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Leaked Cables on Israel: Israel Sees Iran as Primary Security Threat

(March 17, 2005)

Classified U.S. diplomatic cables, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, contain accounts of Israeli intentions regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel urging international pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear program.

Thursday, 17 March 2005, 14:58
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 TEL AVIV 001593
EO 12958 DECL: 03/14/2015
REF: STATE 26053
Classified By: Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer; Reasons: 1.4 (B) and (D).

1. (S) SUMMARY: Israel sees Iran as the primary threat to its security and sees the enrichment cycle as the "point of no return" for Tehran's nuclear weapons program. The GOI believes that diplomatic pressure with teeth, such as sanctions, can affect Iranian behavior, and is lobbying the EU-3 and IAEA on details of a permanent suspension agreement. The Israelis support a unified international front but are concerned that the USG may move toward the EU position. Despite the GOI's focus on the diplomatic track, public and private speculation about possible Israeli air strikes continues. In weighing the military options, the GOI is aware of significant differences from its successful strike against Iraq's nuclear program in 1981, including an uncertain and dispersed target set, the presence of coalition forces in Iraq and the Gulf, Iranian capabilities to retaliate through Hezbollah and terrorism, and the changed strategic environment. END SUMMARY.

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The Iranian Threat, "Point of No Return," and Timelines

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2. (S) PM Sharon calls Iran "the main threat to Israel" and has recently expressed concern that some states are "getting used to" the idea of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Other senior Israeli officials echo this, cautioning that Tehran's nuclear weapons program poses what Mossad Chief Meir Dagan calls an "existential threat" that alters the strategic balance in the region.

3. (C) In a meeting with congressional visitors in December, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described operation of the enrichment cycle as the "point of no return" for the Iranian program, a view shared by many senior GOI officials. Mossad Chief Dagan went a step further, saying that the Iranian program will be unstoppable once it no longer requires outside assistance to complete the enrichment process. At the technical level, the director for external affairs at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) told poloff that the critical step would be Iran's operation of a centrifuge enrichment cascade.

4. (S) GOI officials have given different timelines for when they believe Iran will have full enrichment capability. In February, PM Sharon told the Secretary that he believes there is still time remaining to pressure Iran, but that the window of opportunity is closing quickly. DefMin Mofaz cautioned that Iran is "less than one year away," while the head of research in military intelligence estimated that Iran would reach this point by early 2007. Technical experts at the IAEC predicted that Iran would have enrichment capability within six months of the end of the suspension agreement. A few GOI officials admitted informally that these estimates need to be taken with caution. The head of the MFA's strategic affairs division recalled that GOI assessments from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest.


Focus on Diplomacy and Concern with the EU-3


5. (S) In the near term, Israel is focused on maintaining diplomatic pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and EU-3. Sharon defines diplomatic pressure to include UNSC sanctions, e.g. on Iran's airlines and trade, as noted below. President Katsav has said that Tehran is "very conscious of international opinion." Other MFA and NSC officials point to the current suspension and to Iranian reaction to the Mykonos case as proof that diplomatic pressure can affect decision-making in Tehran.

6. (S) The Israelis often express disappointment with EU-3 efforts, but see no real alternative at this time. PM Sharon told reporters on March 10 that Iran uses the negotiations to "play for time." In private, Sharon, his Cabinet, and military leaders have all complained that the Europeans are "too soft." Similarly, President Katsav has cautioned that Iran will "cheat" on any commitments it makes. MFA staff told poloff that they do not believe that the EU-3 effort will be successful in obtaining a permanent suspension or that the Europeans will support effective sanctions against Iran.

7. (C) GOI technical experts said they have been lobbying the Europeans and IAEA on several issues. First, the GOI would like a clearer and more detailed listing of all activities covered by the suspension, along with timelines for each step. Second, they want more robust verification measures and greater focus on Iran's denial of access to IAEA inspectors. Third, the Israelis insist that any final agreement must be endorsed by the UNSC to ensure that noncompliance will be dealt with at an appropriate level. Fourth, Israel is pushing the EU-3 to define benchmarks that would signal a failure of the process, and to identify the concrete consequences of such failure.

8. (C) According to the IAEC, the GOI has urged the Europeans to examine bilateral or EU sanctions with small, but noticeable, economic impacts. After telling the press on March 10 that "it would probably not be advisable to impose an oil embargo on Iran," PM Sharon advocated trade and flight restrictions. Lower-level GOI officials said these steps could include restrictions on Iranians studying in Europe, limitations on travel by Iranian scientific personnel, and suspension of landing privileges for Iranian airlines within the EU. The goal, according to the deputy NSA for foreign affairs, is unified pressure from the EU, Russia, and U.S. for a "complete, full, verifiable cessation of the fuel cycle program." In the short term, this means a full suspension of all enrichment, reprocessing, heavy-water-reactor construction, and related R&D activities.

