NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
And now the opinion page, but something of a departure from our usual 800-word argument. In the cover story of this weekend's New York Times magazine, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman says Israel has long posed a three-part test to decide whether it's time to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities. Would such attacks make a severe dent in Iran's program? Can Israel count on international support, particularly from the United States? Have all measures short of war been exhausted? Bergman concludes that Israel's political leadership is convinced that for the first time, the answers to all those questions is yes.
If you have questions about the logic and consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ronen Bergman is an analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and author of the "Secret War with Iran." He joins us now, via Skype, from Jerusalem. Nice to have you back on the program. Ronen Bergman, are you there? And we're having difficulties reaching Ronen Bergman, who's the analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth in Jerusalem. He's also the author of the New York Times cover story on its most recent Sunday Times magazine. He's back with us by phone now. Are you with us there?
DR. RONEN BERGMAN: Yeah, I'm here. I'm sorry. Something has gone wrong with the Skype connection. Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, fine. And things happen from time to time. You sound fine on the phone. We'll stick to that. You've come to the conclusion at the end of your story that Israel will attack Iran in this calendar year. Why now?
BERGMAN: Because of a few reasons, and the most important of them is that, according to the latest intelligence estimates from Israel, Iran is just about to enter, what is termed by Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and by Israeli intelligence, as the immunity zone. And that immunity zone is a point in time, on the timeline of the advancement of the Iranian nuclear project, after which the Iranian nuclear facilities are going to be immune, or almost immune, to an Israeli strike. And according to the latest intelligence available to Israel, Iran is about to enter the immunity zone within nine to 12 months.
And the Israeli's are trying to warn that if a decision is not taken during this time, from now until the mid or end of 2012, then it would be too late to take a decision. Or as the Defense Minister Barak has said, he said that after 2012, the issue of a nuclear Iran would be also important. Serious, interesting, but then he says the issue is going to be taken from our hand - the decision making process, the makers of policy, politicians - to your hands, journalists and historians.
CONAN: And it's...
BERGMAN: Therefore, 2012 is the critical year.
CONAN: And it's important to say it's not the conclusion that Iran would have a deliverable nuclear weapon at the end of this calendar year, just that the window for a successful attack would close.
BERGMAN: The latest intelligence suggests - and I think this is agreed by most intelligence agencies working on the Iranian issue – is that once an order is given - and this is according to a promise that the scientist of Iran gave it to the supreme leader. Once the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, gives the order, they are able to produce the first nuclear device within a nine-month period, and then to take another half a year to a year to miniaturize that device to fit the shoulders of a Shahab-3 missile that can hit Israel. And therefore, from the point of view of Israel, Israel seeing an Iranian nuclear bomb as a sort of an existential threat, the threat is imminent or almost imminent.
CONAN: And I'm sure that there will be objections on any number of levels. But one of them is that Israel, the United States and most other intelligence services around the world believed in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they were wrong.
BERGMAN: Yeah. The Iraqi lesson is important and should be taught and learned throughout the intelligence services throughout the world, but this is very, very different. In Iraq, there were speculations. There was some dangerous information. In the Iranian case, we are talking about the IAEA, who has just released a very, very clear report accusing Iran of violation of the NPT. And this report is based upon the inspectors of the agency taking whatever inspection they should have taken in - on Iranian (unintelligible) inside the Iranian facility. And the Iranians themselves, you know, they have claimed that they have - they are enriching uranium to the point of 19.7 percent, and they are far beyond closing the nuclear fuel cycle.
The argument is what are the targets of the Iranian leadership in this nuclear project? The Iranians claim that they have only peaceful targets, and the intelligence services worldwide do not believe them. And I can tell you, Neal, that even in all (unintelligible) conversation, even Russian intelligence, the Chinese intelligence official, all of them agree that Iran is aiming at assembling a bomb. And if they were not aiming, then the whole mouse-and-cat game that they are playing with the international community and the IAEA wouldn't have happen because they wouldn't have anything to hide.
CONAN: Just a clarification of the couple of the acronyms Ronen Bergman used, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which was highly skeptical of the claims of a nuclear weapon in Iraq before the war in 2003. Also the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory and to which binds it to not produce nuclear weapons. And let me just follow up. There are - as you point out in your article, this is hardly a debate that is one-sided. In Israel, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says an attack would be a serious mistake. It would set Iran back only temporarily, and that Israel then would risk a ferocious counterattack.
BERGMAN: The debate is - was heated in Israel following up Meir Dagan's meeting with some journalists. I was among them on his last day in office. And basically he said that the idea to attack here militarily is stupid. That Mossad was able - hinting to covert actions that were attributed to Mossad sabotaging the Iranian nuclear facilities and killing some scientists. These attempts were able to delay the project significantly. He was talking about 215(ph) as the year in which Iran will be able to assemble the first nuclear device. And thus, the sword, he said, is not on our neck, and we should not take a military action that would have an inevitable day-after effect that are going to be horrific to the Israeli population. That is his point of view and his point of view should be heard and taken seriously.
