Written by Yaakov Lappin
With no military threat, Iran has no incentive to stop its nuclear progress. Iran might well conclude that the sanctions could disappear in the course of endless rounds of diplomacy. No one in Israel seeks war, but a central tenet of its own defense doctrine is that Israel cannot depend on any external power to deal with existential security threats.
The coming weeks probably represent the last opportunity for Iran and the international community to reach an enforceable deal that will dismantle Tehran's nuclear weapons program, before Israel concludes that time has run out, that Iran has gotten too close to creating its first atomic bombs, and that the time for a military strike has arrived.
Despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's well-planned and deceptive charm offensive at the United Nations last week, so far not a single uranium-enriching centrifuge has stopped spinning in the underground nuclear facilities in Natanz and Qom. The heavy water plutonium facility at Arak is moving forward, and Iran has already amassed enough low-enriched uranium for the production of seven to nine atomic bombs.
Iran conducts test launches of its long-range Shahab-3 missiles, in 2008.
The speech given by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the United Nations last week, in which he warned that Israel would act alone against Iran if it needed to, is an authentic warning, and serves a dual purpose.
First, the speech reintroduces a credible military threat and aims it squarely at the Islamic Republic.
This notice is important as deterrence against Iran has waned significantly since August, when President Barack Obama hesitantly climbed down from his commitment to carry out a military strike on Iran's ally, the Syrian regime, over its use of chemical weapons to massacre civilians.
A diminished threat of military force leaves diplomatic efforts with Iran almost no chance of success: it leaves Iran with virtually no incentive to stop its nuclear progress, despite the painful economic sanctions it faces.
With no military threat, Iran might well conclude that the sanctions could disappear in the course of endless rounds of diplomacy, in which skilled Iranian negotiators would succeed in getting some of the sanctions lifted while giving up very little in return.
Many of America's allies in the Middle East are very concerned about the lack of deterrence; and Netanyahu, keen to ensure that he has given talks with Iran all possible opportunities before taking matters into his own hands, has placed the military threat firmly back on the table, lest Iran forget that even if the U.S. will not act militarily any time soon, Israel most certainly will if it must.
The second purpose of Netanyahu's speech was to put the international community on notice regarding the urgency of the situation, and to send the message that even if many in the West have fallen for Iran's "campaign of smiles," Israel has not, and if Israeli concerns are neglected, action will be taken.
Should the international community continue to allow Iran to buy more time for its nuclear program, as it has done for more than a decade, after Netanyahu's warning, it will not be able to respond with surprise when Israel attacks Iran's nuclear sites.
Israel's leadership has long since concluded that a nuclear-armed Iranian regime -- a regime that is doctrinally and theologically committed to Israel's destruction, and that controls a state-sponsored terrorist network, active worldwide -- is an outcome many times more dangerous than any military attack.
Israel's defense establishment recognizes that stringent U.S.-led economic sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table. But senior officials, such as Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, have warned that merely arriving for negotiations and offering "sweet talk" is no reason to reward Iran by easing sanctions. On the contrary, easing sanctions now would guarantee that talks will fail.
Similarly, any agreement that allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium under the guise of a civilian energy program will simply enshrine Iran's position as a nuclear breakout state. Only tangible, verifiable steps that will ensure Iran is pushed back by years from its current progress could be considered an accomplishment.
Against the background of these developments, it is worth bearing in mind that the core of Jerusalem's defense doctrine holds that Israel cannot depend on any foreign power -- even its most trusted ally, the United States -- to deal with an existential security threat.
Israel's clock, which gauges Iranian nuclear progress, ticks faster than that of America's, due to Israel's lesser strike capabilities, its smaller size, its closer proximity to Iran, and ultimately, because Israel is the openly and repeatedly declared number one target of Iran's ambition to destroy it.
If Israel misses its window of opportunity to act, such a lapse would violate a central tenet of its own defense doctrine -- that Israel cannot depend on any external power to deal with existential security threats -- thereby making that option unthinkable. Once Israeli intelligence agencies and senior military command levels conclude that the clock has struck one minute to midnight, no amount of pressure from allies will succeed in dissuading it from acting in self-preservation.
A military strike would not be a goal in itself, as Iran could go right back to reactivating its program, but it would be a last resort designed to accomplish what years of talks could not: to push Iran back from the nuclear brink.
Israel's strike capabilities remain a closely guarded secret, but according to international media reports, the Israel Air Force has more than 100 F15i and F16i fighter jets that can fly to Iran and return without the need to refuel, as well as, for other jets, advanced midair refueling capabilities that would allow them to strike multiple Iranian targets. According to the reports, Israel also possesses long-range Jericho ground-to-ground missiles.
Any strike, moreover, would be unimaginable without the Israel Defense Force's advanced electronic warfare units.
In the event that Iran orders its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah to retaliate with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles on the Israeli home front, Israel could respond with devastating air force strikes using new weapons systems, and a lightning ground invasion of southern Lebanon to extinguish quickly the rocket attacks and leave Hezbollah on the ropes.
No one in Israel seeks war, and few dispute that a diplomatic solution that can really freeze the threat from Tehran is the most desired outcome.
But so far, beyond empty gestures, Iran has given no indication that it is prepared to give up its program, and time is running out.
Yaakov Lappin is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and security affairs. On a daily basis, he provides breaking news coverage and analysis of Israeli and Middle Eastern regional developments. He is also author of The Virtual Caliphate; Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet, which explores al-Qaeda's online presence.