By Greg Thielmann
Comments by the former Director-General of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, Brig. Gen. Uzi Eilam, made big news in Israel on May 8 because they seriously challenge key elements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's narrative concerning the Iranian nuclear threat. Excerpts from an Eilam interview appearing in Israel's largest circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, included four critical assertions:
The Eilam interview is noteworthy first because offering these assessments as an Israeli puts him in the role of "reluctant witness."
More importantly, it demands attention because he is an expert on the clandestine development of relevant technology for a credible nuclear arsenal. Eilam served as head of the Israeli Defense Forces' Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, followed by a decade as head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, and then subsequently as an advisor for the defense establishment.
Although Eilam's Hebrew language interview was extensively covered in Israel, it was almost completely absent from America's mainstream press. This is unfortunate, particularly at a time when the U.S. public and the U.S. Congress need urgently to acquire a deeper understanding of the issues involved in the critical negotiations underway in Vienna this week.
Eilam is but the latest in a series of active or former senior Israeli security officials whose assessments of Iran's nuclear potential differ from those of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
For instance, Netanyahu's standard refrain that Iran poses an "existential" threat to Israel was contradicted in 2009 by then Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. Netanyahu's threat of going it alone to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons was characterized by former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan as "the stupidest idea [he'd] ever heard." Netanyahu's recent assertions that Iran "is developing ICBMs to attack the United States," have been downplayed by senior Israeli security officials.
In explaining his conclusion that Iran is ten years away from having operational nuclear weapons, Eilam notes that: "I have learned the hard way that things take time." Even if one sees Eilam's ten-year timeline as overly sanguine, it does provide an implicit warning against fixating on theoretical timelines for Iran producing one weapon's worth of fissile material. As U.S. intelligence community estimates periodically make clear, the uranium enrichment timeline for fissile material is not the same as the timeline to produce nuclear weapons.
Similar sentiments to those of Eilam were expressed in the Iran Crisis Group's (ICG) report, "Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik's Cube," just released on May 9:
First, most calculations are rough and purely theoretical estimates. They omit inevitable technical hitches, an unpredictable and time-consuming weaponisation process and anything-but-mechanical political decision-making. The resulting imprecision pushes all parties to adopt worst-case scenarios, rendering breakout estimates unrealistic as a basis for a durable agreement and policy.
Secondly, breakout scenarios reduce a complex process to a one-dimensional race against time. This ignores competing interests and risk avoidance –most importantly, the risk of being caught.
The reality referenced by Eilam and elaborated on in the ICG report must be kept in mind in advocating policy approaches for the ongoing negotiating process in Vienna and evaluating whatever imperfect solutions finally emerge.