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Israeli Preference for USG and UNSC Involvement

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9. (C) In light of their uneasiness with EU-3 efforts, the Israelis are hoping for robust U.S. involvement and action by the UNSC. PM Sharon has urged the EU-3 to continue its efforts, but also stressed the importance of preparing to take Iran to the UNSC. In a meeting with a CoDel on December 12, DefMin Mofaz pushed for the U.S. to take the lead with the Europeans and pursue all diplomatic solutions, including sanctions. President Katsav asked the Secretary not to "wait for the Europeans."

10. (C) This desire for U.S. activity is amplified by the extremely limited options open to Israel on the diplomatic front. The IAEC's director for non-proliferation admitted that the GOI sees "little we can do" to increase pressure on Iran as long as Tehran abides by the suspension agreement. The MFA's office director for the Gulf states said that Israel would maintain its low-profile diplomatic activities, such as supplying IAEA members with intelligence material related to the Iranian program. She said the MFA believes that any overt Israeli pressure would backfire, leading to a surge of Arab support for Iran and focusing attention on Israel's own nuclear activities.

11. (C) Following the recent announcements on Iran by the President and the Secretary, several Israeli officials asked if the USG is shifting its policy on Iran. The deputy NSA for foreign affairs acknowledged that the U.S. move is probably necessary to build international consensus for taking Iran to the UNSC. At the same time, he expressed concern that the USG would be influenced by what he called the EU's habit of granting concessions to Iran prior to full compliance. Mid-level staffers at the NSC and IAEC were also disquieted by U.S. press reports claiming that the USG is re-examining its position on Hezbollah.


The Military Option: Bushehr is not Osirak


12. (S) Despite frustrations with diplomatic efforts, Israeli officials are understandably reluctant to discuss possible military options. In public, PM Sharon has stressed the importance of the "political and economic" track. During a recent discussion with a visiting USG official, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff (and CoS-designate) Major General Dani Haloutz similarly said "we don't want to go there." In February, President Katsav told the Secretary that "the military option is not necessary -- bring the issue to the Security Council."

13. (S) Public speculation about possible military strikes usually focuses on the differences from the Israeli Air Force's attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. In private, GOI officials have acknowledged that several factors would make any attack against Iran a much more difficult mission. A senior military intelligence official told the Embassy that the GOI does not know where all of the targets are located and said that any attack would only delay, not end, the Iranian program. The MFA's office director for the Gulf states noted that potential target sites are well dispersed throughout the country, with several located in built-up civilian areas. The IAEC stressed the importance of Russian assistance in restraining Iran's nuclear ambitions and said that any attack on Bushehr would likely result in Russian casualties and endanger Moscow's cooperation.

14. (C) MFA contacts said that the distance to the targets and the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and the Gulf raise additional complications. An Israeli assault would necessitate prior coordination with coalition forces in Iraq, they maintained, leaving the USG open to retaliation throughout the Islamic world, especially in Iraq. MFA and NSC officials acknowledged that any attack would also elicit a strong response from Arab states and the Palestinians, effectively freezing the peace process.

15. (C) The Israelis realize that Iran would use any military strike as an excuse to cease cooperation with the EU-3 and the IAEA. In addition, the GOI is acutely aware of Iran's ability to retaliate, both militarily and through attacks by its regional surrogates. PM Sharon has claimed that Hezbollah has 11,000 rockets (and possibly UAVs) capable of reaching Israel from launching sites in Lebanon. The MFA's office director for the Gulf states said that she believed that Iran would retaliate by inciting terrorist groups in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

16. (C) Current USG, EU-3, and IAEA focus on Iran also creates a situation that differs from 1981, when the Israelis felt that the international community was ignoring the Iraqi threat. Israelis hope that the others will solve the Iranian problem for them, or as Vice PM Shimon Peres has said, "I do not think that the matter of Iran needs to be turned into an Israeli problem -- it is a matter of concern for the whole world."

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Comment: Diplomatic Solution Preferred, but ...

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17. (S) COMMENT: The Israelis are focusing on diplomatic channels in the IAEA and EU-3, and appear to have very real concerns about the feasibility of military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, the GOI has shown time and again that it will act militarily if it believes that its security is threatened, and the IDF is most certainly keeping contingency plans up to date. The Israeli press reported that in February PM Sharon's Security Cabinet had given "initial authorization" for an attack on Iran. The press reports cited an unnamed "Israeli security source," who claimed that the USG would "authorize" an Israeli attack. Post notes that it may not be possible to detect preparations for any military strike. Air defense operations would pose nearly perfect cover for civil defense and Air Force activities preceding any attack. Due to both the extreme sensitivity of the issue and the GOI's near inability to prevent leaks, any attack order would be closely held, probably even from many members of PM Sharon's Cabinet.

18. (C) COMMENT CONTINUED: The GOI knows that we share its interest in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we should expect continued Israeli lobbying at the highest levels urging the USG to ensure that the EU-3 effort is on track and backed by a solid international front. We will also hear Israeli concerns that the U.S. position may move toward the EU stance. At the same time, we should recognize that Israeli intelligence briefings will understandably focus on worst-case scenarios and may not match current USG assessments.

***************************************************************** KURTZER

Sources: Wikileaks