Asked whether Israel has promised to give the US advance warning of an attack, Obama avoided giving a direct answer, by declaring that the US and Israel “have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had. We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this – hopefully diplomatically.”
When asked once again whether the US might use military intervention to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Obama gave the standard ambiguous answer. “We’re not taking any options off the table,” he said. “I’ve been very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region.”
He added that, “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do. I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.”
In fact, the official US government view of the Iranian situation seems to lack any real sense of urgency. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “It is always possible to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue.” He added that the US remains “committed to the so-called dual approach that combines diplomacy and the strengthening of the pressure. We are confident that we always have the time and space for a diplomatic solution.”
ISRAEL BELIEVES THAT IT IS RUNNING OUT OF TIME
It is clear, however, that Israel disagrees, and that its leaders believe that the window of opportunity for a “diplomatic solution” is rapidly closing.
The report from an IAEA official Tuesday that Iran is expanding the capacity of its new, underground Fordow plant at Qum, by installing a second set of cascades of high speed centrifuges to take over the high grade enrichment work from the original facility in Natanz is another reason for Israel to attack as soon as possible. The IAEA also reported that the visit of its inspectors to Iran’s nuclear facilities last week failed to resolve any of the open questions about suspicious evidence indicating that Iran was working on the design of nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles.
The Israelis are not convinced by the US and Western argument that the consequences of a preemptive strike would be worse than allowing Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capability. They are convinced that an attack is worth the risk, even if it only delays the Iranians from achieving their nuclear goals by a year or two.
KHAMENEI DECLARES WAR ON ISRAEL
Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a nationally televised address, that an Israeli strike on Iran would only damage US interests in the Middle East “10 times over,” and make Iran even stronger.
Khamenei did admit that the new US and European economic sanctions on Iran are “painful and crippling,” but insisted that “Iran will not back down.” He then said, “These sanctions are aimed at dealing a blow to us, but in fact, they are of benefit to us. They will make us more self reliant. We would not have achieve our current level of military progress if sanctions were not imposed on Iran’s military sector.”
He also threatened to reveal a letter he says was sent by President Obama to Iran in an effort to end the nuclear standoff.
Khamenei then made what some experts on international law said amounts to an unprecedented open declaration of war on Israel.
“From now onward, we will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world, and we are not afraid of declaring this,” Khamenei said in the speech he delivered at Teheran University.
“The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off, and it definitely will be cut off,.” he said, suggesting that Israel has become “weakened and isolated” in the Middle East.
Khamenei boasted of the part which Iran played in supporting Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza in their recent wars with Israel in 2006 and 2008.
“We got involved in the anti-Israeli issues, which resulted in victory in the 33-day and 22-day wars,” Khamenei said.
DRIVEN BY A MESSIANIC BELIEF
The militancy of Iran’s religious leaders is based upon their belief that its efforts to destroy Israel will bring to pass a prophetic text of Shiite Islam called a Hadith, which predicts the Messianic reappearance of the long missing 12th Imam, Muhammed al-Mahdi. A sect of Shiites called Twelvers, which includes Ayatollah Khameini, believes that Mahdi, who was born in present-day Iraq in 869, never died, and has only gone into hiding. They believe that his return will bring peace to the world and establish Islam as the universal faith.
However, the Twelvers expect the Mahdi to appear only when the world is wracked in utter chaos and war. That may be why Iran’s leaders are acting as if they deliberately want to provoke a war and nuclear showdown with Israel, in order to hasten the Mahdi’s arrival. In addition, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said in many of his speeches that the primary mission of the country’s Islamic Revolution is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam.
There is increasing evidence that the latest round of US and European sanctions is causing havoc with Iran’s economy. The value of Iran’s currency on international markets has dropped drastically increasing inflation, and Iran is finding it much harder to sell its oil abroad.
Meanwhile, the Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved a bill that would further increase the economic pressure on Iran. The measure would put pressure on a Belgian-owned institution called Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) which is the main agency facilitating most international financial transactions to eliminate all dealings with Iranian financial institutions.
