But Israel remains determined to judge for itself when Iran’s nuclear progress will become unstoppable, and reserves the right to attack and destroy it before it loses the ability to do so. The threat of such an Israeli strike, and its dangerous and unpredictable consequences, have created a crisis that has overshadowed every other issue in the region. It has added new tensions in the already difficult relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, and has put Obama in a delicate position. Because he needs Jewish support in his re-election campaign, he must convince Jewish voters and contributors that he is a reliable friend and protector of Israel, while at the same time he is stepping up the pressure on Israel to deter it from attacking Iran now.
Immediately after Netanyahu returned to Israel, Obama and European leaders launched a coordinated public relations campaign whose aim is to pressure Israel’s leaders into hold off their attack. As a result, it seems that these leaders are much more concerned about the consequences of an Israeli attack than the prospect a nuclear-armed Iran.
The crisis over Iran is also influencing Israel’s reactions to other security developments. For example, when Gaza terrorists launched a barrage of more than 200 missiles against the cities of southern Israel last week, the attack was viewed more as an opportunity to test Israel’s new Iron Dome missile defense systems under combat conditions than as a serious threat on its own. Its success in shooting down many of those missiles, and preventing many casualties and damage, was seen as an encouraging sign that if Israel does attack Iran, and is subjected to massive missile counterattack, it might be able to survive the exchange with minimal losses.
Under ordinary circumstances, domestic political pressure would have forced the Israeli government to launch a much more aggressive retaliation against Hamas and the terrorists launching the missiles from Gaza, but in the shadow of the larger threat from Iran, the exchange is being viewed as just a preview of a much larger battle to come. In addition, because of the need to prepare for a possible war with Iran, Israel’s leaders were careful to avoid any escalation in Gaza which could tie up the Israeli military.
IRAN CRISIS AFFECTING EVERYTHING
Other serious issues in the region are also being viewed from the perspective of their potential impact on the standoff with Iran.
For example, the revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and his slaughter of thousands of civilians, is no longer being viewed solely as a humanitarian crisis. Of equal interest is Assad’s role as Iran’s most important ally in the region, and the impact his fall would have on Iran’s efforts to dominate the region. Without Assad, Iran would become more isolated, and it would become more difficult for it to provie arms and support to its Shiite terrorist allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.. As long as Assad’s army is preoccupied with putting down the Syrian revolt against him, it becomes less like that it would join in any Iranian retaliation against Israel. Furthermore, if Assad were to fall, Hezbollah would be cut off from much of aid it now receives from Iran through Syria, and its leader might become more reluctant to launch its missiles against Israel as part of an Iranian counterattack.
The Iran crisis has even involved the Palestinian Authority, whose aspirations for international recognition have been largely overshadowed by other events in the region over the past year. PA officials are now publicly accusing Iran of interfering with its attempts to form a national unity government with Hamas.
Hamas itself has become divided internally between pro and anti Iranian factions. Its international leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal, has abandoned its headquarters in Damascus due to the growing sentiment against Assad in the Arab world. It has moved away from Iran and is trying to align itself with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood leaders who are coming to power in Egypt and other countries across the region. But at the same time, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, eager to maintain the flow of Iranian weapons and financial support, seems to be moving closer to Iran than before.
AWAKENING THE WORLD TO THE IRANIAN THREAT
Undoubtedly, the desire to prevent Israel from launching an attack was the primary motivation which finally forced the US and Europe to take serious economic action against Iran. The sanctions have also encouraged Iran’s other regional foes, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, which have long been quietly urging the West to attack and overthrow the Iranian regime, to come out more openly against it.
The current crisis is due to the fact that for years the world largely ignored Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat. That threat could have been easily eliminated years ago if the West had taken the same tough economic actions against Iran then which they are taking now. Unfortunately, they may have waited too long, allowing Iran to get too close to a nuclear weapons capability to be stopped now.
Obama insists that Israel doesn’t need to attack Iran now, and that it can trust him in the end to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But Israel has a long tradition of military self-sufficiency. Its leaders have always been very reluctant to place the security of Israel in the hands of any outside power, even a longtime friend and ally such as the United States.
