TIME’s Interview with Ehud Barak: The Transcript

Benjamin Netanyahu's political and strategic partner talks to TIME about Syria, Iran, the Palestinians and his friend the Prime Minister.

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JACK GUEZ / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak speaks during the annual International Cyber Security Conference at Tel Aviv University on June 6, 2012.

BARAK: I think first of all that Iran is a problem for the whole world. And I believe thatcompared to the situation a few years ago, the whole world is looking now at the same intelligence. The recent reports of the IAEA leave no doubt in themind of anyone that Iran is determinedly trying to become a nuclear power. Even our rhetoric has converged significantly in the last several years. All leaders of the world, at least of the free world, are talking the same language: a nuclear military Iran is not acceptable. We Americans, we Europeans, are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear and in the last half year or so many leaders, all leaders of the free world, including the American president are saying all options except for containment should be on the table. We say the same, we see the same intelligence, we use the same rhetoric, and when we use it we mean it.

I don’t think that we have to talk about the operational capabilities, without operational capabilities of some sort we would not talk about all options being on the table or saying that we mean it. I don’t underestimate the impact of the recent sanctions or the recent diplomacy; it did not happen in the past, it’s something new, and it has certain impact.  Um, I think that we all wish that it would be solved by a combination of sanctions and diplomacy, but to tell you the truth when I try to judge whether these ayatollahs as we watch them for decades, are they going to brought to a point where they can say, okay, we’ll look in each other’s eyes, no way to continue under this kind of pressure, we have to give in? The way that the Libyans at a certain point gave in their military nuclear program? The way that south Africa gave in under different circumstances? I’m very skeptical this is going to happen.   We have seen all examples. We have seen Pakistan maneuvering against many steps, diplomatic and otherwise, and reaching nuclear capability. We have seen North Korea. I’ve just mentioned Libya and South Africa. And of course there’s the examples of Iraq and Syria, that were derailed from their aspirations by other means. So basically the world has seen examples of all possibilities, and that probably might explain why we are a little bit skeptical.  Because we don’t doubt the intentions of the American administration at the time and the world at the time to stop North Korea, but it happened.

(PHOTOS: Marco Grob Photographs Benjamin Netanyahu)

We do not question the intention to block Pakistan,  but it happened.  Now we believe the American administration fully understands that Israel for obvious reasons looks at this from closerrange. It covers a wider part of our screen of attention. And I believe that the Americans as well as others understand that Israel should be able to defenditself against any kind of threat and to be able to keep its right or responsibility to finally take decisions when it comes to its security and future.  The dialogue that we are running with the administration as well as with other leadership in the free world and even with Putin or the Chinese, we are talking quite frankly. We don’t go into details, but we don’t hide that we believe in the same intelligence, we believe in the same rhetoric and we think that the clocks are not ticking at the same pace. Because our capabilities if worse comes to worse, to contemplate what to do if sanctions and diplomacy doesn’t work, we’ve a shorter time frame to make up our mind about what should be done.

America has much wider capabilities.  They have a different consideration, they have  more time and more capabilities. It changes the perspective.  And now I think we all know they have the ambition. They have the knowledge, they have the technology. They have kind of the tenacity.  In some time they will enter into what I call the zone of immunity, where no practical surgical operation can deprive them of their nuclear capability, and probably then, when they can feel assured that neither Israel nor America can derail them or stop them by any surgical operation, that will be the natural time for them to consider, okay, now wehave the option to decide when and how to approach nuclear military capability.

TIME: How long until they enter that zone of immunity?

BARAK: We have said several months ago that it’s not a matter of weeks but it’s not a matter of years. It’s not a binary situation; you’re in the room or you’re out of the room. Or for a lady, you are pregnant or you’re not pregnant. It’s a process. But it becomes clear from quarter to quarter that the capacity to influence a significant delay in their plans is becoming more and more remote.

TIME: Israel has done a masterful job of teeing up this question for the international community, especially the run-up to the December IAEA report, thinking that you guys were lunging for the trigger. But you can only be credible for so longwith the threat, right? Does that become one more pressure to act itself?

BARAK:  I do not underestimate our contribution. Probably indirectly, probably we had certain influence, probably, on the clarity of the position of the world right now, the readiness to take action. And I believe the Iranians will be moved only by the combination of carrots and a big stick in the background. But I can tell you honestly we are not there because — we are not part of a performance to impress Iran. It’s probably one of the by products of the sincerity by which we are dealing with our real challenges that we believe should be shared by the rest of the world for obvious reasons. I do not believe in ‘fak-ed’ kind of operations.   Probably some succeed in it from the other side, sometimes succeed, but cheating from the good guys for a long time. We never saw the thing in these terms. We are not bluffing in a way. We are sincere on the merits of the issue. And we are aware of the effect that probably it helps the negotiations with Iran in the same way that when people in American or senior civil servants in Israel or in other places say loud and clear, we don’t think that it’s justifiable, we don’t think that it’s possible, we don’t think that we should do it, they are blurring the big stick, and at a certain point it even makes an operation once it, if and when it has to be executed, slightly more dangerous in a way.  I don’t want to over-estimate this aspect of it, but sometimes it’s better to talk a little bit less.  Let the interpretation be done by the Iranians on their own; they’re extremely sophisticated people.

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