NETANYAHU STILL TALKING TOUGH
Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced plans to visit the US in early March to address the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington and, presumably, to consult with US leaders over Iran strategy. In the meantime, he continues to talk about the need for Israel to maintain its military strength and its preparedness to defend itself, rather than relying on others.
In remarks broadcast on Israel Radio, he told his Cabinet Sunday, “In this region, the only thing that ensures our existence, security and prosperity is our strength. Over the past few days we’ve been reminded about the environment in which we live. We’ve heard the Iranian leader’s statements about destroying Israel, and we’ve seen the Syrian army slaughtering its own people. We are obligated to continue to develop the military, economic and social strength of Israel. This is the only guarantee for the existence of peace and the only defense for Israel should the peace unravel. Developing Israel’s strength is this government’s main issue.”
On Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the annual Hertzliya Conference on security that, “the world has no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program is steadily nearing readiness and is about to enter a zone in which it will be immune to attack. If the sanctions don’t achieve their goal of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program before that point, there will arise the need for Israel to weigh a military operation.” Many believe that the immunity that Barak was referring to is the added difficulty of attacking Iranian nuclear operations once they are moved to the new facility in Qum, which is buried so deep underground that it may be impervious to attack even by penetrating “bunker busting” bombs.
LATER MAY BE TOO LATE
“The dividing line may pass where the Iranians decide to break out of the [nuclear] non-proliferation treaty and move toward building a nuclear device or weapon, but at the point . . . that would make a military strike impractical,” Barak said.
Barak denied US allegations that Israel has not properly weighed the potential military cost of an attack. He claimed that never before in Israel’s history had such an action been so thoroughly analyzed and debated by its leaders. While US officials are more worried about Iran reacting by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic, driving up the cost of crude oil, Israel is worried primarily about direct retaliation on Israeli cities.
“The assessment of many experts around the world, not only here, is that the result of avoiding action will certainly be a nuclear Iran, and dealing with a nuclear Iran will be more complicated, more dangerous and more costly in lives and money than stopping it.” he said.
He warned those who think that Israel should wait for the new sanctions to take effect, “those who say ‘later,’ may find that later is too late,” and added, “We mean what we say.”
TOO MUCH ISRAELI WAR TALK?
In an unusual comment to the Hertzliya conference, the Defense Minister referred to the policy debate within the government before going forward with such an attack. He said that the decisions facing the government today are “no less fateful” than those which faced the founders of Israel in 1948, and its leaders just before and during the wars of 1967 and 1973. “A leader has to decide when to act and when to wait, when and what to declare and when to keep silent,” Barak said.
All of this talk of war and retaliation is making other members of Israel’s security establishment nervous. Amos Yadlin, a retired general who once served as director of army intelligence said on Sunday that the public speculation about an attack on Iran may have “reached the point where it has crossed the line and is beginning to cause damage. . . I think there is a danger of escalation that will get out of control. Right now we should do what Israel knows how to do well – keep quiet.”
Concern about Israel’s intentions with regard to Iran’s nuclear program goes beyond the US. French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that Iran may face military action by Israel if it doesn’t stop its threats and nuclear program.
“We know that some in Israel are seriously considering” military intervention, Sarkozy said. “If Iran continues its senseless race to get the bomb and continues to threaten its neighbors, we are facing the risk of a military intervention.”
At a security conference in Munich, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that a military strike, “will create a disaster.” He called for a negotiated solution instead, ignoring the fact that Western attempts to pursue such negotiations have been frustrated by Iranian stalling tactics for years.
WINNING THE PSYCHOLOGICAL WAR
There is an old saying that those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. But in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, there has been an ongoing psychological and public relations war going on by both sides.
