Yaakov Katz is the military correspondent and defense analyst for the Jerusalem Post. He has reported on numerous Israeli conflicts, including the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. He is the co-author of Israel vs. Iran — The Shadow War, which is a bestseller in Israel. He spoke with National Review editorial intern Noah Glyn about the big issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.
Noah Glyn: Can you tell me about your book that was recently published in Israel?
Yaakov Katz: The book’s title is Israel vs. Iran — The Shadow War. It will be out in the U.S. in May, published by Potomac Books. I wrote it together with Yoaz Hendel, an Israeli historian and currently director of communications for Prime Minister Netanyahu. The book chronicles the Israeli–Iranian conflict, which we describe as the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran, from the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 until today. The conflict with Iran is on two different levels. The first is the nuclear level — if Iran goes nuclear, what happens? We assess Israel’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. The second is the terrorist level. We look at Iran’s support of Hezbollah, its support of Hamas, and we write about Israel’s war with Hezbollah, and how it was a wakeup call for Israel that Iran is on its northern border, in Lebanon. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was Israel’s reaction to Iran’s building up a military force, through Hamas, on Israel’s southern border. And then we talk about the assassinations, the covert operations, the cyber warfare, the defection of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the sabotage of Iranian nuclear equipment. We also talk about Israel’s struggle against Iran’s smuggling of weapons, which is this whole other front that we don’t hear about very much, but which is dealt with on a daily basis by the Israeli defense establishment.
Glyn: Going back to the idea of a “shadow war,” an Iranian plan to assassinate Israelis around the globe was foiled recently. If you compare this to Israel’s success at assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and deploying the computer virus Stuxnet, it seems that Israel has the upper hand in this shadow war.
Katz: The shadow war is in both directions. It’s Israel, or the West, against Iran. You have four Iranian scientists assassinated on the streets of Iran in the past two years. We’ve seen the Stuxnet virus. We’ve seen the assassination of Hamas and Hezbollah leaders in Dubai, in Damascus, and elsewhere. But we also know that Iran has built up significant terrorist infrastructure throughout the world. A recent example is what we saw in February, when car bombs went off in New Delhi and the Republic of Georgia. There was another Iranian plot discovered in Azerbaijan, and one in Thailand. Although a lot of these were unsuccessful, they do show Iran’s determination and the danger that Iran poses to the entire world. I think Iran wants to signal to the world that it can reach almost anywhere. There was an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States. All that together shows how extensive Iran’s infrastructure abroad is and how much the Iranians invest in it.
Glyn: Can you lay out the consequences of an Israeli strike on an Iranian nuclear facility?
Katz: You have to look at it in the light of the two instances so far of Israel’s moving against a nuclear threat: in 1981, when Israel bombed Iraq’s reactor, and in 2007, when Israel bombed Syria’s reactor. In both instances, there was no response. Israelis would like to think this would be the case with Iran, but the prevailing assessment within the defense establishment is that it would be exactly the opposite. Iran would unleash its full wrath against Israel. Iran has a quite significant arsenal. It is believed to have several hundred ballistic missiles that are capable of reaching Israel, whether the Shahab or the Sajil, and they’ve been moving from liquid fuel to solid fuel as a propellant for their missiles. This means they have greater range and superior accuracy. Hezbollah is estimated to have close to 50,000 rockets of various types, but basically their range encompasses the entire State of Israel. Hamas has also significantly increased its arsenal since Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and is now believed to have rockets such as the Iranian artillery rocket Fajr-5, which can strike Tel Aviv from Gaza. So I think Israel is potentially looking at a number of attacks from various terrorist organizations on various fronts — from the south, the north, and the northeast, from Iran itself. It’s also possible that Hezbollah and Hamas will calculate whether it is in their own independent strategic interest to retaliate on Iran’s behalf. Ultimately, Hezbollah and Hamas will have to make their own decision whether they want to risk everything by retaliating. Of course, we can assume that if one or both of them does, there will be a counteroffensive by Israel against Lebanon and Gaza. They have to take that into consideration as well.
Glyn: If Israel faced a three-way war against Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, how effective would Israel’s missile-defense systems be?
Katz: Currently, Israel has the Arrow, which is capable of intercepting long-range ballistic missiles. Israel also has the Iron Dome — but with just a small number of batteries. This system is supposed to be capable of intercepting short-range rockets, which make up the backbone of Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s arsenals. These systems are not 100 percent. Israel is still waiting to purchase more batteries for the Iron Dome, and it is currently building a third battery for the Arrow. Israel is also developing another system called David’s Sling, which is supposed to be capable of intercepting medium-range rockets. Nothing’s hermetic, but I think this will be instrumental in intercepting some of these missiles and saving Israeli lives. You can’t wait forever for these systems to come, although you think Israel should be investing more in speeding up the deployment. There’s no such thing as perfect defense, but this is a crucial factor when considering what would happen after a strike against Iran.
