Israeli army chief says he doubts Iran will build a nuclear weapon

In an interview with Haaretz, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz acknowledged the threat of a nuclear Iran but said Tehran wasn't likely to go there, citing its 'rational' leadership.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Feb. 15, 2012 file photo, released by the Iranian President's Office, claims to show Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second left, being escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in Iran.
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It's springtime and a young man's fancy turns, yet again, toward thoughts of war with Iran.

But the normally reticent boss of the Israel Defense Forces has just poured cold water on this eventuality. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in an interview marking that nation's independence day that he doubts Iran is currently seeking a nuclear weapon or that they will eventually decide to pursue one.

To be sure, he insists that a theoretical nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran would be disastrous to Israel and its regional standing, and said he was preparing a credible military option, which he says is crucial for Israel's security.

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But he appears to talk the threat of war down from the boiling point, contradicting the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz, who has considerable sway over national policy, proposes that Iran's nuclear program, which the Islamic Republic insists is for peaceful purposes only, is designed to improve the nation's know-how and materials to the point where it could theoretically build a bomb, if it so chooses.

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," he said.

Will they?

He suggests that won't happen soon, particularly since in his estimation Iran's program remains vulnerable to external attack."The program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view," he told Haaretz. "If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."

To summarize: Gantz is very worried, the mere possession of an Iranian "break out" capacity is alarming to Israel, and a ruling elite could some day rise in Iran that wouldn't act as rationally as he judges the current leadership core to be. But with an Israeli attack certain to close all diplomatic roads, and with a lack of certainty that such a move would succeed, it appears it wouldn't be wise for Israel to attack any time soon.

Reading the tea leaves, Gantz does not seem as enthusiastic for war as Mr. Netanyahu. "His language is far from the dramatic rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is usually free of the Holocaust comparisons of which Israeli politicians are so fond," writes Amos Harel, in his writeup of Gantz's comments.

His view of the Iranian regime as "rational" echoes comments by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this March, in which he likewise described the Iran as a "rational actor," which drew howls of complaint from some American hawks. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for instance, said, "I can't imagine why [Dempsey] would say that," framing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth."

This statement is frequently attributed to Ahmadinejad in the West, but scholars say it stems from a mistranslation and exaggeration of the president's words.

Gantz also told Haaretz that Israel faces a new array of military threats, as a consequence of regional upheaval:

"I don't know what will happen in Syria, but presumably the Golan Heights won't be as quiet as before. I cannot remove Syria from the military equation, nor Lebanon. I assume that if there are terror threats from the Golan or Lebanon I'll have to take action. I cannot do everything by 'stand-off' [remote]. The enemy's fire capabilities have developed at every distance, four or five times what they were in the Second Lebanon War and four or five times compared to the Gaza Strip before Operation Cast Lead, not to mention the new ground-to-air missile in Syria."

I personally have long been skeptical that Israel will attack Iran unilaterally, mostly because it would be a risky operation at great distance, against an array of widely dispersed targets, that could possibly lead to missile barrages on the home front from the likes of Hezbollah. Others, many with far more military and regional expertise than I, have worried that an attack is more likely, particularly judging by the alarmist rhetoric of Netanyahu and some of those around him.

Gantz's comments are the latest indications that senior Israeli military officers, who wield great sway over national policy, are not as sanguine about war as Netanyahu is. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli political analyst and author of "The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran," a biography of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, writes on Twitter that the general's statement that he doubts Iran will seek the bomb "clearly contradicts and undermines" Netanyahu.

Still, some predictors of war soldier on. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in late 2010 that there was a 50 percent chance that Israel would attack Iran by July of 2011. This March, Mr. Goldberg allowed that perhaps all the tough talk from Israel (tough talk he's transmitted as fact, relying on unidentified sources) was a form of posturing by Netanyahu's government. Then a few weeks he ago, he upped the DEFCON level again, suggesting June 2012 is a "possible" time when Israel will unilaterally attack Iran.

Not, it seems, if Benny Gantz has any say in the matter.

This article was edited after first posting to correct the spelling of Gen. Gantz' name.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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