Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

US-Israel Tension Returns Over Iran

The media in both the US and Israel is reporting that there are growing tensions between the US and Israel over Israel's apparent determination to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear weapons program before the November 6 presidential election if Obama does not provide a clear signal of his intention to use US military force to halt it. The tensions have emerged in a number of ways which indicate a serious deterioration in the US-Israeli bilateral relations, and the mutual trust and confidence between the leaders of the two countries.

One was a remarkable statement last week by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey that any Israeli attack on Iran would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programs.” Dempsey said that such a “premature” attack by Israel would threaten the continuation of the economic sanctions on Iran. He added, in what seemed to be a personal warning from Obama, that, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.”


Additionally, the Pentagon has decided to sharply reduce the number of US troops participating in an important joint military exercise with Israel starting later this month.


The cutback was originally reported by Time Magazine. It follows a US decision to postpone the exercise, called Austere Challenge 12, which was originally scheduled for earlier this year. This time, the exercise will go forward, but on a vastly reduced scale. The number of participating US military personnel has been slashed from 5,000 to between 1,200-1,500. Even more important, the US is also cutting back sharply on the anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems it will be committing to the exercise.


While the US will send several Patriot anti-missile systems to Israel for the exercise as planned, it will not send the crews needed to operate them, so their actual capabilities will not be tested. In addition, the US Navy has reduced the number of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense warships which will be participating in Israeli waters from two to no more than one, and possibly not any.


A Pentagon spokesman refused to comment on the report, noting that the plans for the military exercise was classified, but emphasized that the Israeli military has been notified of any changes.



Unofficially, US officials claim that the reductions are the result of Pentagon budget cuts. According to Israeli media reports, the decision was made in Washington earlier this summer after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s held a reception in honor of visiting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Ynet quoted a member of Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet going one step further by suggesting that the cutback in the exercise was “the Obama administration’s response to the dinner party.”


Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, suggests a less political explanation. He believes the change in plans was due to a desire to avoid the appearance that the US is “preparing something together with the Israelis against Iran.”


According to a statement released last year by assistant secretary of state Andrew Shapiro, Austere Challenge 12 would be, “by far the largest and most significant exercise in US-Israeli history.” One of its priorities was to “improve interoperability” between American and Israeli anti-missile systems which are both intended to protect against an Iranian ballistic missile attack against Israel or the Sunni Arab states in the region which are hostile to the Iranian regime. The US maintains one of its most advanced X-band radar installations in the Negev Desert, which is already linked to Israel’s Arrow long range anti-missile system.


While Israel has several Arrow anti-missile systems, as well as shorter range Iron Dome anti-missile systems deployed to protect some of its most vulnerable cities (such as those near Gaza and the Lebanese border), there are not yet enough of them to protect all of its population centers. Israel is building them as fast as it can.


Bringing US Patriot systems into Israel at a time when war could break out with Iran would have been an important addition to Israel’s security.



Another potential problem, according to the Times report, is that Israeli personnel are not allowed to observe the screens of the X-band radar station in the Negev. This raises the troubling possibility that Obama could withhold the radar data from Israel if it were to stage a pre-emptive attack on Iran without US permission, which then provoked an Iranian counterattack with its long range Shahab-3 ballistic missiles.


Israel’s own radars are able to detect incoming Iranian missiles, but the more advanced US radar array would probably provide a few minutes more advance warning, which could make a big difference to those living in the targeted Israeli cities.


On the record, US and Israeli officials insist that the level of military cooperation is as strong as ever. However, an Israeli cabinet minister who did not allow his name to be used said that, “relations between Israel and the US have soured.” Another cynically declared, that “our relationship has never been better.”


“The US elections are in two months, and there is no doubt that President Barack Obama, if he is re-elected, will make Netanyahu pay for his behavior [pressuring him on Iran],” a security cabinet member said. “It will not pass quietly.”


Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said last week that US officials believe that Netanyahu’s war talk is an attempt to bluff Obama into taking a more aggressive stand against Iran. Indyk said that Obama no longer believes Netanyahu, after the prime minister threatened to launch an attack against Iran in the spring of this year and then failed to do so.



Israeli officials, are said to feel more frustrated than ever by the failure of the US to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, after Israel reluctantly gave in to US pressure earlier this year to give the US more time to resolve the nuclear crisis through tightened sanctions and diplomacy.


