Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?

This does not mean that these Israeli warnings were, or are, unfounded. The children's story about the boy who cried wolf is often cited to counsel against exaggeration of threat. We should remember how the story ends: The wolf actually arrives, and eats the boy.

Iran's long-delayed reactor at Arak may become operational in late 2014, providing Iran a plutonium path to a bomb. Once it is loaded with fuel, which on the announced schedule will be in early 2014, an attack on the reactor would spread radioactive materials. Iran's accumulated stockpile of MEU and deployment of advanced centrifuges will also continue shortening the timeline for a dash to a bomb. Nonetheless, neither is likely to have material consequences in 2013 for the calculus of risk described earlier.

This fall, if and when negotiations fail to produce a breakthrough, expect Netanyahu to reject the Obama administration's (and much of his own security establishment's) arguments and press vigorously for a U.S. attack, threatening to act unilaterally otherwise. At that point, unless a major diplomatic initiative shows promise, I predict that there will be a more intense exploration of options short of attack for slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear progress. I have identified at least three such options, and there are no doubt others. Watch this space.

9. What will trigger an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? What will be the key drivers?

Most analysts' answers to this question focus on external factors, particularly Iranian actions that increase the threat. The most recent retired red line was former Israeli Defense Minister Barak's "zone of immunity." In last fall's famous UN speech, Netanyahu drew onto a cartoon bomb what he said was a new, clear red line: one bombs-worth of MEU. (Israeli officials later clarified that this amount was equivalent to 250 kg of MEU in hexafluoride form.) In the months since then, Iran has made the strategic decision to avoid breaching this line, at least for the time being, by converting most of its new MEU hexafluoride into oxide fuel for the TRR.

Nonetheless, in placing bets about Israeli action, or inaction, internal factors will be as important as external factors. The blunt truth is that there will be little material change in the risks Israel faces from Iran in the near term if Iran continues its current, careful, cautious, deliberate but steady advance toward the nuclear goal line. Nor will there be significant material change in the impact Israeli airstrikes can have on Iran's nuclear facilities in the months between today and December 31, 2013.

For perspective, recall Prime Minister Menachem Begin's decision to attack Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981. In that case, the principal trigger was not a change in the facts on the ground in Iraq, but Begin's fear that he would no longer be Prime Minister. He believed that he would be succeeded by Shimon Peres, and that Peres would not have what it took to do what was required, when it was necessary. The runner-up in the last Israeli election, Yair Lapid, has already declared that he will be the next Prime Minister. In assessing prospects of an Israeli attack, power shifts in Netanyahu's cabinet will be more important than the latest IAEA report.

10. What would trigger a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

Were the U.S. to discover unambiguous evidence that Iran had begun breaking out on a timetable that could be stopped by an American attack, an attack would be likely. Aware of this threat, Iran is highly unlikely to take such an action.

A more likely trigger of U.S. military action against Iran would be an Israeli airstrike prompting an Iranian response that threatened U.S. interests, including the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz or Saudi Arabia itself. The U.S. has made clear to the Supreme Leader that any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz would cross a "red line" and invite an American military response.

11. What is the most likely future for 2013: a bomb or be bombed?

My best bet is that Iran will proceed cautiously, carefully, and steadily. Indeed, I agree with Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's assessment that Iran is "going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile." In my view, the Obama Administration will pursue every alternative to attack, recognizing the costs and risks.

A bomb or be bombed? Both are real possibilities; either could occur without violating any laws of science and engineering or observed political behavior. But my best judgment is that neither is likely in 2013. If required to answer yes or no: no bomb; no attack.

12. Why could I be wrong?

After having heard (or made) a convincing argument for a controversial conclusion, America's greatest Secretary of State, George Marshall, would frequently ask: "Just one more question: Why could I be wrong?"

While the future is strictly unknown, some futures are more easily predictable than others. Bets about whether Israel will attack Iran before the end of this year hinge on choices made by one individual or by a small group. Regardless of the strong opposition from his military and security establishment, and his own president, and the fact that 80 percent of Israelis oppose a unilateral attack without U.S. support, if Prime Minister Netanyahu ultimately decides to attack Iran, then he is likely to be able to do so. This would depend on Netanyahu's ability to convince his new "security cabinet," made up of eight ministers, on the merits of an attack. So far, it is unclear how new members such as Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni would cast their votes.

Betting about outcomes based on one person's calculations of an uncertain future is inherently vulnerable to error. Nonetheless, I have registered my bet.

This article develops arguments initially presented at the Aspen Strategy Group.

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Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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