Everything was set for the United States to move speedily towards new, stiff sanctions against Iran for its nuclear intransigence, when Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak arrived in Washington February 25 to tie up the last ends with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The official cover for the Israeli minister's trip was a lecture at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He had come straight from a general staff evaluation of the just-concluded five-day military command exercise staged by the IDF's Northern Command February 21-25.
This exercise was invaluable in that it tested operational communications at the command level in a potential four-front conflict in which Israel might come under attack from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iran. Many of the dislocations of Israel's military confrontation with Hizballah in 2006 arose from communications failures between the Chief of Staff and the regional commanders. The latest exercise focused on correcting that fault and improving the operational links between the chief of staff and northern command heads.
With Clinton, Barak went over Washington's steps for expanding the sanctions regime against Iran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report.
Their discussion was grounded in the assumption that the US and Israel were fully synchronized on this policy and that the White House had decided to put in place the punitive measures compiled by a special State Department task force for Iran – without necessarily waiting for the Security Council to act.
Clinton speaks with deceptive clarity
As part of the joint planning, Israel sent its Minister for Strategic Affairs, Moshe Yaalon and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to Beijing to try and persuade the Chinese into letting sanctions go through the Security Council without opposition, in other words, to withhold their veto.
Fischer is a familiar figure to Chinese officials from his years at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. He was able to advise them authoritatively that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon capacity would push the world's oil prices up by at least 30-50 percent, to the serious detriment of the Chinese economy.
Clinton laid out for Barak's benefit the five Iranian elements targeted by the new sanctions her department had drawn up, made stronger if the US were to be joined by Britain, France, Italy, Germany and additional European governments:
They are listed here by our Washington sources:
1. All Iranian banks would be boycotted by the United States and its European allies – and not just a selected number as at present.
2. Participating governments would prevent investments going through for Iran, mainly by withholding government and banking insurance from investors.
3. Should a pump break down in one of its oil or gas fields, Iran's energy industry would not be able to find any Western supplier for new equipment or obtain credit for a purchase and so eventually break down.
4. All the Revolutionary Guards Corps' military, technical, financial and economic arms and interests within Iran and abroad would be subject to restrictive measures. In addition, individual senior commanders and business executives would be blacklisted, be hit by travel bans, their assets frozen and their overseas operations curtailed.
5. Third-party governments and business companies engaged in "re-export" activities on Iran's behalf would qualify for punitive measures. Such steps would target non-Iranian firms, especially in Dubai and other parts of the Gulf as well as the Far East, who shop on world markets for the goods required by Iran, some of which are proscribed under three rounds of former UN sanctions against Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Israel asks the US to “listen with Jewish ears”
When the Israeli minister asked Secretary Clinton when the fourth sanctions regime would be enforced, she said as soon as the first week of March, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report. They would be introduced gradually and be fully in place, she hoped, by the end of the month.
Clinton was so clear and definite that Barak did not question her about whether the Obama administration intended waiting for the Security Council to act, or give up and go through with the measures unilaterally.
A few hours after seeing Clinton, the Israeli minister arrived at the Pentagon to meet Secretary Gates for a conversation that was different in content yet complementary to the talks with the secretary of state.
It fell under two main headings.
In the first, Barak presented a list of weapons systems Israel needs urgently to stand up to a four-front assault, chiefly different types of missiles and electronic systems, according to our military sources.
The minister complained that the list was still unapproved although it had been submitted to Washington three months ago and the sand in the hourglass for war was running out fast. He stressed that all the requested systems needed to be present in Israel before any flare-up of hostilities – or at least present at the US emergency depot in the Israeli Negev.
Gates promised to review the list and send his reply in the coming days.
In the second part of their conversation, the US and Israeli defense officials discussed differences over the virtues of armed force against Iran.
How far is Washington reconciled to a nuclear-armed Iran?
