Was it mere coincidence or did history's wry sense of humor decree that on Wednesday, October 21, two mutually conflicting occurrences would take place in the US-Israel-Iran arena.
Precisely when Dr. Mohamad ElBaradei laid his draft compromise proposal before Washington, Tehran, Moscow and Paris in Vienna, to save their talks from stalemate, the US and Israel launched Juniper Cobra 10, the biggest and most complex joint military exercise they have ever held. Its objective: to drill the systems defending Israel against a potential Iranian missile attack.
An hour into the exercise, word from Vienna sharply reduced the chances of such an attack. The ElBaradei had compiled a document proposing the shipping of low-enriched Iranian uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing. Conventional intelligence wisdom predicted Iran would release its missiles against Israel in reprisal for an Israel strike on its nuclear installations. But what if the new development in Vienna tied Israel's hands for a year at least?
The questions asked now, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, are hard to answer: If the international community buys the ElBaradei proposal which extends legitimacy to Iran's nuclear projects, how can Israel bomb them? And if its enriched uranium stock is sent to be reprocessed in Russia and France, who would Israel attack?
What happened Wednesday, therefore, was that Israel's entire Iranian policy, built by the Ariel Sharon,
Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu governments around harsh international sanctions backed up by the threats of military action, capsized.
Israel's government and military leaders would have welcomed the proposal put before the Vienna meeting had they been sure it would well and truly put an end to Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon. But no one knows for sure who wrote the proposal. The impression is that the IAEA director did not pen it alone. Israel suspects it is being confronted with another unreal document like the US National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007, which asserted with “high confidence” that Tehran had “halted its nuclear weapons program” in the fall of 2003.
Arms race goes to high gear
Today we have learned two things about that estimate
1. The facts it contained were false.
2. It was compiled by US intelligence mandarins to hold President George W. Bush back from supporting or aiding an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. In this, it succeeded.
That is why Thursday, October 22, Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded to know who was really behind the ElBaradei draft.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly Middle East sources note that, along with Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo and the Persian Gulf emirates are anxiously questioning the meaning of the unexpected direction taken by the Iranian nuclear crisis since it became the subject of international diplomatic talks.
They are confused because first, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin assured them earlier this month that they had formed a coalition with the emirates to encircle Iran and block its expansionist designs. The Gulf states were offered tons of Western munitions to defend themselves against a nuclear threat from Tehran. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 416 of Oct. 9: Washington and Moscow Advance a Step at a Time- Starting with Iran)
Then, not two weeks later, in Vienna, the same rulers went haring off in the opposite direction leaving the Gulf emirs gasping; suddenly, Iran's enrichment project was kosher.
By Thursday, Oct. 22, Middle East and Persian Gulf capitals had decided coldly that Washington was unreliable and untrustworthy and had abandoned the Arab nations to Iran's mercies. And just as Israel was unlikely to scrap its military option against Iran, so too Middle East nations must go their own way and expedite their quest for a nuclear strike capability against the Islamic Republic.
If Tehran can, why can't Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara? They asked.
If anyone in Washington believed the IAEA director's initiative would slow the Middle East nuclear arms race, they were wrong. It has just shifted to top gear.
Juniper Cobra 10: a mutual testing ground
That is why, in its first hour, the joint American-Israeli exercise Juniper Cobra 10 (See HOT POINTS of Wednesday, October 21) became a testing-ground for Washington to explore Israel's intentions on Iran, and for Israel to second guess the Obama administration's next direction.
In any joint military exercise, the partners' intelligence services study each other's performance and methods, try and learn what objectives they are geared up for and how far doctrine is applied to operational practice.
For the US, this knowledge is critical for assessing whether Israel means to strike Iran and if so when.
Washington still had no clear answers, even after US Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen got together secretly with Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi and their French opposite number Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin in the Normandy War Room on October 10.
The French general gathered that Israel planned to attack Iran after December when the diplomatic track between Iran and the six powers ran into the sand. Mullen gained a different impression but was not sure if it represented Israel's final position.
So Juniper Cobra 10 was seen as an opportunity for Washington to move in close and find out whether or not Israel has readied its air, naval, missile and counter-missile interceptor forces for war on Iran. The administration also needs to know if developments at the Vienna talks Wednesday strengthened or weakened Israel's hawks.
Israeli participants in the exercise are also keeping their eyes skinned to gauge America's defense commitment to the Jewish state in a war, especially if Washington promotes relations with Iran.
The conclusions the two participants reach about each other in the course of their joint exercise will be translated into hard input for their political, military and intelligence decisions in the weeks and months to come.
Sensitivities on this score may have delayed the start of the exercise by a week. Neither side felt that the screens erected to hide their intentions were quite ready and so Juniper Cobra was held up until Oct. 21.