Normally, key components to successful military attacks are secrecy and surprise, so when an attack is truly imminent, the side launching the attack is usually quiet. But if your intent is to scare your enemy into surrender without using military force, then threats and bluster are your only real weapons, and they can be very effective. As Prime Minister Netanyahu once said, “the paradox is that if there is a credible military option, you won’t have to use it.”
But American officials apparently believe that when it comes to attacking Iran, Israel’s decision makers are not bluffing this time. Israel believes that the newest round of US and European sanctions on Iran, while useful, have come far too late, and will probably not, in the end, be sufficient to force the Iranians to back down.
Israeli leaders know that their public threats to attack Iran were the main catalyst which finally pushed the US and Europe to impose the latest sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking sectors, which will further weaken Iran’s already fragile economy. But in the end, they still believe that in the end, they will have to launch an attack, and that they therefore must be prepared for Iran’s retaliation.
WHY ISRAEL THINKS THE RISK MAY BE LOWER THAN MOST BELIEVE
Israeli strategists believe that the main threat would be from the missiles in the hands of Hezbollah, which would be fired from South Lebanon. Barak said in November that the estimate for the maximum number of casualties they would cause would be less than 1,000, rachmana litzlan.
Israeli strategists believe that, depending on the exact circumstances of the attack, the Iranians may not retaliate at all, just as Syria didn’t after an Israeli air strike destroyed a secret Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.
There is still a very lively public debate within Israel over whether mounting a preemptive attack on Iran would be more or less dangerous than allowing it to get nuclear weapons. Those who oppose it argue that the rewards, briefly delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, is not worth the likely military cost of the operation and the risk of its failure. They also worry about the unpredictable consequences of such an attempt in the region and the diplomatic community.
But others say that Israel has no choice but to delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by any means possible, regardless of the risks. They suggest that even if Iran does not use the weapons to attack Israel immediately, it will use nuclear blackmail to try to thandcuff Israel’s ability to defend itself, as well as opposing Arab regimes, in order to gain further dominance in the region. Furthermore, allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons would further accelerate the arms race in the region, with dangerously unpredictable consequences.
ISRAEL MAY PREFER TO GO IT ALONE
Some even argue that it would be to Israel’s benefit to attack Iran without direct US help, in order to prove to the new leaders of Arab states now in transition, such as Egypt, that Israel is still too strong to risk attacking.
One Israeli official is said to have told the US, “You stay to the side, and let us do it,” anticipating a limited number of Israeli strikes triggering a “short-war” with Iran lasting a few days, followed by a UN-brokered cease-fire.
As far as the timing of such an Israeli attack, Defense Minister Barak may have given us a clue when he asked the US last month to postpone a joint military exercise that was supposed to culminate in a live-fire phase in May. Barak did not explain his request, and merely apologized, saying that Israel couldn’t afford to devote its military resources to the annual exercise this spring.
According to Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, the US and Israel have a “significant analytic difference” over how close Iran is to shielding its nuclear program from an Israeli attack. General Aviv Kochavi, the head of Israeli military intelligence, told the Hertzliya conference that he believes that Iran already has enough fissionable uranium to produce four nuclear weapons. How long it would take Iran to put all of the pieces they have together into a practical weapon is a more difficult question to answer. Some say it would just take a few months, while others say it would take a year.
HOW THE ATTACK WOULD BE STAGED
There has also been a good deal of media speculation about how an Israeli attack on Iran’s heavily defended nuclear installations would be carried out.
NBC News quoted unnamed US and Israeli officials as suggesting that Israel would use its highly accurate Jericho II ballistic missiles, with a range of 1,500 miles, as well as unmanned drones to attack such large targets as the Natanz uranium enrichment plant with high explosives.
For more difficult targets, such as the new underground nuclear facility at Qom, special bombs dropped by F15i jet aircraft would be needed to achieve the necessary penetrating power, accuracy and explosive force. The NBC report suggested that to assist in those missions, Israeli commandos might be dropped onto the ground nearby to illuminate the targets with infrared or laser beams to guide the bombs. They would also collect intelligence, and do a damage assessment after the attack.