In the end, the sanctions on Iranian oil imports proved to be full of holes. In the new round of negotiations with the US and its European allies this spring, Iran was no more willing to bargain over its nuclear weapons program than it was before. The talks broke off in June with no progress.


Since then, Obama administration officials have tried to dissuade Israel from carrying through on its threat to attack Iran with private warnings Netanyahu, more public signals, such as General Dempsey’s comments, the cutback in joint military exercises, and a media campaign by Israeli and US commentators warning of dire consequences from an Israeli attack, coupled with predictions that it would ultimately fail.


Dempsey’s statement is the most blatant declaration yet by the Obama administration that it will not allow Netanyahu to drag it into a war with Israel before the elections, no matter what the Iranian provocation, or new evidence that it is accelerating its pursuit of nuclear weapons.



Another indication of the growing tensions between the leaders of the two countries was an Israeli media report of a shouting match last week between Netanyahu and the current US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, in which the prime minister insisted that “time has run out” for diplomacy.


According to a report in Yediot Acharonot, the meeting took place in the presence of visiting Republican Congressman Mike Rogers. Shapiro responded by telling Netanyahu that he was ignoring Obama’s promise not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, even if that meant having to threaten the use of US military force. At that point, Netanyahu lost his temper and shouted at the US ambassador as the stunned congressman witnessed the confrontation.


Following the confrontation with Shapiro, Netanyahu reportedly complained, “Instead of pressuring Iran in an effective way, Obama and his people are pressuring us not to attack their nuclear facilities.”


On Sunday, Shapiro dismissed the report as a “silly story. The published account of that meeting did not reflect what actually occurred. The conversations were entirely friendly and professional, the way they always are.” He emphasized that the US remains prepared to act against Iran and denied that there is any crisis in confident between Netanyahu and Obama.


He attributed the story to an “overheated narrative in the media right now. . . about tension between the US and Israel over Iran.” Shapiro insisted that there is “very close coordination [between the US and Israel] and very intense work we’ve done together to address an issue that we perceive the same way, which is the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” He added that Obama and Netanyahu and their advisors consult regularly, and enjoy an excellent relationship.


Asked why the US has not yet given Iran a clear ultimatum to stop the nuclear program “or else,” Shapiro answered: “I think there is no mistaking what the US is prepared to do.”



The White House says it is not alarmed by last week’s report by the nuclear weapons inspectors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. They found that since May, Iran has doubled the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Fordo underground installation near Qom, 80 miles from Teheran, that is generating 20% enriched uranium, more than needed by civilian reactors and just one step below bomb grade fuel.


“We are closely studying the details of the report, but broadly speaking it is not surprising that Iran is continuing to violate its obligations,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.


According to the IAEA, Iran now has 2,140 centrifuges at Fordo and has a 20% uranium production capacity of 200 kilograms in a year, 80% of the amount needed to build a nuclear weapon, in addition to a much larger stockpile of low grade enriched uranium.


The IAEA says that all of the new centrifuges at Qom use an obsolete design from the 1970’s, and that Iran has still not been successful in its attempting to upgrade its centrifuge technology. Nevertheless, adding more of the old type centrifuges will still result in an increase Iran’s production of fissionable nuclear weapons material.


The IAEA report added that it “has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”


They are referring to a research site on the military base at Parchin where Iranian scientists have been testing explosives for a nuclear warhead trigger. The IAEA confirms reports that Iran is attempting to clean up the site to destroy all evidence of the nuclear weapons work there. Five structures have been demolished at Parchin, along with power lines, fences and paved roads in an effort to hamper an IAEA investigation of the site if Iran ever grants their inspectors access to it.



The IAEA said that it has doubts that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons effort “after 2003.” The IAEA has finally contradicted the notorious US 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which President George W. Bush used as his excuse for stopping Israel from attacking Iran in 2008.


The IAEA has evidence that the Iranian scientists who headed another secret nuclear weapons program before 2003, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and his associates, restarted operations last year in the Teheran suburb of Mojdeh. They are developing designs for nuclear warheads for Iran’s ballistic missiles in research labs for metallurgy, chemistry and explosives testing, much like the one now being dismantled at Parchin.



