Uzi Eilam is the former director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAE), a position in which he served for ten years. He’s especially known for his role in missile development, as well as for directing research into new methods of warfare and the development of technological infrastructure for the defense ministry. I wrote about Eilam’s views on this subject back in 2010.
He dropped a ‘bomb’ of sorts, when he told Ronen Bergman in a front-page story in today’s Yediot, that Iran is close to ten years from developing an operational nuclear weapon, that he isn’t even sure it wants to do so, and that Netanyahu is exploiting Iran WMD for domestic partisan political purposes. In his former IAE capacity and his subsequent role as a senior advisor to the security-intelligence apparatus, Eilam has special knowledge not only of Israel’s WMD program, but of Iran’s as well. Unlike in other countries, senior officials of this agency are almost always high-level IDF officers with deep intelligence experience.
Eilam delivers especially harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the Iranian threat, saying the the prime minister instilled unnecessary fear into the mind of the public. Bergman says that this is the first time that an official with such deep knowledge of Israel’s nuclear program has so strongly attacked Netanyahu’s policy. He claims that the Israeli leader’s threats regarding an attack on Iran have been overly alarmist. That Israel should not stand at the forefront of those seeking armed confrontation.
For one, from a practical vantage point, Iran’s program is widely dispersed and hidden under scores of meters of earth and reinforced concrete. It would require far more than a single blow to destroy it, as Israel was able to do with the reactors in Iraq and Syria. Any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is, in fact, a declaration of war against it. It would unite the Iranian nation even more strongly behind the clerical regime and bolster support for pursuing nuclear capability. Further, he argues it isn’t even necessary to attack at this point since an Iranian weapon is a long way off. To his great relief, the flames of war have considerably subsided over the past months.
Though Netanyahu has derided the Iran-P5+1 talks along with the framework agreement developed recently, Eilam takes a different view. He says that the steps promised by Iran and implemented have been “extremely meaningful.” Though he is still withholding judgement until a final deal is worked out, he remains decidedly optimistic. In expressing doubt that Iran’s ultimate goal is even to build a bomb, he joins a number of other analysts, including most recently Yossi Melman, who say that Iran will be satisfied to be “on the brink,” but not actually developing a weapon. In other words, it would have the capability of producing the weapon within a limited time-frame. But it would not have one assembled.
Melman also suggested that Netanyahu’s threats of war were never real, but rather an elaborate ruse designed to persuade the western powers, especially the U.S., that he would go to war unless they took drastic action to reign in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If this was his goal, the ruse appears to have worked, at least according to Melman. Personally, I believe Netanyahu really did intend to attack Iran in 2010-11, but was foiled in these ambitions by his generals and intelligence chiefs (officials just like Eilam himself) who knew what it was like to see men die by the thousands and didn’t want to undertake such an adventure for the glorification of the prime minister’s ego and political status. In the past, I’ve written that every Israeli prime minister needs a good war he can call his own. Except for a few minor skirmishes, Bibi hasn’t had one. I believe he wanted one, but didn’t get it.
When asked why Netanyahu had adopted such a strategy, Eilam explained that he’s studied engineering and specialized in research and development. Those were fields he understood. As for the psychology of a leader like the prime minister? That, not so much.
Though this story is front page news on Yediot, few of the thoughts are new here. But what is new is that a senior Israeli nuclear strategist is espousing them and getting major coverage inside Israel. Perhaps the winds of fortune are blowing toward peace and conciliation.