For Israel, the critical decision to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites rests on a timeline that is growing much shorter than the future date when Tehran can assemble and deliver a bomb.
The U.S. believes Iran is about five years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
But Jerusalem is watching something going on now Iran’s nuclear research and development program for signs it is approaching the point of no-return, according to persons in Washington familiar with the government’s thinking.
It may be within the next 12 months, or sooner, that Israel, decides it either strikes Iran or misses the chance to irreparable damage its R&D efforts which involves enriching uranium, designing warheads and building missiles capable of reaching Israel.
A source in Washington who is close to the Israeli government talks of a "red line" a boundary that if crossed by Iran means it will always have the capability to quickly make atomic weapons.
"The R&D will be very mature within 12 months," said this source. "Then you can’t stop it."
This is because Iran, with its thousands of centrifuges, will have produced and hidden sufficient enriched uranium to fuel a nuke arsenal. During that same period, it is continuing to fortify key nuclear storage sites and laboratories by putting them deeper underground where bombs cannot reach them.
"In Israel’s mind, it must stop the R&D," the source said, noting Iran’s belligerent calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel has sent clear messages this year that it is prepared to take military action, if the Obama administration’s outreach to hardline Islamic regime fails to stop its drive to build nuclear warheads. For now, Jerusalem is allowing diplomacy to go forward, while calling on President Obama to put stiff sanctions on Iran that would freeze billions in assets.
Israel also is sending signals that strikes on Iran would come from the sea, as well as the air. It sent two missile-studded warships, and an attack submarine, through the Suez canal this summer the fastest route to the Persian Gulf and the Iranian coast.
Egypt controls the canal, but allowed the ships to pass. Cairo is wary of a nuclear-armed Iran, which exports terrorism in the region and is bent on dominating the Sunni Muslim governments, including Egypt.
One of those countries, Saudi Arabia, also fears Iran. It may secretly allow Israel warplanes to use its airspace to reach Iran. This would preclude Israel’s need to fly over Iraq, whose airspace is controlled by the United States.
"The Israeli military is very competent to do what it needs to do," the source said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Obama at the White House in May. Like previous Israeli leaders, he did not ask for the go-ahead to bomb Iran.
"Israel would never ask a question whose answer would cause a split with its strongest ally," said the Washington source. The U.S. provides Israel with and. It is currently negotiating the sale of the F-35 Lightning, the U.S.’s new multipurpose fighter set to replace the F-16 Falcon.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear he opposes bombing Iran, partly because it risks further destabilizing the Gulf and turning the population against America.
Gates was in Israel this month, meeting with his counterpart, Defense Minister Ehrud Barak.
At a joint press conference Gates was asked what would be a bigger disaster, a strike on Iran or Iran owning a nuclear arsenal?
"I think we are in full agreement on the negative consequences of Iran obtaining this kind of capability," Gates responded. "I think we also agree that it is important to take every opportunity to try and persuade the Iranians to reconsider what is actually in their own security interests. And we’re in the process of doing that, both in terms of the president’s offer to engage with the Iranians, but also through sanctions to impose costs on for pursuing that course."
For his part, Barak said Israel is willing to to let tougher sanctions work, but he would want immediate results from Iran.
"We clearly believe that no options should be removed from the table," he said. "This is our policy. We mean it. We recommend to others to take the same position. But we cannot dictate it to anyone."
Iran claims it is producing low enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power plants. But the U.S. says Iran is pursuing the bomb.
Iran secretly constructed a heavy water production plant near the town of Arak. Such a facility could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear warheads.
In its latest report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran notified it in May that inspectors may not visit the heavy water site and its reactor, designated IR-40.
"The completion of the containment structure over the reactor building, and the roofing for the other buildings on the site, makes it impossible to assess further progress on construction inside the buildings without access to
the facility," the IAEA report said. "However, satellite imagery suggests that construction is continuing at the reactor site. "
The report said Iran has not cooperated in the agency’s efforts to investigate whether the nuclear research has a hidden military component.
Iran now has over 5,000 centrifuges in operation producing low enriched uranium.