SINGER: Israel’s fateful decision

A cost-benefit analysis points to an attack on Iran’s plutonium reactor

The Geneva Interim Accord on Iran’s nuclear programs may trigger Israeli military action.

As these talks continue and drag on, look for a startling development: Israel may attack Iran’s heavy-water reactor — now being completed near Arak — arguing that Iran does not need to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium if its nuclear programs are truly peaceful as claimed. Not being involved in the interim agreement, Israel would be free to act, points out 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in a recent interview.

Former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz wrote in a Dec. 2 opinion article in The Wall Street Journal that six U.N. resolutions that had called for a full halt to all of Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium production, have now effectively become a baseline. In their critique of the deal, which comes after a “decade-plus negotiating effort,” they write that world powers underplayed their hand, combining “steadily advancing Iranian nuclear capabilities with gradually receding international demands.” They cite the “modest benefit of the Geneva agreement,” lengthening Iran’s breakout time by only “several weeks,” but foresee a nuclear-arms race breaking out in the Middle East.

The most likely scenario, leading to military action, is actually fairly predictable: First, Israeli intelligence would soon reveal that Iran is cheating. However, U.S. intelligence agencies, reporting to the White House, would likely dispute this report, with the State Department and others not wishing to reimpose severe sanctions during the six-month period that is meant to test Iran’s true intentions.

It has become clear already, though, that Iran and the United States have differing interpretations of the Geneva Interim Accord, relating mainly to the Arak reactor, whose main purpose seems to be the manufacture of plutonium for bombs. The White House Fact Sheet states that “Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak” — while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif announced that “building and construction will continue in Arak.”

Still, Geneva is not yet a “done deal.” Our former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton wrote in the Dec. 8 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column: “Verification is the elephant in the room in the Iranian nuke deal.” That is precisely the issue now being debated at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Expect an impasse — or a bad compromise,

By analogy with the 40-megawatt CIRUS reactor in India, one can estimate an annual Arak production of about 10 kilograms of plutonium, sufficient for one bomb. In fact, India used CIRUS, constructed in the 1950s with help from Canada and the United States, to manufacture Plutonium-239 for its 1974 test explosion. We know little about the “conversion efficiency” of India’s test device or about any subsequent efforts to weaponize it — a major undertaking.

The Arak facility is a relatively easy target: It is above ground, about halfway between Tehran and Isfahan, but closer to Iran’s western border with Iraq. According to published photographs, it includes a complex of buildings, in addition to the reactor itself.

One may imagine that Israel is carefully weighing the security and political benefits and costs, in addition to the purely military planning of such an attack. It may delay somewhat Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. It might even cause Iran to abandon such efforts — think Moammar Gadhafi — unlikely, unless there is a major political upheaval there. It would certainly demonstrate Israel’s willingness and capability to enforce previously set “red lines,” and thereby generate respect from others in the region and the world. It would also demonstrate to Iran and others Israel’s ability to overcome the Russian-designed S-300 air-defense system. Having worked with Cyprus’ S-300, Israel knows something of its weaknesses.

Reaction to such an attack will likely be mixed: quiet support from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states; support from the U.S. public and Congress, Canada and Australia; disapproval or ambivalence from the U.N. and rest of the world; and condemnation from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and perhaps Turkey. All this is to be expected.

There is probably little prospect of enhanced retaliation from Iran itself, although its proxy Hezbollah may become active if it’s not too preoccupied with its Syrian adventures. After all, Iran was the first to attack the Iraqi Osiris reactor — back in September 1980. The Israeli attack came in June 1981. The latter was denounced at the time but is applauded now — in retrospect.

The ball seems to be in Israel’s court. That nation faces a fateful decision with a complex cost-benefit calculation. Yet in the final analysis, domestic political considerations there may determine the outcome.

S. Fred Singer is a physicist who has been involved in missile and rocket design. He has held several academic and federal positions, most recently as chief scientist of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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