Notwithstanding, the White House insists that there is still no direct evidence that Iran has reactivated its nuclear weapons program. It also insists that there is still time for sanctions and diplomacy to end the Iranian nuclear threat.


Israel has clearly received Obama’s message that he does not want it to attack Iran until after the presidential election. Iran has gotten the same message, and its leaders are convinced that they are safe from attack at least until November. “This is why the Iranians are issuing threatening statements against the US. Washington’s hesitant policy is making the Iranians feel freer to move ahead with their nuclear program,” an Israeli official said.


Another media report says that Netanyahu and Barak are now demanding that Obama give them written assurances that the US will attack Iran by a specific date if it has not halted its nuclear program by then. Obama is refusing to comply and is daring Israel to attack Iran without US help.


That is the meaning of General Dempsey’s statement that he does not “want to be complicit” in an Israeli attack. Of course, none of this can be confirmed, especially while there is a presidential election campaign in progress. Otherwise, Obama would have to stop reassuring Jewish voters, campaign contributors and reporters that he “has Israel’s back.”


Another indication that the reports might be true, was a statement by Vice President Joe Biden Sunday attacking Mitt Romney for indicating in his acceptance speech at the GOP national convention that he is “ready to go to war” against Syria and Iran.


Biden quoted Romney as saying, “it was a mistake to end the war in Iraq and bring all of our warriors home. He said it was a mistake to set an end date for our warriors in Afghanistan and bring them home. He implies by the speech that he’s ready to go to war in Syria and Iran. He wants to move from co-operation to confrontation with Putin’s Russia.”



Meanwhile, friends of the Obama White House at the New York Times are helping it to put more pressure on Israel to hold its fire until the presidential election. In a front page article Monday, the Times discussed “a range of steps short of war that it hopes will forestall an Israeli attack,” while forcing Iran to take negotiations more seriously. These include an ongoing arms buildup for US allies in the region, continuing to increase the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf, US military exercises scheduled to be held in the Gulf later this month, and an addition to US anti-missile radar stations in the region to be built in Qatar. Such moves have failed to impress Iran’s leaders up until now.


The Times article suggested that other possible moves against Iran are now under consideration at the White House. These include a new covert operation to sabotage its nuclear program, attacks on its oil refineries and electrical power grid, or giving military aid to Syrian rebels to hasten the overthrow of Iran’s most important regional ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the article also recognized that all of those options could backfire by convincing Iran’s leaders to speed up its nuclear weapons program rather than stopping it.


With regard to Israel’s needs, the Times reports an internal debate within the White House, which it freely admits is “tied to election-year politics” about how explicitly the US should warn Iran of military consequences if it continues its nuclear weapons program.


Obama’s advisors are described as divided between those who believe that Israel needs more explicit assurances of US determination to halt Iran’s nuclear program while others argue that Israel is trying to bluff Obama into “a military commitment that he does not yet need to make.”



Earlier this year, Obama told an AIPAC audience of Israel supporters that the US could not tolerate or try to contain a nuclear armed Iran because it would set off a nuclear arms race in the region. Now the Times reports that the White House is considering stepping back from that commitment.


This is consistent with a prediction by former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who last week expressed doubts that President Obama will ever order an attack on Iran, before or after the presidential election. Bolton encouraged Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program now, on its own, while it still can. In an interview with Maariv, he predicted that Obama will change his policy against trying to contain a nuclear Iran “the day after Iran possesses nuclear weapons.”


Bolton said that the leaders of Iran are convinced “that the United States under Obama’s leadership will do nothing. And of course, they are afraid of Israel, but I think they trust Obama to pressure Israel not to do anything, and until now this has proved right.”


He also said that “Israel, like any other country, has a legitimate right to self defense,” noting that it “has twice attacked enemies that were developing nuclear weapons [Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007], and it has the right to do so in this case as well.”


Bolton laid the blame for this situation partially on the Bush administration for failing to resolve the problem while it was still in office, as well as Obama.



As Iran continues to approach what Ehud Barak has called, the “zone of immunity” in which an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities would be ineffective, Netanyahu is stepping up the pressure for a commitment from the White House. On Sunday, he told his Cabinet that “the international community is not setting clear red lines for Iran, and as a result, Iran does not believe that it is determined to stop Iran’s nuclear programs. Until it sees such determination, it will not stop, and Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”


The latest IAEA report, further confirmed Israel’s fears about the progress Iran is making on its nuclear weapons program, and increases the pressure on Israel’s leaders to launch an attack before it is too late for it to do so.


