JERUSALEM — What would the world do if Iran already had a nuclear bomb?
That was the question being asked by many Israeli politicians and diplomats, who swam against the tide of optimism being unleashed at talks in Geneva between Iran and world powers this week.
"Everyone is celebrating this honeymoon with the Iranian regime right now, and saying that a new page has been turned, but from our perspective this is not the case at all," said one Israeli diplomat who said he has been on "round the clock phone calls to Israel's friends in the West" since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive began during the United Nations General Assembly last month.
"I am reminding them what the world will look like, what the Middle East will look like, if Iran has the bomb. We need them to remember that this is not a far off possibility but a very near, almost actualized thing," he said.
How near depends on whom you ask.
In interviews last week, some Israeli government analysts told the Maariv newspaper that Iran already has one nuclear bomb.
"They made it very clear that Iran already had the uranium for one bomb, and it was very very probable that they had put that one bomb together," said Shalom Yerushalmi, the author of the Maariv piece. "This opinion is growing though many are afraid to say it too loudly because they would then be admitting that Israel, specifically Netanyahu, has failed the central mission of his political life."
Yerushalmi's report is the first time an Israeli government official has said that Iran has already achieved nuclear weapons capability.
He quotes one source who says, "This is no longer about how to prevent a bomb but about how to prevent its being launched, and what to do if and when."
Yerushalmi's report was quickly disputed by several leading Israeli defense officials, who said that Iran was close to crossing the threshold into building a bomb, but was not quite there yet.
"We have seen a number of significant changes in the last few weeks that have suggested that Iran is closer, much closer to a bomb than ever before," said Dr. Gary Samore, President of United Against Nuclear Iran. He said that in addition to having 16,000 first generation centrifuge machines to create highly-enriched uranium for a bomb, Israeli intelligence suggested an additional 1,000 machines had recently been installed that sped up the process.
"We can't be precise about the timeline, nobody can because there are too many factors. What we can say is that they are very close and there is nothing standing in their way other than international pressure," said Samore.
That's why Netanyahu, watching the talks in Geneva, sent his diplomatic emissaries into a frenzy of phone calls and emails when he began to hear reports that the U.S. was responding favorably to a proposal by Iran over its nuclear facilities.
In a rare joint statement issued Wednesday, chief negotiators from Iran and six world powers – including the U.S - said Tehran's new proposal was an "important contribution" now under careful consideration. After years of cancelled meetings and deadlocked negotiations, Iran and the West appeared to finally be making headway on a diplomatic solution.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered exercises that sent a clear message that he would not back down from the option of a military strike on Iran.
In addition to artillery exercises in the Golan Heights area that borders Syria, Netanyahu ordered Israel's air force to begin re-training on long-range flight missions – exactly the type of flight paths Israel would need to take if wanted to reach Iran.
"We can't surrender the option of a preventive strike," Netanyahu told his parliament, just hours before U.S. diplomats prepared to sit down alone with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. "It is not necessary in every situation, and it must be weighed carefully and seriously. But there are situations in which paying heed to the international price of such a step is outweighed by the price in blood we will pay if we absorb a strategic strike that will demand a response later on, and perhaps too late."
Netanyahu said he fears that over-eagerness to reach a diplomatic solution on Iran's nuclear program could lead to a half-hearted deal that still allowed Iran to produce nuclear weapons.
"I think that it would be a historic mistake to ease up on Iran without it dismantling the nuclear capabilities it is developing," said Netanyahu.
His closest ministers, including Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, argued that while Netanyahu wanted the Geneva talks to succeed, he was pushing for a "satisfactory" agreement that would see Iran's enrichment program entirely shut down.
Steinitz said Iran could create a "win-win situation" if it gives up enrichment and obtains nuclear fuel from a third country that it could use towards its energy program.
Netanyahu's tough talk on Iran appears to have resonated with the Israeli public. In a poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute, two-thirds of Israelis said that hey doubted Obama's promise that the U.S. would stop Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon. A poll conducted on Israel's Channel Two news also showed that more than 60 percent of Israelis believed that their military had to be ready to strike Iran if diplomacy failed.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.