“Iran has enough nuclear material for four bombs,” the Director of Military Intelligence Major General Aviv Kochavi warned Thursday in a rare appearance at the 2012 Herzliya Conference, where he reviewed regional changes, the effects of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Iranian threat and their effect on Israel’s security. “Vigorously pursuing its nuclear capabilities, Iran is estimated to have over four tons of enriched materials and nearly 100Kg of 20% enriched uranium – sufficient fissile material for four bombs,” he added.
According to General Kochavi, Iran’s motivation stems from three reasons. The first is maintaining regional Shi’ite hegemony over a Sunni Arab Middle East, primarily in the oil rich Gulf region. The second motivation is maintaining and increasing deterrence against hostile attack. The third – Iran’s desire to be a key regional player, as the United States is leaving a strategic void, after withdrawing its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. While Iran still maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian, peaceful purposes, Kochavi said “We have conclusive evidence that they are definitely committed on acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
According to the Israeli MI chief, the final decision whether to pursue nuclear weapons has little to do with technical capabilities and much to do with one man’s decision: “When Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, Iran’s supreme leader gives the “green light” ordering production of the first nuclear weapon – it will be done. Israel’s Military Intelligence estimates that will happen in about one year.
Iran, he added, has to deal with various pressures: The international spotlight on its every action, the crippling international sanctions, the deteriorating relations with Bashar Assad’s plight in the Syrian uprising and Iran’s own internal problems, which could increase substantially as the Arab revolt continues, nearing their immediate strategic sphere. “These pressures have yet to result in a change in Iranian strategy, but if they intensify they might lead to change, because the most important thing to them is the regime’s sustainability.” The military intelligence chief added that the sanctions on Iran “are taking their toll. There’s 16% unemployment, 24% annual inflation, and practically no growth,” he said adding “at this point the pressure isn’t leading Iran to a strategic shift.”
The ‘Middle East rediscovering its voice’
Iran is not the only threat uprising in the region: “Israel’s enemies possess more rockets than ever before,” Kochavi said. Israel’s intelligence estimates the country is under threat of 200,000 rockets and missiles of all calibers, from the smallest Qasams to the largest Shihabs. Many such weapons are now capable of hitting every part of Israel, which can be especially significant when strategic installations, such as airbases, port facilities and vital economic areas could be targeted, With missiles’ warheads becoming more accurate and effective, these threats may turn out to be more lethal. The array is sporadic – hidden in urban areas and more difficult to pinpoint, or shot at without risking causing severe collateral damage. The quantity of these missiles and rockets has become a strategic dimension in itself, which the Israel Defense Forces must deal without delay. “We’re also witnessing the disappearance of the enemy off the classic battlefield. The battlefield is now in urban terrain, which harbors large quantities of modern weapons. That forces intelligence gathering to change as well,” he said.
“The Middle East is rediscovering its voice and translating it into political power,” Kochavi added. “There is a new component in the Middle East, one the leaders and the political parties have realized that they have to pay attention to – the public. This public has discovered that it can overthrow regimes and shape the public agenda.
“This public demands its basic right… The young Arab person today is educated, exposed to what’s going on in the world and in the West through TV and the Internet. The contrast between that and what they experience is very sharp, creating growing frustration. The public is growing stronger and it’s encouraged by the power of social media,” he said.
“The main asset possessed by the Arab regimes – fear – is dissipating. The public dares to dare, while the regimes’ power is dwindling. The public in the Middle East has become a pivotal factor in the regimes’ decision-making process. “This change has led to various things, first and foremost the rise of Islam in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, which, being the largest Arab nation in the region- also its key leader having most influence on its neighbor Sunni nations. But that was not the driving force behind the uprising. The Islamists recognized the wave (of unrest) and translated their vast infrastructure into political power. The upset in balance was devoid of two things – leadership and clear ideology. The Islamic organizations entered that void with their clear ideology. That move was natural. “Egypt will continue to have a significant role in the shaping of the new Middle East and whatever model it chooses is likely to have significant impact on the rest of the Middle East.”
‘Mid-East undergoing Islamization’
The Middle East, he continued, “is clearly undergoing a process of Islamization and religious argumentation may find its way into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of a national one. We’re also seeing an old-new altercation in the Middle East, of the tribal ethos.” These changes are not limited to the arena of the public versus the regime. “We can also see them between nations: There’s tension between three countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They each aspire for regional hegemony: Saudi Arabia aspire to have things remain as they are in the Gulf; Iran, for years, has been pursuing an agenda meant to increase its global influence and its influence over the Gulf; and Turkey, that refuses to give up any of its influence in the region, given Europe’s cold shoulder.” Kochavi continued.
He added that Iran is watchful of the political changes in the region, which it sees as an opportunity to infuse the Middle East with Iranian funds and arms – actions that have the Saudi’s view Tehran as a political and military threat.
Turkey, meanwhile, offers democracy-infused Islam – nationalistic passion combined with a link to the West. But Turkey and Iran – though they have bilateral ties – are at odds: Turkey has taken several steps that are in contrast to Iranian interests, Kochavi said.
The regional changes, he continued, also spell a decrease in the power of the radical axis, “Iran-Syria-Lebanon-Hezbollah on the one hand, and Iran-Hamas-Islamic Jihad in Gaza, on the other hand… The difficulties are compounded by shrinking economy, which is that all of these countries have in common. That will be their test in the next few years.”
Still, according to M.I. Chief, Israel’s deterrence remains intact: “We’re preserving deterrence but we are now facing a more hostile Middle East. This Middle East will be permanently unstable, which means we have to be ready for all kinds of twists and turns.”
He added that the Military Intelligence is constantly reviewing how it can modify its practices to comply with the new reality. “We’re establishing ourselves as an operational branch, not just a supportive one… If the veil of secrecy could be lifted from over all the thousands of soldiers involved in intelligence work, I assure you, the Israeli people would be very proud,” he concluded.
The remarks by Military Intelligence Chief Major General Aviv Kochavi came after IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said on Wednesday that the threats facing Israel have increased and intensified in recent years due to regional instability.
Speaking to the Herzliya Conference, General Gantz said that Iran’s nuclear program is a “global problem and a regional problem,” adding that Tehran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons must continue to be disrupted. General Gantz said that the Gulf States are just as concerned about Iran’s nuclear program as Israel is. He added, however, that “we must not forget one basic thing: Israel is the only country in the world which someone is calling for its destruction and which someone is building the tools to do so. This is something that cannot be ignored.”
On other threats facing Israel, General Gantz said: “Gaza and Lebanon are some of the largest munitions depots I know. These [weapons] enter from Iran and Syria, unfortunately even Russia continues to send arms to this day, where in Syria it is not clear who will control and operate them later. The Middle East is the most extensively armed region in the world, and the bad news is that we are the target of these arms. We must always keep this in mind.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak added that Israel’s challenge is to continue aiding the international community to work toward halting Iran’s nuclear program, “without taking any option off the table.”