One thing was obvious in the addresses of US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the UN General Assembly last week: both were as firmly entrenched as ever in their approaches to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Therefore, if anything, the gap between them is wider than ever.
Netanyahu stands by his red line demand for curbing a nuclear Iran, while Obama refuses to commit the United States to any direct action whatever.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Jerusalem sources clarify their main lines of dissent:
Few doubt that if he is reelected for a second term, the US president has no intention of giving the order for a military strike to terminate Iran’s nuclear program and will resort to every means to hold Israel back from attacking on its own.
Before Netanyahu's UN speech of Sept. 27, Israeli officials characterized US-Israel discussions as revolving around military coordination for an attack between Washington and Jerusalem and the two armed forces.
Since then, there is much less show of ongoing discussions on agreed demands for presenting to Iran and a decline in mutual trust. Obama and Netanyahu appear to suspect each other of using those discussions to promote their respective agendas.
(See the next item in this issue on progress in drafting Obama's "End of the Road" document).
Israel suspects US-led Hormuz exercise aimed at stopping attack
Israelis shrugged cynically when President Obama assured the UN on Sept. 25 that the US will "do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” – even though his aides pointed to the president’s use for the first time of “must” as indicative of his earnest intentions.
They were negatively impressed by his comment a day earlier to NBC – less by his opening remark: “Now I feel an obligation – not pressure but obligation – to makes sure that we're in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues because it affects them deeply” – and more by his last words – “And I am going to block out any noise that's out there.”
Israelis view with mistrust certain administration actions to block out their “noise.” That, for instance, is how they perceive the episode of the huge US-led Western mine-sweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz led by Vice Adm. John Miller, head of the US Naval Forces Central Command.
They suspect the exercise aimed just as much at preventing an Israel attack on Iran as against the strait’s closure.
Thirty nations contributed 3,000 sailors and 20 warships, to the exercise – three of them US aircraft carriers with Strike Groups – although the third never arrived up until now – and 10 mine sweepers, besides two helicopters and special naval divers.
Although the exercise ended on Sept. 27, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources point out that most of the US-led Western fleets were still present in the Persian Gulf at the time of writing this article. It would be very hard for Israel to embark on military action against Iran in those circumstances without prior coordination with the US and its armada. And, so, the ships are still there, some Israeli sources point out – despite the fact that they offer Iran a tempting target.
Romney lines up with Obama on a US attack on Iran
Tehran appears to have got the same message. How else explain Iran’s rare indifference to the massive Western naval presence opposite its shores – no close monitoring of the alien warships’ movements or orders placing Iranian forces high alert?
In the event, say our military experts, the exercise was not a success. It failed to exhibit the concerted determination and capabilities necessary for defending the strategic strait against an Iranian blockade. The participating navies lacked coordination and proved unable to defend the waterway, at least in the early stages of a clash. A dozen minesweepers plus even the new American high-tech Kingfish sonar device were unequal to dealing with the swarms of undersea mines Iran may drop in the waterway by Iran and the strike groups would be seriously challenged by hundreds if not thousands of Revolutionary Guards Corps bomb-laden speedboats.
Iran’s leaders, though sorely tested by escalating economic woes brought on by Western sanctions, might find cold comfort in the words of American politicians.
Reflecting the US president’s resistance to using force against Iran, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said after a phone call to Netanyahu on Sept. 28 that he does not believe military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons will be necessary. Although he called this development "the greatest national security threat that we (the US) face," his solution for dealing with it did not sound too different from the president’s.
It is worth noting that Romney did not say where he stood on a unilateral Israel attack on Iran.
A more comprehensive presentation of the Republican candidate’s views on the question may be offered in the coming pre-election foreign policy debate between the presidential contenders on Oct. 10.
But for now, Tehran may well infer that military action is not on the agenda of either of the candidates who may elected on Nov. 6.
US and Israeli speeches befog intentions
Netanyahu, in his UN speech, while urging timely steps to halt Iran’s advance to the nuclear threshold, likewise omitted any reference to military action within the time frame he set out – between the 70 percent level where Iran is today and the 90 percent level it is expected to reach by late spring, early summer of 2013.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources said it would be wrong to interpret that omission as opening a window on Netanyahu’s intentions: He was deliberately abstruse to keep US political and military leaders in a state of uncertainty – just as US leaders, Democratic and Republican alike – and not just American military and intelligence chiefs – prefer to keep Israel guessing about their future actions on Iran.
Both chose to draw dense fog over their future moves.
A more revealing signal flashed in Jerusalem a week after the speeches: Defense Minister Ehud Barak suddenly found himself Tuesday, Oct. 3, the butt of an allegation from the prime minister and his Likud ministers that he broke faith with Netanyahu by presenting his own, more accommodating, views on Iran during his last trips to the US, instead of sticking to the prime minister’s line.
Barak denied the charge. But if he really is on his way out after working in close tandem with Netanyahu for four years, it would be a sign that Netanyahu’s stance is hardening on defense and, specifically, Iran. Unless the row blows over, the figure best placed to take over from Barak would be Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, hawkish Minister of Strategic Affairs and a former chief of staff.
Does Israeli ambiguity reflect a hardening of positions?
Still keeping the cards close to their chests, Israeli officials refused to be drawn out by a speculative article run in the Sept. 27 issue of Foreign Policy: The Entebbe Option – How the US Military Thinks Israel Might Strike Iran, by Mark Perry.
According to this fictitious scenario, Israel will mount “a high-risk but high-payoff commando raid that would land a special forces unit outside of Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The unit would seize Iran's enriched uranium and transport it to Israel.”
Although Perry quotes senior Pentagon and US military circles for his article, Israeli officials ignored it on the grounds that it was designed to elicit a response and give away a sliver of real information.
A senior American military source remarked to DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Perry’s American source simply lifted the supposed mode of operation for Iran from the Israeli special forces-air raid of September 2007 for the demolition of the Iranian-North Korean-built Syrian plutonium reactor.
There, the Israeli special forces team first stripped the reactor of operating documents and proofs of nuclear collusion between Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang, before blowing it up along with another secret nuclear facility.
Anyway, they say, it makes no sense to apply this mode of operation to the Fordo underground enrichment facility near the Iranian holy city of Qom, where conditions are quite different.