Glyn: Can you explain the significance of a 20 percent uranium-enrichment threshold?
Katz: Iran has five tons of low-enriched uranium, which is enriched to about 3 percent. This is taken to the facility called Natanz, which is the main enrichment facility. What they’ve done is they’ve taken about a ton of the low-enriched uranium and enriched it to a higher level, to 20 percent, which they claim they needed for medical isotopes or for research at the Tehran Research Reactor. What Israel — the world, actually, not just Israel — has claimed, though, is that by moving to 20 percent, Iran is shortening the time it would need to get to 90 percent, which is what you require for a nuclear weapon. We’re seeing that the Iranians are continuing to enrich to the 20 percent level. This means that the time required to reach the military level of 90 percent would be shorter, and that would mean a smaller window in which to stop them militarily if they were to go to that stage.
Glyn: There’s a lot of speculation that if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, the Middle East as a whole would go nuclear, with all the other countries in the region following suit. Two-part question: First, have other nations already begun their own nuclear programs? Second, which countries are you most afraid of in this regard?
Katz: I don’t think we know that any countries are already developing nuclear programs, but the main fears are regarding Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. You saw what happened in Egypt. We’ve seen what could potentially happen in Saudi Arabia. These countries don’t have the most stable regimes, and there’s potential for Islamist takeovers, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s winning the parliamentary elections in Egypt. If these countries get their hands on nuclear weapons, the Middle East will become even more volatile. That’s why it’s imperative from an Israeli perspective for Iran’s nuclear program to be stopped. Ultimately, Iran is not just a threat to Israel. It’s a threat to the entire region. As a Shiite country, it’s a threat to Sunni states, and they are not likely to stand by as Iran goes nuclear. They will also pursue their own capability.
Glyn: To what extent is there a national consensus on striking Iran? If Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak were prime minister, would they reach the same conclusion as Prime Minister Netanyahu?
Katz: Israel has always, under all the various prime ministers who have had to deal with Iran, viewed a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. I don’t think we have seen a change in that strategic thinking. There could be a change if you had a different prime minister with regard to when the right time would be, how much to cooperate with the United States, how much to rely on the United States, but with regard to how Israel sees Iran, I think that’s across the board. The Iranian threat crosses all Israeli political boundaries. The differences are over how much Israel should be cooperating with the rest of the world. Those on the left would say, Let America deal with it, while those on the right would say Israel should deal with it.
Glyn: What role do sanctions play in this? If I’m not mistaken, the sanctions on Iran’s central bank go into effect this summer.
KaTz: The European Union’s ban on Iranian oil is going into effect. Sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran are still under review; it’s possible that they will happen, but it’s not certain. SWIFT — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication — has announced that it is cutting off services to Iran. The main force of the sanctions right now is aimed at trying to hit Iran’s economy, trying to hit Iran’s energy sector, and trying to get the regime to understand that it will pay a major price for continuing its nuclear program.
Glyn: How do you react — both as a defense analyst and as an Israeli — to President Obama’s saying that he won’t allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon? Do you believe him?
Katz: I think for Israel, it was very interesting to listen to President Obama’s speech to AIPAC, and how he ruled out the possibility of containment of a nuclear Iran, which was definitely a concern for Israel. I think Israel was very happy to hear that. But it comes down to the basic question of whether Israel should be relying on someone else — in this case the United States — to deal with potential threats to Israel’s very existence. If you judge by Israel’s history, Israel has shied away from that kind of strategic thinking. In 1981, Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor against America’s desires, and there was a falling out with the Reagan administration, which suspended the delivery of fighter jets to Israel. In 2007, Prime Minister Olmert came to President Bush to ask America to take care of Syria, but President Bush declined to do so. Israel then decided that it had no choice but to deal with it on its own. So you see that in dealing with these issues, while Israel is very sensitive to the United States’ opinion, I think Israel ultimately has to do what’s in its own strategic interest.
Glyn: What is your prediction for the next ten months or so? Do you think Israel will strike? And is that based on intelligence and reporting, or just a gut instinct?
Katz: I think it’s very possible Israel will take action against Iran in 2013 or possibly by the end of 2012. I think Israel would prefer a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian threat — primarily, seeing that the sanctions work and the Iranians voluntarily stop their nuclear program. The Israelis are preparing an option that can be used if all else fails. The reason they would consider taking action now is that at a later stage the military option might no longer be viable, because of Iran’s dispersal of its capabilities and fortification of its facilities. So that’s why it’s imperative that Iran be stopped in the near future. But at the same time, if there are further delays, if the sanctions bite, if the Iranians stop enrichment, if they change their course, that would postpone Israeli plans. If Iran does not stop, I think it’s very possible Israel will take action in the coming year or so.
— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.