Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on When and Whether Israel Will Attack Iran

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June 20 2012 7:24 PM

How Long Will Israel Wait?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on when and whether Israel will attack Iran.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gestures during a joint press conference at Catam military air base in Bogota, Colombia, on April 16, 2012.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a visit to Bogota, Colombia, on April 16.

Photo by Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sat down this week in Tel Aviv with Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:

Q. An Israeli was killed this week in the south by someone from the Sinai. How do you see the situation in the Sinai?

A. It was another terror attack on our project to build a fence [between Israel and Egypt]. We have a crash program now to build a fence to block the flood of workers from Eritrea and North Sudan and terrorists and smugglers into Israel. This [incident] follows another rocket attack near Eilat from Sinai. That's dangerous because it means a loss of grip on the Sinai by the Egyptian authorities, and the terrorists abuse this. We are determined to stop the infiltration and to deal with terrorist attacks and the launching of rockets into Israel from Sinai.

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What's your view of the outcome of the Egyptian elections?

It's up to the Egyptian people. We expect whomever will be elected to establish a government that will live up to the international commitments of Egypt, including the peace treaty with Israel and keeping law and order in the Sinai.

This week, nuclear talks between the "P5 + 1" [United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany] and Iran resumed in Russia. Do you hold out any hope for these talks?

We hope that we'll wake up and there will be an agreement to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program. But we are too realistic. Sanctions are working better than in the past; diplomacy is more determined. But if I have to ask myself whether this will convince the ayatollahs to sit around the table and decide that the time has come to put an end to the military nuclear program, I don't think that's the case. They still feel there is room for maneuver. There is still a need both to ratchet up the sanctions and to heighten significantly the demands on the Iranians that would put an end to enrichment, would take all the enriched uranium out of the country, and would close and dismantle the installation at Fordow.

Close the installation at Fordow?

Close and dismantle it. I would expect the P5 + 1—this is now the third meeting in Moscow. There was a meeting in Baghdad and Istanbul before this. By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision. It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it's up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.

How much more time can you allow?

I don't want to pretend to set timelines for the world. But we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it [also] cannot be a matter of years.

Do you know when the Iranian nuclear program will have gone too far to be able to do anything about it?

Everyone knows that the Iranians are trying to reach nuclear military capability. We all know that, until now, [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei did not order the actual building of weapons or explosive devices. Because they think that if they try to break out toward nuclear military capability, probably America or Israel or someone else will contemplate what to do about stopping it. They are trying to reach a certain kind of physical immunity against surgical attacks by burying [facilities] deep into the ground, spreading the sites over different parts of the country, producing more and more centrifuges, and accumulating more low-enriched uranium. So they are trying to reach a certain redundancy, or what I call the "zone of immunity."*

What do you mean by zone of immunity?

It means they reach a situation where, through redundancies, neither Israel and probably not even America can do anything surgically to block it. Once Khamenei reaches this kind of situation, he can be practically assured that he [has] crossed the point of no return and will end up more like North Korea or Pakistan, rather than like Iraq or Syria.

Are you worried that a third nuclear site may be discovered?

If you wait long enough, probably you will find a third or fourth or fifth site. I don't see any imminent sign of it. But they probably don't need it.

I saw one report speculating that Iran can produce highly enriched uranium at Fordow.

The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] reported that they found certain materials enriched to 27 percent [at Fordow]. There are more actions taken by the Iranians to move toward nuclear military capability than we probably know about. We are not on the inside. They are very deliberate and determined to defy the whole world the way that Pakistan and North Korea did. We have to be open-eyed. We're living in a tough neighborhood.

Can Israel launch a military strike against Iran, and can it succeed?

You can't expect me to answer directly. We [the United States and Israel] are using the same rhetoric when we say that we are all determined to prevent Iran from turning into a nuclear military power, and we both say that all options are on the table. We mean it and we recommend to them to mean it.

And you feel the U.S. means it?

