Clock ticking for Iran as Israel appears ready for strike

by Amos Harel
Published: Sep. 12, 2009 – Haaretz

In the rare moments when it’s not preoccupied with the decline of U.S. President Barack Obama in the polls and with the debate over its government’s proposed health-care reforms, the American press continues to deal almost obsessively with another pressing issue: the deadlock in efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program and the growing likelihood that the endgame will be an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In the past few weeks alone, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal warned the president that the United States must put a quick halt to the Iranian nuclear program, because otherwise Israel will bomb the facilities.

“An Israeli strike on Iran would be the most dangerous foreign policy issue President Obama could face,” the paper wrote.

Former vice president Dick Cheney revealed that while in office he supported an American strike against Iran, but was compelled to accept the approach of president George W. Bush, who preferred the diplomatic route.

Another Republican ultra-hawk, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, maintains that additional sanctions alone will not be enough to make the Iranians abandon their nuclear ambitions. William Cohen, who served as secretary of defense during Bill Clinton’s second presidential term (1997-2001), says that “there is a countdown taking place” and that Israel “is not going to sit indifferently on the sidelines and watch Iran continue on its way toward a nuclear-weapons capability.”

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, explains that “a very narrow window” exists between the possibility of resolving the issue and an attack on Iran.

An op-ed in The Los Angeles Times states (with some justification) that if Iran does not respond in September to the demands made of it, the world should brace itself for an Israeli attack. However, the author adds (mistakenly) that in the event of an Israeli strike, Obama “will probably learn of the operation from CNN rather than the CIA.”

This month will mark a critical juncture in Iran’s race for nuclear capability. The timetable is getting ever shorter: Most Western intelligence services share the assessment that over the course of 2010, Iran will accumulate sufficient fissionable material to produce two or three nuclear bombs. If the Iranians succeed in dispersing this material among a large number of secret sites, it will reduce the likelihood that the project can be stopped.

Even though Obama has now been in office for seven and a half months, Tehran has not responded to his offer to engage in direct dialogue about the nuclear issue.

At first the talks were deferred in anticipation of the Iranian presidential elections in June, then because of the internal crisis that erupted there in their wake, and now the regime is engaging in additional – and typical – delay tactics. Last week, for the first time, Tehran announced readiness in principle to conduct negotiations with the international community.

Peaceful enrichment

The European Union appears to want to reach a decision on the subject ahead of the authorization of a fourth round of international sanctions against Iran, in the context of the G-20 conference to be held in Pittsburgh in about two weeks. Israel is apprehensive that the Americans may delay a final decision until December.

The impression gained by Israelis who have visited Washington lately is that Obama is gradually backing away from the Bush administration’s fundamental demand that Iran cease to enrich uranium as a precondition for beginning a dialogue.

Subsequently, they believe, the United States will offer Iran the following compromise: The Iranians will be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes (under tight international supervision), the previous sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted and the two sides will reach understandings concerning Iran’s interests in a number of arenas, notably Iraq, ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from there.

Obama would be able to present such an arrangement as an accomplishment. After all, before the election in November he promised to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, not to force it to stop enriching uranium. From Israel’s point of view, however, this will probably not be enough.

According to Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, “The United States was ready to sign an agreement to that effect Thursday. The prospect that Iran will agree, despite the temptation of gaining international recognition for its right to enrich uranium, remains small.”

In his view, “For its strategy to succeed, America needs a broad and binding international coalition. I still don’t see them getting Russia and China to back such a move, and their support is essential.”

Despite its fear that Iran will use the peaceful enrichment go-ahead to continue advancing secretly toward a bomb, Israel might, as a fallback position, accept such a compromise as long as it is clear that the international supervision is strong enough and that, in anticipation of the likely eventuality Iran will be found cheating, a broad coalition to toughen the sanctions is put together in advance.

If the dialogue fails, or never begins, more severe sanctions might be put into place: a ban on the purchase of oil from Iran and on the export of petroleum distillates to it, or even a maritime embargo. But the potential effectiveness of these moves, with Tehran already well past the halfway mark toward achieving its goal, is in doubt.

Looking the other way

So, the moment of truth will arrive at some point between the end of 2009 and the middle of 2010: Should Iran be attacked? American experts agree that this would involve an Israeli strike. It is very unlikely that Obama will be the one dispatching American planes to Natanz.

During the past year, military experts and commentators are increasingly coming around to the view that the Israel Air Force is capable of executing the mission. The Israel Defense Forces was significantly upgraded during the tenure of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The goal, it is argued, is not to liquidate the Iranian project but to set it back. According to this line of thought, if an attack, American or Israeli, causes a couple of years’ delay in the project it will have achieved its aim. Similarly, before launching the attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981, Israel did not foresee the chain of events that finally forced Saddam Hussein to forgo his nuclear ambitions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak take a similar view of the Iranian threat. At least, that is what both their public statements and their comments in closed meetings suggest.

For an Israeli attack to be considered, Israel would need the tacit approval of the Obama administration, if only in the sense that it looks the other way. This is due above all to the necessity of passing through the Iraqi air corridor, as American soldiers will still be in Iraq in 2011. No less important is strategic coordination for the day after: How will the United States react to a prolonged aerial attack by Israel on the nuclear sites and to the regional flare-up that might follow?

These are matters that would have to be agreed on directly between Obama and Netanyahu. The disparity in their policy stances, together with the total lack of personal chemistry between them, is liable to prove a hindrance.

Iran is likely to respond to an Israeli attack by opening fronts nearby, via Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Three years after the Second Lebanon War and at the end of a broad process of learning lessons from that conflict, the IDF is quite confident of its ability to deal with Hezbollah. At the same time, it’s clear that Israel will be subjected to extensive rocket attacks that can be expected to cover most of the country.

A key question would be Syria’s behavior. Israel has a salient interest in having Damascus be no more than a spectator in a confrontation. If the attack on Iran is perceived to have been successful, that is probably how the Syrians will respond.

But an attack on Iran will reopen a decades-old blood feud – and the Iranians have both a long memory and a great deal of patience. With decisions like this looming within a year, it’s no wonder that Netanyahu wants to get the Gilad Shalit affair wrapped up.

A decision to attack Iran would mean that the IDF bears central responsibility for resolving the nuclear threat. In the years when Mossad director Meir Dagan held prime minister Ariel Sharon in his thrall (and even more so his successor, Ehud Olmert), the general belief was that the espionage agency could, together with political efforts, contain the Iranian nuclear project. And, indeed, if Western intelligence services had to push back their forecasts repeatedly over the past decade regarding when the project would be completed, it’s a safe bet that not all of Iran’s delays were due to divine providence. At present, however, no action looms – other than an attack – that is capable of preventing Iran from achieving its goal.

Deep and impressive cooperation exists between the IDF and the Mossad in many arenas. But this is clouded by professional differences and personal friction between the heads of the two organizations. In a few cases, it even looked as though the two were merrily pouring salt on each others’ wounds.



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