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After years, uncertainty still colors talk of Iran’s nuclear capability

By Sheera Frenkel, McClatchy Newspapers –

JERUSALEM — On the morning of May 9, 2006, Amos Yadlin, Israel’s head of military intelligence, walked away from his parliamentary committee meeting with a sense of triumph. He knew he had successfully shifted Israel’s national agenda.

He bypassed the reporters and cameramen who’d gathered outside the committee room. Those who could ran after him, but were given only a curt answer by one of his aides.

“Iran. The story is Iran,” said the aide, before sidestepping the group into a waiting elevator.

That morning Yadlin had told the Knesset’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2010 if no “sanctions or roadblocks” were put in its path. The committee, which has parliamentary oversight over the military and often hears briefings from top intelligence and political officials, is officially closed to the press. But it leaks like a sieve, and officials know that what they say before it will soon be trumpeted to the reporters assigned to squat outside the committee doors.

“Everyone comes here to say something behind closed doors that they know will be leaked,” said Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes. “They guarantee interest.”

Yadlin’s statement that morning was calculated to garner the most attention possible, and it did. The next day, it was on the front pages of all of Israeli’s daily newspapers. Within months, Israeli politicians would pick up the refrain and begin routinely referring to Iran as an “existential threat.” It is an expression Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond of.

Six years later, concern over that threat has reached a fever pitch, even as the date predicted for Iran’s having built a nuclear weapon has slipped. Israeli officials who once talked about 2010 now talk about 2012. The existential threat line has moved from Israeli politicians to the United States, where it is repeated by nearly all the Republican presidential candidates as well as politicians of all stripes. British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also have expressed concern about the Iranian nuclear threat.

Last week, President Barack Obama took a tough line, telling a meeting of the American Israel Political Action Committee on Sunday that the U.S. would take military action to make sure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.

“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Two days later, Obama took a more nuanced approach, telling a Washington news conference that a diplomatic solution was still within reach. “That’s the view of our top intelligence officials, it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials,” he said. He blasted those “beating the drums of war.”

“When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said. “This is not a game. And there’s nothing casual about it.”

That more restrained approach, which came one day after the president met with Netanyahu, underscores what interviews with Israeli experts make clear: There is no certainty about how real the threat is that Iran will have the bomb or how soon it might come to pass. Or whether there is any way to stop it.

Iran denies that it has plans to build a nuclear weapon, and U.S. officials, while pushing to stop Iran’s program, say they have no evidence Iran plans to build a bomb. That conclusion was first announced in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, and has been reaffirmed since under Obama, most recently last month.

Of the nearly dozen Israeli experts McClatchy Newspapers interviewed, each had a different opinion as to what the threshold should be for launching a strike to knock out Iran’s nuclear program. Some argued it should be as soon as possible, before Iran succeeds in moving its facilities into well-protected underground bunkers. Others said the strike should come when Iran creates nuclear material capable of being turned into a weapon. And still others say Israel and the West should wait until Iran actually tests a nuclear weapon.

“People talk about ‘red lines’ and ‘deadlines’ and ‘weaponization’ and ‘threshold,’ but those terms only partly capture the process that leads to a nuclear weapon,” said Ephraim Asculai, a nuclear weapons expert who worked at Israel’s atomic energy commission for 40 years and is currently a fellow at Israel’s premier foreign policy think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies.

“Iran … can linger, they can hold off and wait at this status for as long as they want before ‘breaking out’ and building their first nuclear weapon,” he said. “The first weapon is the slowest to build and the subsequent ones will happen more quickly. They also could choose not to break out at all.”

Israeli officials now argue that Iran is positioning itself to build a series of bombs as soon as top officials decide to do so. As evidence, they point to recent reports by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog that say that Iran has “military dimensions” to its nuclear program.

But they also acknowledge that Israel’s credibility has been hurt by endlessly shifting predictions and timelines.

Israel, which itself has an estimated 250 nuclear weapons, though it rarely acknowledges it, has been openly fretting about Iranian nuclear ambitions since the 1980s.

Yaakov Katz, author of “Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War,” said the changing predictions came as Israeli officials realized that Iran’s strategy was not what they initially had thought.

In the early 2000s, Katz said, intelligence officials thought that the moment Iran had enrichment abilities it would build a weapon. But in 2006, Katz said, intelligence officials realized that Iran had a different strategy.

“They realized Iran wanted to create a massive stockpile of enriched uranium and to build all the necessary parts, and to have all the technological ability. Iran wanted to stand on the brink, to be on the threshold of being able to build not just one,” said Katz. “That is where they are today.”

Yadlin’s projection of 2010 would have been “sound and accurate,” said Katz, had numerous delays not pushed back the Iranian program.

Those delays included the assassinations of nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions at military facilities and a computer virus known as “Stuxnet” that disrupted the installation of centrifuges, the key components for processing uranium. Israel is often credited with those delays, though few believe they will stop a determined Iran in the long run.

“In the end they are delays, not final solution,” said Asculai, the Israeli nuclear weapons expert.

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