Israel’s leaders are well aware of the great difficulties in mounting a successful attack. It would be the most difficult challenge to Israel’s military capabilities since the Six Day War, and could ignite a region-wide war. But they dare not risk allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, and are therefore determined to strike first, regardless of the difficulties, while they still can.
Israel has spent years preparing for this confrontation with Iran. It has practiced long range air attacks with Western allies during military training exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, and developed the world’s most advanced missile defense system to protect its cities from an Iranian counterattack.
ISRAEL CONVINCED THAT TIME IS RUNNING OUT
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has recently expressed confidence that Israel’s military defenses would allow it to survive an Iranian missile counterattack without suffering massive civilian casualties, but he also admits that Israel’s losses in such an encounter would still likely be very painful. Yet, as dangerous as an attack on Iran might be now, Israel’s leaders are convinced that it would pale in comparison to the negative impact on Israel’s security from Iran being allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. They are also convinced that the time left for Israel to stop that from happening is fast running out.
In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday, Barak said that still harsher international sanctions against Iran would be needed to successfully pressure it to abandon its nuclear program. He also insisted that Israel’s leaders will not leave Israel’s fate in the hands of others to decide.
“The world, including the current US administration, understands and accepts that Israel necessarily views the threat differently than they do, and that ultimately, Israel is responsible for taking the decisions related to its future, its security and its destiny,” Barak said.
IRAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM APPROACHING THE “ZONE OF IMMUNITY”
Later, in a statement to the media, Barak said that Iran’s nuclear weapons program “is steadily approaching maturation and is verging on a ‘zone of immunity’ – a position from which the Iranian regime could complete its program without effective disruption, at its convenience.”
Several months ago, Barak started the current crisis when he said publicly that Israel must not wait until Iran actually has a nuclear weapon in its possession. He explained that Israel must strike and cripple Iran’s nuclear program before it acquires enough know-how and components to be build a bomb any time it wants to.
That task has become much more difficult since Iran began transferring key elements of its nuclear program to a new facility in Qom which is buried deep under a mountain, making it nearly impervious to air attack. Israel’s leaders believe that they must destroy that facility before it becomes fully operational, or else lose the ability to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
Most countries no longer challenge the idea that a nuclear armed Iran would be a menace to world peace. Evidence uncovered by IAEA inspectors in recent months has exposed the military nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, Iran’s refusal to open its facilities for inspection or to explain the evidence the IAEA has already found, is convincing proof that the longstanding Israeli fears about Iran’s nuclear intentions are well founded. Yet Western leaders still seem more alarmed by the prospect an Israeli attack on Iran than the consequences of Iran being allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
OBAMA’S WAIT AND SEE ATTITUDE
President Obama publicly stated during Netanyahu’s visit that he does not think that the threat from a nuclear armed Iran could be contained. Yet his wait and see attitude towards that threat ever since he took office belies that claim. If he really believed that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a menace to the world, he would have acted sooner, and much more forcefully, to prevent it.
During their meeting at the White House, Netanyahu rejected Obama’s argument that Israel could afford to wait for the new sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear program peacefully. He is convinced that because Iran is so close to its nuclear goal, it will not give it up, despite the considerable pain being inflicted by the new sanctions.
Because Israel is still poised to act alone in attacking Iran to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, Obama and his Western allies have stepped up the public pressure against an Israeli attack.
Last week, after British Prime Minister David Cameron came to the White House to consult with Obama, he added his voice to those urging Israel to delay an attack. The British leader said in an NBC interview that he didn’t “think as we stand today that military action by Israel would be justified. I don’t think the Israelis should take that action now. We told them they shouldn’t and said we wouldn’t support it if they did.
“We’ve been very clear. It’s very, very important [Israel] knows it has strong allies like America, like the United Kingdom, but I don’t support action now because, frankly, we’ve got more road to run in putting in place sanctions and putting in place tough measures against the regime and saying to them they need to take a different path,” Cameron said.
US AND EUROPE CLAIM THERE IS MORE TIME TO STOP IRAN
The justification for Obama’s wait and see attitude is the belief in the US intelligence community that it will take Iran another year or so to create a nuclear weapon, and perhaps another two years to shrink it to fit into the warhead of one of its long range ballistic missiles.
