Israel’s window to strike Iran narrows as Putin enters equation

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Iran is seeking sophisticated new air defense systems from Russia that Israeli officials believe will narrow the window for a potential strike on Tehran’s nuclear program, according to people familiar with the matter.

The prospect of Iran getting the systems, the S-400s, would accelerate a decision on a possible attack, people in Israel and the US with knowledge of the discussions said.

Russia hasn’t said publicly if it will supply the weapons, but Moscow and Tehran have drawn closer since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. It would take less than two years for the S-400s to be operational.

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“The longer you wait, the harder that becomes,” Netanyahu said of a strike on Iran at a security conference in Tel Aviv last week. “We’ve waited very long. I can tell you that I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Such open threats — daily occurrences now in Israel — are a complex mix of intent and messaging aimed at Tehran and Washington although Israel bombed nuclear sites in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. An open military conflict with Iran could trigger an unparalleled regional conflagration affecting global oil supplies.

Russia has offered Iran “unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics and air defense and may provide Tehran with fighter jets,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last Friday.

The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

Concern has grown over Iran’s nuclear work since international monitors detected uranium enriched to 84 percent purity — just below the 90 percent needed for weapons. By the end of 2023, Iran will have enough uranium enriched to 60 percent to produce 10 bombs, according to a senior Israeli official and a former senior US official.

Israel continues to hope the US will take the lead on any possible strike and while the Biden administration hasn’t ruled out military action, it prefers diplomacy.

Iran accuses Israel of assassinating its nuclear scientists, most recently as in late 2020, as well as hacking and other nuclear sabotage. Israel doesn’t publicly own up to them but they are widely acknowledged by officials both in the US and in Israel.

Iran says its decades-long atomic program is for peaceful purposes, but Western powers say it’s building the capabilities to make a nuclear bomb.

Drones and fighter jets

In December, the US said Russia was deepening military backing for Iran in return for Iranian supplies of drones for Moscow’s war on Ukraine. The next month, an Iranian lawmaker said Tehran expects a delivery of Su-35 fighter jets from Russia by mid-March.

Russia has very good ties with Iran and Tehran is looking for more support, said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert.

After the US and five other powers signed a deal with Iran in 2015 restricting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, Russia sold it a less advanced air defense system, the S-300s. The nuclear deal fell apart in 2018 when President Donald Trump withdrew the US.

The S-400s, which can hit aerial targets at a range of up to 250 kilometers (150 miles), would create a “red zone for high-altitude aircraft,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defense expert at Janes, the UK-based defense intelligence firm.

“The more air defenses they have, the more difficult it is to hit them,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top Israeli military intelligence official and now a senior researcher at the Israel Defense and Security Forum, an association of former and reserve members of the security forces. “We are analyzing when is the most convenient time to take action.”

Israel has been here before. In 2015, Israeli TV played recorded conversations with Ehud Barak, who was Netanyahu’s defense minister in 2012, speaking explicitly of plans to attack Iran that were shelved after discussions with the US.

Israeli officials are watching not only Iran’s ability to withstand an air attack but its capacity to build a nuclear bomb.

They calculate that once Iran decides to weaponize, “it’s anything between 18 to 24 months for them to build the first warhead,” Mark Dubowitz, head of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which lobbies for measures to counter Iran, said in an interview in Tel Aviv.

After Joe Biden defeated Trump, his administration tried to revive the Iran nuclear deal but blamed Tehran for walking away. US Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, recently indicated understanding for Israel’s approach.

“Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with (Iran) and we’ve got their back,” he said at an event on Feb. 19.

The US and Israel recently held highly publicized military exercises in the Mediterranean, the largest ever drills between the two allies in a demonstration of aerial force.

New US-built air refueling aircraft which the Israelis are due to receive by 2025 would significantly increase their long-range capability, said Binnie at Janes.

Gulf nations would be at some risk but many are hoping Israel will act — even if it only sets back Iranian nuclear ambitions for a few years, said Riad Kahwagi, founder and chief executive officer of INEGMA, a Dubai-based security research group.

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