Former Israeli nat’l security advisor: “Right way to deal with Iran was through diplomacy”

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My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, interviewing former IDF planning chief and National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, has come up with the most substantive list yet of the pros and cons for Israeli military action against Iran. The bottom line: Eiland joins numerous other Israeli intelligence and defense experts in giving greater weight to the cons in the process.

Eiland, who also served as Israeli National Security Advisor from 2003-2006, calls the prospect of facing either Iran with a bomb vs. bombing Iran, “a choice between the plague and cholera.”

For each choice, he says, there are four main risks. An Iran with nuclear weapons could launch one against Israel, a prospect he says is extremely unlikely but not nonexistent. Risk two is sparking a Middle East arms race, three is worsening Israel’s strategic position with regard to conventional conflict and four is spurring “a radical tidal wave in the Muslim world.”

Eiland’s candid enumeration of the risks of Israeli military action, however, suggests that “cholera” is worse than the plague. Risk one, he says, is that the operation could fail because of the dispersed and hardened nature of the Iranian nuclear program. If that happens, risk two is “a terrible erosion of our regional deterrent capability, which will encourage all sorts of sharks to attack the Israel that issued a threat and failed to carry through and is now bleeding in the water.”

Risk three, he said, echoing many other experts, is that Iran will use an Israeli strike as “the best pretext for openly striving to obtain nuclear weapons and assemble atomic bombs within a short time.” Risk four is that Iran would retaliate against Gulf targets, driving oil prices to $200 a barrel and causing the rest of the world to blame and punish Israel.

Eiland said that he would not order a strike unless Israel’s defense establishment can satisfy decision makers that the intelligence about the targets is good enough, that Israel has the capability to attack with “critical mass,” that the strike would cause sufficient damage and that the end result would buy Israel “a window of time of at least a number of years.”

The key factor in satisfying the final condition, he said, is whether “there is international support for an Israeli attack.” In that case, “Iran will find it very hard to rebuild its nuclear capability afterward. But if the Israel attack is perceived as rash and illegitimate, Iran will actually get a boost and will quickly attain military nuclear capability… Israel will come out the loser on both ends.”

Given all the downsides – and U.S. reluctance to attack Iran –Eiland concludes that the likelihood of an Israeli military strike on Iran is “much less than 50 percent” while the “likelihood that Iran will become a nuclear power is … over 50 percent.”

Most strikingly, Eiland says Israel was never supposed to be faced with this dilemma, arguing that a Russian diplomatic approach might have led to a deal.

“The right way to deal with Iran was through diplomacy,” Eiland told Shavit, before arguing that the past two US administrations squandered the likelihood of a Russian-backed diplomatic solution by taking a tough stance with Moscow.

In fact, the so-called P5+1–the United States, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany– this year offered Iran an updated/adapted version of a Russian step by step proposal first floated by Moscow to Iran last year. As yet, the two sides remain far apart.  Further talks will continue later this month between the deputy nuclear negotiators for both sides.

Eiland doesn’t represent the current Netanyahu government. But his calculations suggest a few possible conclusions. Among them, that Israeli policymakers may reluctantly decide to forgo the option of striking Iran in the near term, in favor of a combination of other methods: continued covert sabotage efforts, pushing the US and world powers to impose yet tougher sanctions, with the possibility that Iran may decide to accept a deal at some point. And with the U.S. president’s assurance that if Iran does move to make weapons grade uranium or assemble a nuclear bomb, that he would authorize military action to prevent it.The risk in such a strategy is that international efforts may fail, and Israeli leaders apparently have their doubts that the U.S. would take military action if it comes to it.

Meantime, President Obama’s National Security Advisor Tom Donilon traveled to Israel July 14-15 for consultations on Iran with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror. Among the items Israeli leaders are seeking from Obama, diplomatic sources told Al Monitor: that the United States issue a credible threat of military force against Iran.

–With Laura Rozen.