen. Eilam, who left the nuclear business 28 years ago, feels comfortable accusing Netanyahu of deliberately misleading the public and the world community.
It is hard to escape the feeling that there may be a connection between Eilam’s unhinged broadside against Netanyahu and the US’s assault on the credibility of Israel’s nuclear warnings.
On Sunday Iran’s dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visited a Revolutionary Guards Corps base. There he was shown what the IRGC claims is a reverse-engineered clone of an advanced US espionage drone that Iran captured in 2011. According to Fox News, after the RAQ-170 Sentinel drone landed in Iran in 2011, the Pentagon presented US President Barack Obama with three different plans to destroy or retrieve the drone.
Obama rejected all of them because “he didn’t want to do anything that could be perceived as an act of war.”
During the same visit, to the IRGC base on Sunday, Khamenei told the commanders to begin mass producing ballistic missiles to use against the US.
In his words, the Americans “expect us to limit our missile program while they constantly threaten Iran with military action. So this is a stupid, idiotic expectation.
The Revolutionary Guards should definitely carry out their program and not be satisfied with the present level. They should mass produce. This is a main duty of all military officials.”
In other words, on Sunday, a declared enemy of the US, that the director of national intelligence acknowledges already has the independent capability to produce nuclear weapons, humiliated and threatened the US.
At a minimum Iran’s capture of the US drone indicates that the US capacity to monitor Iran’s nuclear capabilities is vulnerable and imperfect.
As for the ballistic missiles, they should be of utmost concern to the Europeans and the Americans. Iran doesn’t need ballistic missiles to attack Israel with nuclear weapons. It can use artillery, not to mention a human being playing the role of Enola Gay.
But rather than condemn Iranian espionage and aggression, over the past week, Obama administration officials have launched a full court press against Israel.
In back-to-back articles in Newsweek, unnamed US former intelligence officials and congressional staffers presented an utterly false and deeply malicious portrait of alleged Israeli spying on the US. The reports were presumably targeting Israel’s attempts to end State Department discrimination against Israeli tourists in the US and allow Israel to join the US visa waiver program.
But it is hard to ignore the timing of the unbridled, untrue and hysterical allegations of “rampant” Israeli spying.
The stories were released in the lead-up to this week’s newest round of nuclear talks between the US, the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, and Iran. Those talks were billed as a diplomatic means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Indeed, after Rice’s meeting with Netanyahu last week the White House released a statement claiming that “the US delegation reaffirmed our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
But the terms of the deal that is being negotiated with Iran advance the opposite of its stated goal. The deal on the table will enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons, virtually unopposed, and allow Iran to develop delivery systems for its nuclear arsenal entirely unopposed.
Israeli officials have been outspoken in their opposition to the agreement and the terms the US and its partners are offering Iran. Over and over, Netanyahu and his colleagues warn that the terms will not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The White House knows what it is doing, and it wants to continue on course. Consequently, for the administration to sell a deal that enables Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, it needs to discredit Israel among sufficient swaths of the general public to enable Obama to move forward with Iran against Israel.
In this context, the administration’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Iran’s brazen threats and acts of contempt while sending out anonymous sources to castigate Israel as a US enemy whose actions are hostile and antithetical to the US makes sense.
The malevolent slander of Israel’s actions and intentions is of course only the opening act in this new administration campaign to discredit Israel ahead of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Speaking to The Washington Free Beacon, former Bush administration deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams said he believes the administration will frame the issue “saying that it’s this deal or war.”
He’s doubtlessly correct. After all that is what the administration did in November when it signed the interim deal and when it forced the Senate to mothball its sanctions bill against Iran.
But the claim itself is a lie.
The real choice isn’t between war and an agreement. It is between doing something to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, or doing nothing to prevent that from happening. The administration has opted to do nothing. Unfortunately for the world, the price for doing nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is exponentially higher – in the cost of lives that would otherwise be saved – than the price of doing something.
But hey, at least an 80-year-old who led Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission nearly 40 years ago is willing to take Obama at his word.