At least on a technical level, there are a lot of preparations. But it's not a secret that America prefers that it will be solved through diplomacy. We all hope that [diplomacy] will be successful, but time is not unlimited in this regard. Iran is not just a challenge for Israel—it remains a major challenge for whoever is willing to look reality in the eyes. Iran is a radical Muslim theocracy that is trying to reach nuclear military power. It also tries to hegemonize the whole [Persian] Gulf. Talk to the leaders of the Gulf. They are terrified by the possibility that Iran will turn nuclear. A nuclear Iran will be the end of the nonproliferation regime: Saudi Arabia will turn nuclear immediately, Turkey within several years, and probably the new Egypt will start moving to do it. Not to mention the potential of weapons-grade material leaking into the hands of terrorist groups from Iran.

Then comes the issue of terror. The Iranians are sponsoring terror among the Baluchi tribe in Afghanistan, among the insurgents in Iraq—they are everywhere. They are trying to raise their profile in Cuba, in Nicaragua, and Venezuela, of course. They have a global aspiration, and the world won't be the same place once they turn nuclear. Whoever thinks that it's complicated to deal with Iran right now, as some think tank leaders are writing: Just close your eyes and think what it will mean to deal with these very same issues once Iran turns nuclear as a result of an absence of political will. It will be much more dangerous, much more costly in terms of human lives and financial resources. And it will become nuclear if the world will not be tough enough to stop it.

Do you think it is up to Israel to stop it?

We always hope it will be solved by the free will of the ayatollahs, by the effectiveness of the sanctions, by the creativity of diplomacy or by any other miracle. When we say that we are determined to prevent them, and we should all be determined, including the American leadership, the European leadership, the Russians, the Chinese, we mean what we say and that is all I can say. We have another neighbor. ...

Syria?

Yes, Bashar al-Assad is living proof of the paralysis that sometimes takes over the world, even when there is no need for any further proof that something totally unacceptable that costs human life is happening.

You mean the world is just standing by?

Basically, [Assad] is slaughtering his own people and using every form of crime. Here you have real-time pictures of the actual crimes, the rows of buried children. Even when there is no need for any further proof, however tangible and visible the nature of the crimes, it doesn't mean the world can mobilize the will to do something about it. It's a fact of life that we should bear in mind when we look at the overall picture around us. We are living in a tough neighborhood—no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. We have to be able to defend ourselves. We are extremely thankful to this administration: It is doing more than the past to back the security of Israel.

What is the administration doing?

They are giving us support, despite economic pressure there, in keeping up the qualitative military edge of Israel. They helped us with our multilayered interception systems against missiles and rockets, starting with Iron Dome and continuing with Arrow. But we understand that we have to be able to protect ourselves against any foreseeable threat.

Going back to Syria, do you think the West should arm the opposition?

I think many steps should be taken. Russia has invested a lot of political capital and money in the [Assad] regime. They should have a certain role if we want to succeed. The whole structure of the Syrian state should not be blamed—it is a family and certain individuals [who are responsible]. I believe that if America and Russia talk[ed] together about who can use what leverage, that could be extremely effective. And of course Turkey, the most important neighbor of Syria. What can we do in order to remove this family from power without destroying Syria as a state? Not repeat the mistakes that were made in Iraq, where everything from the Baath Party to the military was dismantled. There's no need to do that [and increase] the chances that they will end up with a chaotic civil war, where the bad guys will be more prominent. It's time for the world to dictate to Mr. Assad to move out of power or else. But the "or else" can be convincing only if America and Russia will join hands.

But Russia is still sending weapons to Syria.

Yes, but they should be convinced in an honest, frank discussion. They could have a major role in helping to solve the Syrian issue.

You're not worried about the Muslim Brotherhood or others who could come to power?

I feel the longer the world is paralyzed and lets this massacre keep going by the Assad family, the more chaotic the situation will end up being.

U.S. officials are very concerned about Syria's huge pile of chemical weapons and what to do to secure them if the Assad regime goes and the chemical weapons are let loose.

We [are] also. [Assad] now is supported by Hezbollah and Iran. They are the only ones who are actually supporting him physically: sending materials, sending people, providing ideas based on their experience in Lebanon about how to brutalize your own people. When Assad falls, there is a certain risk that Hezbollah will try to grab some weapons systems, some anti-aircraft systems or some long-range missiles from the falling Syrian regime. Some people even raise the risk that they will try to grab some chemical materials. We still prefer to see [Assad] fall, even with all those risks. We are watching and following it carefully.