But I would say that after weeks of researching for this New York Times piece that you mentioned, I would sum up and say that most of the leadership of Israel, including Mossad's current assessment, military intelligence and others, all of them agreed that the timeline is very different, that Iran would be able to produce the first device within a year, and that sanctions, the - or the combination between sanctions and covert actions are not significantly effective, and are not holding the Iranian nuclear project. Therefore, unless something happens and the Iranians agree suddenly to all conditions posed by the international community - but unless something unexpected is happening, my assessment is that the leadership of Israel would take the decision knowing that it would lead to a possible problematic outcome.
And we can discuss this maybe later. What are going to be these outcomes? But knowing that it might lead to these outcomes - but when comparing the possible outcomes, including rockets fired at Israel (unintelligible) cities, including terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets overseas, but banishing these as problematic and as tragic as they can be with the possibility of Iran being armed with nuclear arsenal, they would make a choice, they will make a decision to send the bombers.
Israel being a country I would say suffering past traumas, with the mindset to do everything to prevent a second holocaust, and with this comparison being drawn - I think, it's the wrong comparison, but yet it's still there - a comparison between Adolf Hitler and President Ahmadinejad, a comparison that is prompt by Prime Minister Netanyahu - when you put all of this together, you end up with one administration only, and this is to do whatever Israel can to prevent Iran from obtaining this capability.
CONAN: Ronen Bergman is our guest, a senior analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli newspaper, the author of a article on the cover of this week's New York Times' Sunday Magazine, "Will Israel Attack Iran?" You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Chris(ph) is on the line. Chris is with us from Central California.
CHRIS: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I understand clearly that the United States is a big part of the equation at - in striking Iran from the Israeli standpoint. But we're in an election year, and the timetable of having to strike between nine to 12 months would indicate that the strike would have to come before the election. And if this strike went poorly and had a very negative effect, say, on the election, is that part of the calculation?
CONAN: Ronen Bergman, what the kinds of advance notice would Israel give to the United States? What terms of the election timing does Israel take into account?
BERGMAN: Yeah, these are two different questions. The first about the alert. The United States has urged Israel not to strike and also request Israel to give the U.S. administration a heads up on a possible strike. The Israelis - the high rank Israelis negotiating with the administration have not given both. They did not promise not to attack, and they did not promise not to - or to give an early warning. On the other hand, the Americans use the same vague language when it came to the Israeli questions on what the United States exactly is willing to do in order to fulfill the presidential promise to do - to be determined to prevent Iran from being nuclear. So both sides are using - on the crucial questions are using a very vague language.
I would assume that Israel would give a few hours alert and hours - two hours, five hours alert to the United States just to hear the State's side and say, we have given you some sort of a pre-warning. The elections in the United States are considerations as the overall structure and the quality of the relations between the United States and Israel, which are perceived with all good reason as the most important strategic asset that Israel has. But at the end of the day when the main consideration is to prevent Iran from being a nuclear country when this threat is perceived as a national or as a major threat to national security of Israel is not an existential threat, then, I'm sorry to say, but I think that all other considerations are becoming minor. And...
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. Israel itself possesses, what, 300 nuclear weapons we believe, maybe more? Why does not deterrence work? Israel, of course, would retaliate if Iran were to use a nuclear weapon.
BERGMAN: I would assume that - oh, I know that most of Israel's leaders do not believe that Iran is going to use nuclear weapon against Israel. The problem is not the nuclear threat. The Iranians are not stupid. They want to live. They might be in support of suicide moment, but they are not suicidal themselves. And I think that most leaders, and me personally as well, see that there are only few people who believe that Iran would be hesitant enough to - sorry, brutal enough and stupid enough to use nuclear weapon against Israel.
The problem is that once Iran acquires this ability, it would change the balance of power in the Middle East. And a country that possesses nuclear weapon is a different country when it comes to support proxy jihadist movement. And these Israeli leaders afraid would significantly narrow down the variety of options from the point of view of Israel just to quote one example coming from Minister of Defense Barak when he said, just imagine - he told me in a meeting we had on the 13th of January in his house - said just imagine, Ronen, that tomorrow we go into another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon like we did in 206(ph), and this time we are determined to take them out. But Iran comes forward and say, to attack Hezbollah is like attacking Iran, and we threaten you with nuclear weaponry.
Now, Minister of Defense Barak says it's not necessarily that we would be threatened not to attack, and we would decide to cancel the war, but it would certainly make us think twice. And also - and this is something that you need to live in Israel (unintelligible) put some time to understand. If Iran declares a successful nuclear test, people in Israel are going to be, I would say - I think I'm not exaggerating if I say in a hysteria. This would change the - some of the society of Israel, and it would damage the economy of the country. And Israel for years have adopted the policy that it should maintain a monopoly of a nuclear - or nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, and I think it would do everything to maintain this monopoly.
CONAN: Ronen Bergman is the author of "The Secret War with Iran," most recently the author of The New York Times Magazine cover story this week, "Will Israel Attack Iran?" He joined us on the phone from his office in Jerusalem where he's an analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth. Thanks very much for your time today.
BERGMAN: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: You could find a link to that New York Times Magazine article at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, we'll talk about the fine art of the pitch. If you got a great idea, you're probably going to need financial backers who will need some convincing. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.