Furthermore, the officials told NBC they believe the Israelis will target only critical Iranian nuclear facilities whose destruction would delay their nuclear weapons program the most.
The report said that the Israeli military believes that they have a better than 50 percent chance of accomplishing their mission, but that even if it is a success, another one like it may be needed in a few years.
The officials interviewed also agreed that since the US will not take an active part in the mission, for security reasons Israel is unlikely to give the White House much advance notice of the attack.
US MAKING CONTINGENCY PLANS
Reportedly, the Obama administration is now busy trying to come up with various scenarios for the US response to what the Iranians might do after an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. These range from beefing up the defenses of US Navy ships in the region against a possible Iranian missile attack, to responses to Iranian efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the impact to the US economy from the spike in oil prices that would ensue.
Most of these scenarios call for the US military to stay out of the fighting between Israel and Iran. There are two exceptions to that. The first would be a major Iranian attack on Israel’s population centers. Obama administration officials insist that the basic US commitment to Israel’s security would require the US to come to Israel’s defense in such a scenario.
The second exception would be if Iran’s retaliation involves a direct attack on US assets in the region or the US homeland. That possibility was raised at the Hertzliya security conference by another Israeli minister, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
IRAN’S THREAT TO THE US MAINLAND
He claimed that a missile testing site near Teheran that was destroyed by a huge explosion three months ago killing some of Iran’s leading missile engineers, was working on developing a new family of intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of about 6,000 miles. That would be sufficient to reach some of the largest cities in the United States. Currently, the biggest missiles in Iran’s arsenal have a range of about 1,200 miles, sufficient only to reach Israel and countries in Eastern Europe.
The missile base was a project of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards under the direct control of the ayatollahs. Yaalon suggested that the target they had in mind for the new missiles was the enemy that the ayatollahs call, “the Great Satan. It was aimed at America, not at us.” Now imagine such missiles armed with nuclear warheads. That is why, Yaalon said, Iran’s nuclear program is a threat not only to Israel but to other nations, including the US, creating “a nightmare for the free world.”
Another report Sunday said that China is now selling Iran its technology to enable it to build longer range missiles, increasing the risk to the US and its allies.
In his remarks Sunday, Obama downplayed the danger of direct retaliation by Iran against the United States, saying, “We don’t see any evidence that they have those intentions or capabilities right now.” However, just last week, Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said in testimony before a Senate intelligence committee that Iran’s plot to kill the Saudi envoy in Washington DC which was foiled last year showed that Iran’s leaders “are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”
ALL JEWISH INSTITUTIONS ON HIGHER ALERT
Meanwhile, as a precaution, Israeli facilities in North America and around the world, as well as various Jewish communal institutions, have been put on high alert for fear of an increased danger of attack by Iranian terrorists. The potential targets include Israeli embassies and consulates, as well institutions, such as the Jewish community center that was bombed by Hezbollah terrorists in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people.
An Israeli security bulletin warned that terrorists might try to use forged Israeli passports “in order to pass as Israeli citizens at the security checks in Israel and around the world. Israeli security authorities may consider an Israeli citizenship as a [criterion] to proceed with a more lenient security check in secure sites such as airports.”
In response to the perceived threat, local and regional law enforcement agencies in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Toronto and other cities in North America with large Jewish populations have stepped up local patrols at Israeli and Jewish sites, and issued alerts for them to be particularly vigilant about their security procedures.
Federal security officials say that they have been on high alert ever since Iran’s plot to assassinate a Saudi official in Washington, DC was uncovered last year.
“That was an eye opener, showing that Iran did not care about any collateral damage,” the federal official said.
While Israel has always appreciated the seriousness of Iran’s malevolent intentions, US officials are first beginning to understand the utter ruthlessness of this foe.
Perhaps with that knowledge the White House will finalize realize that by attacking Iran’s nuclear capacity, Israel will be defending the US mainland as well as its own people.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.