Referring to the internal debate in the Obama administration, Barak said he was aware of a school of thought developing in Washington which said America could live with a nuclear Iran. He used the term '"mitigate and contain a nuclear Iran'. As they talked, the minister spoke of a “semi-nuclear Iran,” in reference to the willingness of parts of the administration to accept an Iran able to build a nuclear weapon but not yet having done so.
I do not share this willingness, said Barak. I am therefore asking you (Gates) for one favor: Ask your president to instruct your Iran experts and analysts to listen to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad "with Jewish ears," so as to understand what is going through Israeli heads when they hear him.
He made the request on Feb. 25, little knowing that three days later, on Feb. 28, the Iranian president would lay bare his anti-Israel doctrine in the mostly shockingly vicious anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli terms, beyond even the preaching of the most extreme anti-Semitic and radical Muslim circles.
(More about this in separate items on US Syrian policy and Ahmadinejad's purpose in Damascus)
Gates offered no direct answer to Barak's appeal.
They parted with a decision for Barak to return to Washington for another meeting with Gates at the end of March, by which time the fourth round of US and European sanctions should have gone into effect.
Uranium is important, but not the ultimate issue
Taking that as a given, Barak delivered his lecture at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sharing with his audience for the first time certain revealing details of Iran's military nuclear program.
Our sources have obtained the lecture's pre-edited content:
I think that the last report of Amano, the new head of the IAEA, is highly important because it shows that the international agency can, if the will is there, call a spade a spade and stop all these verbal gymnastics about what the Iranians are really doing.
If they develop neutron sources, if they make an implosion, experiment on heavy metals with an array or arabesques of simultaneously activated detonators and if they are working so intensively on two hemispheres with (a sizeable quantity there ?), it means that they are not just trying to create a Manhattan Project-like crude nuclear device. They are trying to jump directly into the second- or second-and-a-half generation of nuclear warheads that could be installed on top of ground-to-ground missiles with ranges that will cover not just Israel but Moscow or Paris for that purpose.
And I think that we can like it or not. I believe that most of us do not like it, but we cannot close our eyes to what’s really happened in such a delicate corner of the world. If Iran will not be stopped from moving there, it will reach at a certain point nuclear military capability and one can close his eyes and see what it means.
A nuclear Iran means the end of any nonproliferation regime because Saudi Arabia and probably another two or three members of the Middle Eastern community will feel compelled to reach nuclear capability as well. And it will open the door for any third-rate dictator who has a nuclear ambition to understand that if he is strong enough mentally to defy any kind of threats from the world, he will reach nuclear military capability.
Clinton's shocker en route to Buenos Aires
Barak's message was tailored to his audience of key political, intelligence and military figures in the US establishment, some of whom are active in Iranian policy-making. He was telling them that "you" may be fixated on the uranium enrichment controversy but, however important this issue may be, it is less critical for the big picture of Iran's nuclear activities. What really counts today is that Iran has moved on to developing neutron sources, creating an implosion, and carrying out experiments on heavy metals with an array or arabesque of simultaneously activated detonators – these are the truly important issues.
Upon his return home, Sunday, February 28 to Israel, Barak lost no time in briefing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his Washington talks. They agreed that, as far as Israel was concerned, American and possibly European sanctions were finally on track.
They were startled two days later to hear Clinton telling reporters during her flight to Buenos Aires:
"We are moving expeditiously and thoroughly in the Security Council," she said. "I can't give you an exact date, but I would assume sometime in the next several months."
Israeli leaders realized with a sinking feeling that the Obama administration had no intention of launching any tough sanctions any time soon, without or without European cooperation, except in the unlikely event that they could survive Russian-Chinese opposition intact at the UN Security Council.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources note that this is not the Obama administration's first success in stringing Israel along. In the winter of 2009, the White House promised Netanyahu and Barak sanctions would go into effect by the end of December.
The end of December came and went without any real progress towards sanctions – then as now. US officials insist that the administration is standing by its sanctions policy despite difficulties with a Security Council motion. They have no answer when asked why the US is not going ahead unilaterally.