JERUSALEM — For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his long-standing position that while economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack. With the report that the country has already installed 2,000 centrifuges inside a virtually impenetrable underground laboratory, and that it has ramped up production of nuclear fuel, officials and experts here say the conclusions may force Israel to strike Iran or concede it is not prepared to act on its own.
Whether that ultimately leads to a change in strategy — or a unilateral attack — is something that even Israel’s inner circle cannot yet agree on, despite what seems to be a consensus that Iran’s program may soon be beyond the reach of Israel’s military capability.
“It leaves us at this dead end,” said a senior government official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is involved in the decision-making process. “The more time elapses with no change on the ground in terms of Iranian policies, the more it becomes a zero-sum game.”
The report accentuates the tension with Washington during the hot-tempered atmosphere of a presidential election. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu often say they have a common assessment of the intelligence about Iran’s progress. What they do not agree on is the time available.
U.S. officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Israelis that they have the country’s back — and to remind them that Israel does not have the ability, by itself, to destroy the facility, built beneath a mountain outside Qum. The United States does have weaponry that it believes can demolish the lab, but in Obama’s judgment there is still what the White House calls “time and space” for diplomacy, sanctions and sabotage, a combination that the Israelis say has been insufficient.
“They can’t do it right without us,” a former adviser to Obama said recently. “And we’re trying to persuade them that a strike that just drives the program more underground isn’t a solution; it’s a bigger problem.”
The report comes at a critical moment in Israel’s long campaign to build Western support for stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, which virtually every leader here regards as an existential threat.