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After years, uncertainty still colors talk of Iran's nuclear capability

JERUSALEM — On the morning of May 9, 2006, Amos Yadlin, Israel's head of military intelligence, walked away from his parliamentary committee meeting with a sense of triumph. He knew he had successfully shifted Israel's national agenda.

He bypassed the reporters and cameramen who'd gathered outside the committee room. Those who could ran after him but were given only a curt answer by one of his aides.

"Iran. The story is Iran," said the aide, before sidestepping the group into a waiting elevator.

That morning Yadlin had told the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2010 if no "sanctions or roadblocks" were put in its path. The committee, which has parliamentary oversight over the military and often hears briefings from top intelligence and political officials, is officially closed to the press. But it leaks like a sieve, and officials know that what they say before it will soon be trumpeted to the reporters assigned to squat outside the committee doors.

"Everyone comes here to say something behind closed doors that they know will be leaked," said Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes. "They guarantee interest."

Yadlin's statement that morning was calculated to garner the most attention possible, and it did. The next day, it was on the front pages of all of Israeli's daily newspapers. Within months, Israeli politicians would pick up the refrain and begin routinely referring to Iran as an "existential threat." It is an expression Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond of.

Six years later, concern over that threat has reached a fever pitch, even as the date predicted for Iran's having built a nuclear weapon has slipped. Israeli officials who once talked about 2010 now talk about 2012. The existential threat line has moved from Israeli politicians to the United States, where it is repeated by nearly all the Republican presidential candidates as well as politicians of all stripe. British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also have expressed concern about the Iranian nuclear threat.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama took a tough line, telling a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday that the U.S. would take military action to make sure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.

"Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said. "And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

Two days later, Obama took a more nuanced approach, telling a Washington news conference that a diplomatic solution was still within reach. "That's the view of our top intelligence officials, it's the view of top Israeli intelligence officials," he said. He blasted those "beating the drums of war."

"When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war, " he said. "This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it."

That more restrained approach, which came one day after the president met with Netanyahu, underscores what interviews with Israeli experts make clear: There is no certainty about how real the threat is that Iran will have the bomb or how soon it might come to pass. Or whether there is any way to stop it.

Iran denies that it has plans to build a nuclear weapon, and U.S. officials, while pushing to stop Iran's program, say they have no evidence Iran plans to build a bomb. That conclusion was first announced in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, and has been reaffirmed since under Obama, most recently last month.

Of the nearly dozen Israeli experts McClatchy interviewed, each had a different opinion as to what the threshold should be for launching a strike to knock out Iran's nuclear program. Some argued it should be as soon as possible, before Iran succeeds in moving its facilities into well-protected underground bunkers. Others said the strike should come when Iran creates nuclear material capable of being turned into a weapon. And still others say Israel and the West should wait until Iran actually tests a nuclear weapon.

"People talk about 'red lines' and 'deadlines' and 'weaponization' and 'threshold,' but those terms only partly capture the process that leads to a nuclear weapon," said Ephraim Asculai, a nuclear weapons expert who worked at Israel's atomic energy commission for 40 years and is currently a fellow at Israel's premier foreign policy think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies.

"Iran ... can linger, they can hold off and wait at this status for as long as they want before 'breaking out' and building their first nuclear weapon," he said. "The first weapon is the slowest to build and the subsequent ones will happen more quickly. They also could choose not to break out at all."

Israeli officials now argue that Iran is positioning itself to build a series of bombs as soon as top officials decide to do so. As evidence, they point to recent reports by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog that say that Iran has "military dimensions" to its nuclear program.

But they also acknowledge that Israel's credibility has been hurt by endlessly shifting predictions and timelines.

Israel, which itself has an estimated 250 nuclear weapons, though it rarely acknowledges it, has been openly fretting about Iranian nuclear ambitions since the 1980s.

The first date-specific prediction of when Iran would have a nuclear weapon was made in 1998, by the then head of military intelligence, Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, who warned that Iran could have the bomb by 2008.

The prediction failed to stay in the headlines, however, as Israel was consumed with an uprising in the Palestinian territories and war in Lebanon.

But when Yadlin made his predictions to the Knesset in 2006, Israeli newspapers were ready to pick up the story again.

"Since then it has been in the news non-stop. And for a long time it was a numbers game with a different year attached to it each time," said one Israeli diplomat who formerly worked for the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles but was not given clearance to speak on the record.

The diplomat said that many people felt it was a case of the little boy crying wolf.

"For some people the constant predictions and moving timelines are too much," the diplomat said.

Not that the predictions have been consistent. In 2009, Israel's then-spymaster, Meir Dagan, estimated that Iran would have a weapon by 2014. That same year, Yossi Baidetz, the head of Israel's military intelligence research division, said that Iran had all the nuclear know-how it needed. In 2010, Israeli officials shortened their estimates to 2012.

"There was the argument that we were doing too much, saying too much," said the Israeli diplomat. "That Israeli officials were making premature announcements and sounding the war drums. Then, when time passed and we hadn't yet seen Iran with a nuclear weapon, people started to figure we were crying wolf about nothing."

Yaakov Katz, author of "Israel vs Iran: The Shadow War," said the changing predictions came as Israeli officials realized that Iran's strategy was not what they initially had thought.

In the early 2000s, Katz said, intelligence officials thought that the moment Iran had enrichment abilities it would build a weapon. But in 2006, Katz said, intelligence officials realized that Iran had a different strategy.

"They realized Iran wanted to create a massive stockpile of enriched uranium and to build all the necessary parts, and to have all the technological ability. Iran wanted to stand on the brink, to be on the threshold of being able to build not just one," said Katz. "That is where they are today."

Yadlin's projection of 2010 would have been "sound and accurate," said Katz, had numerous delays not pushed back the Iranian program.

Those delays included the assassinations of nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions at military facilities and a computer virus known as "Stuxnet" that disrupted the installation of centrifuges, the key components for processing uranium. Israel is often credited with those delays, though few believe they will stop a determined Iran in the long run.

"In the end they are delays, not final solution," said Asculai, the Israeli nuclear weapons expert.

Two months ago, the institute where Asculai works ran a war game exploring how the world would react to Iran test-firing a nuclear weapon.

The result surprised many. Israel held back on immediate action, instead rallying its supporters in the West for intense diplomacy. No airstrikes were immediately launched.

What would happen in a real-world event is less certain. For those who argue Iran will not build a weapon, the scenario is yet more war drums sounded by Israel. For those who strongly feel that Iran will seek to build a weapon, there is disagreement over how far is too far.

"It's a game, the Iranian nuclear threat. And there is no certainty for the first, second or third move to take. No one can tell you what moves anyone is going to make or is making," said Asculai. "Everyone is still staring at the board."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)


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