Do you believe that one good thing about the downfall of Assad would be that it could break the axis between Syria and Iran?

Yes, Iran and Hezbollah are the main supporters [of Syria], and it will be a blow to both the ayatollahs in Tehran and to [Hezbollah's Hasan] Nasrallah and his people in Beirut.

Do you believe that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lost a lot of power?

The real leader is Khamenei. I heard he is going to retire next year. Basically, [Iran's leadership] is a collective—sometimes American newspapers describe [certain leaders] as either radical or moderate. Don't delude yourself that the moderate ayatollahs are not ayatollahs. All are ayatollahs.

Do you feel this U.S. administration has been supportive of Israel?

In terms of our security? Yes, this administration was really supportive of Israel.

Do you think the U.S. administration understands that you have a difficult choice to make about Iran?

Yes, I think so. The discussions between us and the White House are honest and frank, with a clear understanding of the differences between our point of view and theirs with regard to Iran. We can fully understand the fact that we look at things a different way. I believe that the State Department, Pentagon, and White House understand that when it comes to the vital security interests of Israel, only the government of Israel has to make the decisions.

I would not be surprised if in [the nuclear talks], the Iranians will come with some gambit, trying to blur the picture. They want very much to delay any kind of clear conclusion about their intentions for the next half a year so they can [wait for]
the American election and for a better time for them.

You think they want to delay until after the American election?
Yes.

Why?

Because they want to continue with the program. They are afraid that if they are exposed now, at a certain point, the P5 +1 will say there is no way to deal with them and who knows what will follow. If they gain another half a year, they will have more time.

And then a new administration might come into office.

They waited 4,000 years to have a nuclear bomb, so they can wait another four months. They want to see how the new president, be it Obama or Romney, sees it. In the meantime, they can enrich another [batch of] low-enriched uranium. They want to delay.

Are you worried about the Americans making a bad deal?

We hope for the best. We are realistic and skeptical. We are not part of the P5 + 1, and we do not pretend to run the world. But we shared honestly and clearly with our colleagues in both Europe and America our thought that the Iranians will probably try to gain time by [making] some gestures that will be misread as forthcoming. But if you look at the details, you will see that it really does not block them from moving toward a nuclear weapons program.

In the middle of this, you have a new government here. What do you think will happen to the peace process?

Yes, we have a new government here—a very big one. I believe it is a great opportunity right now.

Recently you spoke about unilateral gestures on the part of Israel.

I didn't say unilateral. I think we should use this opportunity to reactivate the peace process. If it is possible to have a breakthrough toward an agreement—it should be done. I don't want to relieve Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] or the international community from their responsibility for the deadlock we are in now. But I think there is an inherent Israeli interest in reviving the peace process with the Palestinians, and probably with the moderate parts of this region.

What do you mean by "moderate parts of the region"?

I mean both with the Palestinians and with every moderate country in the region from Morocco to the Gulf. We have an interest to find a way to talk with them about how to move [the peace process forward].

Will the talks resume?

I don't know because it takes two.

Is the prime minister interested? Are you?

I am interested, but the real news is not me. I was interested to start with. It's the entrance of [Shaul] Mofaz and Kadima [to the coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], which is the biggest party in the Knesset. We delayed the election by a year and a quarter, and that is enough time to try to leave an imprint. Mofaz is a strong proponent of the idea of resuming the peace process with the Palestinians. It takes two to tango. We cannot impose it upon Abu Mazen. I hope that they will understand the uniqueness of this opportunity, instead of going to [seek recognition from the U.N.] General Assembly. We better start to move forward. If something complete cannot be achieved, probably [there can be] interim agreements. If nothing works, even unilateral steps might be a possibility.

What did you mean by that?

I just meant we have to think about all options. We have such a wide government that the coalition has no dissonance when we decide to move forward with the peace process. Based on this opportunity, we should try to push it. Mofaz and myself and the prime minister are committed to try and do it. 

*Correction, June 20, 2012: Because of a copy-editing error, this article originally misidentified the Ayatollah Khamenei as the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.

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