An eerie silence has descended on Israel's air waves after weeks of contentious polemic over whether or not Israel should resort to military action to pre-empt a nuclear-armed Iran. This is not because the debate has gone away or because America has put its foot down against a unilateral attack.
(On Nov. 18, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that an Israeli attack on Iran would set back its nuclear program by one or two years at most. It would also have implications for U.S. forces in the region and consequences for the world economy.)
The lull in the heated debate is accounted for by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources by the fact that Israeli leaders have come to a final decision, which is to attack Iran's nuclear program within the next six months, i.e., up until the end of June, 2012 – barring unforeseen changes in Iran.
The changes that could hold up Israel's plan of attack would including the fall of the Iranian regime under the weight of sanctions – highly improbable (see separate article on Iran's focus on producing a nuclear weapon); a military coup in Tehran installing a junta which undertakes openly or confidentially to freeze the nuclear bomb program, or the transfer of all Iran's nuclear facilities to fortified sites underground.
The decision in Jerusalem does not preclude a fresh outbreak of public sparring over in the coming months over if, when and how to strike Iran, as certain events move into place.
Israel urged to hold its horses for new sanctions next spring
In fact, the Netanyahu government came to its decision this week after the Obama administration's fresh round of sanctions against Iran's energy and banking sectors omitted to target Iran's central bank a step that cold have brought the Islamic Republic's financial and energy sectors to collapse.
It was avoided out of concern that sanctions going all the way would send oil prices skyrocketing and sow havoc in the world economy – even before an attack.
There is still one international station to pass, our sources report, before Israel goes into action:
In late March or early April 2012, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) convenes against in Vienna for another review of the Iranian nuclear program in the light of the damaging evidence of work on a nuclear bomb reported by the nuclear watchdog earlier this month.
Israel was dismayed by the IAEA board's wishy-washy resolution on Friday Nov. 20 calling for "intensified dialogue to find solutions to unresolved issues."
Iran's ambassador Ali-Asghar Soltanieh responded mockingly that the resolution would merely strengthen Tehran's determination to pursue its nuclear activities.
In confidential contacts this week, the US tried assuring Israel that the IAEA was constrained by the difficulty of most countries to swallow the evidence the agency's director Yikiya Amano had presented of Iran's active development of nuclear weapons. They needed time to digest it and in the spring it would be possible to approach new sanctions.
Barak makes Israel's first definitive statement of intent
This was one of the messages conveyed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by US Undersecretary of State William Burns when he visited Jerusalem and Ramallah this week for another failed bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was also what President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was referring to Tuesday, Nov. 22 when he said there was still time to stop the Iranians by sanctions and international pressure.
The first definitive statement of Israel's intention came from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his CNN interview on Sunday, Nov. 20.
He said then with rare clarity: "It's true that it won't take three years – probably three quarters (of a year) – before no one can do anything practical about it [Iran's nuclear weapons program], because the Iranians are gradually, deliberately entering into what I call a zone of immunity, by widening the redundancy of their plan, making it spread over many more sites."
When pointedly asked about a deadline after which a strike would be impossible, he replied, "I cannot tell you for sure, nor can I predict whether it's two quarters or three quarters of a year. But it's not two or three years."
These remarks from Barak show Israel has determined to go on the offensive against Iran within the coming six months and stop playing ball with the Obama administration's foot-dragging.
The fear now is that Washington will hold Israel back until new sanctions are imposed in spring 2012 and then demand a further delay until they take effect.
Ehud Barak tried to shut the door on this maneuver by arguing that the time frame is not dictated by either America or Israel but by the tempo of Iran's progress toward developing a weapon and how quickly it is able to whisk its uranium enrichment and bomb-making facilities into fortified structures under ground.
A six month gap to be bridged
In DEBKA-Net-Weekly 515, of November 4, we wrote in the lead article that Obama has decided to attack the nuclear program in the fall, timing it for the run-up to the US presidential election.
The gap between the US and Israeli dates for striking Iran has therefore shrunk to just six months.
Neither our Washington nor our Jerusalem sources can report that the White House and the offices of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are in conversation on ways to bridge this gap.
Such talks may start in mid-January 2012 after the New Year break.
Only then, will we discover if President Obama has come to a final decision on whether America exercises its military option against Iran or takes part in the Israeli operation.
A third scenario worth considering is that the US will launch the second strike around September three or four months after Israel delivers the first strike – as per the time frame charted by Defense Minister Barak.