Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:08 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:08 | SYDNEY

The Iran NIE: What does this mean for Israel?


Sam Roggeveen


5 December 2007 10:37

The quickly-developing conventional wisdom is that the release of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program radically reduces the chances of a US military strike on Iran. My colleague Anthony Bubalo argues in today's Australian that the case for a strike was always difficult to make, and that 'short of damning new evidence of Iranian perfidy emerging, making such a case now, against the considered collective judgment of the US intelligence community that the Iranian nuclear threat is not imminent, seems nigh on impossible.'

But does this logic apply to Israel? Defence Minister Ehud Barak has signalled overnight that it may not. Barak contradicted the NIE judgment by claiming Iran had resumed development of nuclear weapons since the 2003 pause. The extension of Anthony Bubalo's argument is that, for Israel to politically 'sell' any strike, it would have to produce evidence for this claim.

Israel didn't conduct a great deal of political salesmanship either before or after its strike against alleged Syrian nuclear facilities on 6 September, indicating they may not observe such niceties. But an Israeli  strike on Iran is more strategically sensitive for the US than was the bombing of Syria. For one thing, it could be American troops in Iraq who suffer Iranian retaliation to an Israeli strike (although this danger is perhaps overstated — Iraq's present course suits Iran tolerably well, so Tehran wouldn't want to disturb the status quo too much). And given that an Israeli strike on Iran would probably require overflight of Iraq, Israel would have to consult the US to avoid having their planes shot down by the US Air Force. That means the US can't help but look complicit in any Israeli operation.

Given those risks to its main ally, Tel Aviv would have to come up with a solid case for military action. But any Iranian nuclear capability would first and foremost be a threat to Israel, not the US, meaning the problem is much more urgent for Tel Aviv. And whether Tehran has continued its nuclear weapons-pause or not, Israel will above all be concerned about Iran's nuclear capabilities, not its intentions. The former takes years to build — and uranium enrichment continues unabated in Iran — but the latter can change overnight.

The NIE has narrowed the political scope for Israeli military action against Iran, but not to the same extent as in the US.