The US also believes that it would be able to detect any Iranian crash effort to complete a nuclear weapon in plenty of time for the US military to prevent that from happening.
While the the leaders of the US and Great Britain may be willing to risk relying on US intelligence capabilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s leaders cannot afford to take a chance that the US intelligence could be wrong. They see Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon as a deadly threat to Israel’s survival, and believe that its leaders are fully capable of using it to try to carry out their threats to wipe Israel off the map, chas v’sholom.
The West is in a very different position. For them, an Iranian nuclear weapon is not a direct threat to their survival. While Obama has said that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be a serious setback to US Middle East strategy, the war against terrorism and international arms control, for the US and Europe, it would not be a matter of national life or death. That is why Obama, despite his insistence that he is not bluffing, still seems be unwilling to take military action.
OBAMA AFRAID OF REPEATING BUSH’S MISTAKE
Obama does not want to be accused of making the same mistake as his predecessor, George W. Bush, who justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the world on the claim that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. After the invasion, Bush was politically embarrassed when evidence of Saddam’s nuclear program could not be found.
That may be why Bush later pulled back from his own threats to take military action against Iran. In 2007, the Bush administration issued a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which refuted the available evidence that Iran was working on developing a nuclear weapon. Bush then refused Israel’s requests for the military equipment it needed to carry out such an attack on its own.
At about the same time, Obama was campaigning for president based largely on his opposition to Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq. He argued that attacking Iraq was a mistake.
US STILL IN DENIAL OVER IRANIAN NUKES
Since taking office, Obama has refused to act on the new evidence about the military nature of Iran’s nuclear program which has been uncovered by the IAEA. That is why the latest Obama administration NIE on Iran still refuses to accept its nuclear weapons quest as a proven reality.
For Israel’s leaders, the new IAEA findings are confirmation of their worst fears about Iran’s intentions. Yet despite the rapid progress that Iran is now making towards nuclear immunity, Obama is still trying to convince Israel’s leaders that the sanctions will work and that Israel doesn’t need to take military action yet.
ISRAEL BELIEVES THAT TIME HAS RUN OUT
In the days before he met with Netanyahu in the White House, Obama issued a string of public promises that he would support Israel’s right to defend itself. Yet he also declared that there was time to stop the Iran without the need to resort to military action.
The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu settled nothing. While in public, they seemed to be friendly and in agreement, in private, they could only agree to disagree, with Netanyahu warning that time was running out before Israel would need to launch an attack, and Obama insisting that Israel could afford to wait a little longer for the sanctions to take effect.
CAN ISRAEL TRUST OBAMA’S WORD?
In public statements, Obama has sought to assure Israel’s friends that the “US has its back,” and that it can safely rely on his promises to attack Iran if all else failed to stop its nuclear program. However, Israel’s leaders are still reluctant to place responsibility for Israel’s survival into his hands.
There is at least one area where Obama’s view coincides with Netanyahu’s. In his address to AIPAC, the day before he met with Netanyahu, Obama said that there has been “too much loose talk of war. . . For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”
Israel has heeded that advice, Since Netanyahu’s visit, warnings of imminent war with Iran from other Israeli officials have all but ceased, while Netanyahu has kept up the pressure by continuing to emphasize the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear threat. On Sunday, Netanyahu said, “Iran, whose leader foments terrorism and violence around the globe and calls for our destruction … this regime must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons.” How Israel would actually prevent that was left to the imagination.
In several public statements during Netanyahu’s visit, Obama repeatedly insisted that his threat to use the US military against Iran’s nuclear program was not a bluff. This still remains to be seen.
THE WHITE HOUSE PR CAMPAIGN AGAINST AN ATTACK
Since that visit, the White House has orchestrated an intensive media campaign trying to discredit Israel’s rationale for striking Iran. Employing the cooperation of liberal media outlets in the US and Israel, the campaign has featured statements by US security officials that Iran has still not committed to building nuclear weapons.
The administration leaked to the New York Times the results of a US military war game which analyzed a scenario in which Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran retaliated against a US Navy ship in the Persian Gulf, costing hundreds of American lives. The NY Times article neglected to inform its readers that the outcome of a war game is largely dependent upon the assumptions made in setting up the scenario, and can change radically when those assumptions are altered.