A front page story in Yediot Acharonot further extended US fears. It claimed that the US had sent a message to Iran’s leaders through two European countries assuring them that the US would not join an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and asking Iran not to attack US interests in the region if Israel were to launch such an attack.


White House spokesman Jay Carney categorically denied the report Monday as “false” and “completely incorrect.”


An Israeli government official said that the report is illogical. “There would be no need for the US to make such a promise to the Iranians because they realize the last thing they need is to attack US targets and draw massive US bombing raids.”


Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said, “I don’t know what kind of messages Yediot Acharonot heard, but I think the Iranians understand … that if they cross a line towards a nuclear bomb, they could encounter very strong resistance, including all the options that are on the table, as Obama has said.”



Some US military experts claim that the underground nuclear facility at Fordo is already beyond the ability of Israel’s military to destroy by air attack. The best that an Israeli air strike could do is block the entrances, whereas the US Air Force, with its latest bunker busting bombs, could still penetrate and destroy the complex.


“They can’t do it right without us,” a former adviser to Obama said. “And we’re trying to persuade them that a strike that just drives the program more underground isn’t a solution; it make it a bigger problem.”


But it is also clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Without a clear ultimatum from Obama to Iran’s leaders to stop its nuclear program now or face an attack by the US military, the pressure on Israel’s leaders to approve an attack before the presidential election is mounting.


An official within the Obama administration told the New York Times that he recognizes that the pressure on Israel’s leaders to act is growing week by week. “Their clocks are ticking at a higher speed,” he said, while within the White House, everything is on hold until the November election.



According to one Israeli official, the irony of this situation is that, “if the US does makes it clear to Iran that it is prepared to go to war, there will be no need for anyone to go to war.”


Apparently, Netanyahu is asking that Obama publicly draw a red line for Iran in return for agreeing to refrain from attacking. Obviously, Israel’s leaders are well aware of the risk of going to war with Iran, but they also cannot afford to expose the country to a nuclear risk.


So far, Obama is unwilling to take that step, suggesting that he starts from the premise that assuring his re-election by holding off an Israeli attack on Iran is more important than Israel’s survival.


That is not an attitude that anyone in the Israeli political establishment would accept. If it becomes the widespread impression, then Netanyahu and Barak will have no trouble forming a consensus behind a pre-emptive strike on Iran, both within the security cabinet and the country at large, regardless of the military risks.



Some believe that the last chance for Netanyahu and Obama to get together on a common strategy for Iran will be later this month, when the Israeli leader intends to come to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting to complain about the Iranian nuclear threat. But given the history of bad blood and growing hostility between the two, there is worry that their clashing personalities could get in the way of a mutually beneficial agreement on how to handle Iran.


In short, there is apparently a growing crisis of confidence and mutual distrust between the two sides, while Iran’s leaders continue to bluster and openly call within international forums for Israel’s destruction. Last week, at the meeting of 120 non-aligned countries in Teheran, the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the presence of the Secretary-General of the UN Security Council, again called for the destruction of Israel.


The method that he endorsed would be to give all of the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian Arab refugees the power to simply vote Israel out of existence. However the violently anti-Israel rhetoric of Iran’s leaders, their longstanding support for international terrorism and their determination to build, at all costs, nuclear weapons that can reach Israel, speak to their willingness to fulfill their repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map of the Middle East.



It is all too easy for those of us living in the safety of the United States to tell Israeli leaders what to do in this difficult situation. Israelis are still divided over the question, and rightfully afraid of the consequences of alienating the president of the United States. However, the closer Iran is allowed to come to its nuclear goals, the more Israelis seem to be coming down in favor of a pre-emptive strike. They seem to agree with Ehud Barak’s conclusion that as dangerous as an attack on Iran would be for Israel now, including the damage it would cause to the US-Israeli relationship, trying to live with a nuclear-armed Iran would be much worse.


On the other hand, no responsible Israeli leader is eager to expose the country’s populations centers to an Iranian missile attack, no matter how effective its defenses may be.


We must daven that Hashem protects Eretz Yisroel from this looming threat.




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