The White House media campaign has also featured warnings by prominent figures on Israel’s political left, and anti-Israel American Jewish groups, such as the J Street lobby, that an Israeli attack on Iran would lead to disaster. They express doubts that such an attack could significantly delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and remind everyone that it would trigger a deadly rain of thousands of missiles on Israel’s cities launched by Iran and its terrorist allies.
The media reports also claim that even Israel’s intelligence community accepts the American view that the evidence available today still does not support the conclusion that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons.
HOW ACCURATE IS US INTELLIGENCE ON IRAN?
However, there is also this caveat: a “former senior intelligence official” is also quoted by the NY Times as saying that he is only “about 75 percent confident in the assessment that they [Iran] haven’t restarted their [nuclear weapons] program.” In other words, he believes that there is a 1 in 4 chance that the US position that Iran is not yet actively building nuclear weapons is wrong.
Those odds may be good enough for Obama and European leaders. But Israel’s leaders do not have the same luxury of waiting until they are absolutely certain of Iran’s nuclear intentions before acting. They take Iran’s explicit threats against Israel quite literally.
Obtaining accurate information about what is going on inside Iran is difficult, both because of the closed nature of Iran’s society, and the lack of US intelligence assets on the ground. Most of what the US does know about what is happening in Iran is based upon satellite surveillance and electronic intercepts. Nevertheless, the US intelligence community says that it is confident that it would be able to spot a crash effort by Iran to finish a nuclear weapon in time for the US to stop it.. However, without on-site inspection, it is impossible for the US to know for sure exactly what is happening right now inside Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.
The Obama administration argues that recent events in the region have seriously weakened Iran and stymied its ambitions to become the most powerful force in the Middle East.
The US confidently predicts that the Assad regime in Syria is doomed to fall, and with it, much of Iran’s ability to project power in the region. In addition the growing hostility toward Assad in the Arab world for attacking its own people, Iran is also being criticized for continuing to support him.
OBAMA’S RELUCTANCE TO CONFRONT IRAN
In fact, ever since he took office, Obama has always been reluctant to take strong action against Iran or to confront its leaders over its nuclear weapons program. Initially, he wasted almost a year trying to reach out to the Iranian leadership, which rejected his overtures as a sign of weakness.
Then he wasted another year in a hopeless effort to get the UN Security Council to toughen its sanctions against Iran. The effort was blocked by Russia and China.
The turning point came late last year, when the patience of Israel’s leaders with US promises to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat run out, and they began to issue open threats of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. At about the same time, additional evidence revealed by the IAEA eliminated any remaining doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions.
Those two developments put the Obama administration on the spot. In a deliberate attempt to create international panic, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that Israel was likely to attack Iran before June. Political considerations during this presidential election year indicate that if Israel wants Obama’s support, it had better launch its attack before the November election.
In the face of such developments, the administration could no longer stymie efforts by Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill to pass tougher sanctions on Iran. Obama and Europe realized that the only hope of staving off an Israeli attack was to take the serious economic measures they had been trying to avoid for years. After years of fighting behind the scenes against toughewr sanctions, Obama has made an about face, and, especially in front of Jewish audiences, begun taking the political credit for enacting them.
DID THE US WAIT TOO LONG TO DO THE RIGHT THING?
The US and the EU have finally imposed an international embargo on the import of Iranian oil, while denying Iran access to international credit and finance markets. Last week, intense US and EU pressure resulted in Iran being denied access to the SWIFT electronic market for worldwide funds transfers, completing the isolation of its international oil trade.
Israel says that these moves might have persuaded Iran if they had come a few years ago, but now, with Iran so close to its goal, they are probably too late. Despite Obama’s public claims to the contrary, Iran’s leaders still suspect that Obama is bluffing, especially when he talks about implementing the military option. That is why they are still talking defiantly about never giving up their nuclear program.
They also suggest publicly that Obama’s determined opposition to an Israeli first strike at this time may also prevent that as well. The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, said of Israel over the weekend, “They make a lot of fuss about it but don’t dare to attack Iran. They are like dogs that keep barking but are not for attacks. Israel won’t make the mistake of attacking Iran because it’s not prepared to play with its own destiny.”