Differences between Israel and the United States over a nuclear Iran brought relations to rock bottom this week. Israeli officials frankly and openly criticized the Obama administration out of a sense of being left in the dark and cornered by a campaign of misinformation.
Most of all, they were irked by the way the one-day Istanbul meeting between the six world powers (P5+1) and Iran on April 14 was held up by Washington and Europe as a constructive and successful exercise because Tehran had deigned to keep on talking in Baghdad on May 23, five weeks hence.
In fact, that was the sum-total of its success.
Then, they discovered that, before Istanbul, the US and Iran had reached certain understandings in private, bilateral contacts in Paris – revealed here for the first time. Those understandings rendered the get-together in Turkey a mere formality and were designed to predetermine the “agreed” outcome in Baghdad, i.e. more “progress” and a third session scheduled for the second half of August.
Therefore, unbeknownst to Israel, Washington had prepared the script for the formal negotiating track well in advance. It set out a leisurely timeline affording Iran time to produce more highly-enriched uranium and to tuck its bomb-making nuclear facilities away in fortified underground hideaways, safe from any Israeli attempt to destroy them.
Israel brings out big guns to shoot down false reports
This was the “freebie” to which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referred on April 15, after a long conversation with visiting US Senator Joe Lieberman. He accused the US and the world powers of granting Iran a free five-week run to continue uranium enrichment undisturbed up until May 23 in Baghdad. He pointedly mentioned the US separately.
The point was taken instantaneously – distance being no object.
The US president used the press conference winding up the Western Hemisphere summit in Cartagena, Colombia, to retort: "The notion that somehow we've given something away or a 'freebie' would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they've got some of the toughest sanctions that they're going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don't take advantage of these talks."
It is precisely on this point that Israeli officials felt they were being misled.
For some weeks, Israeli officials have been fighting a rearguard action to fend off the false assertions leaked to the US media. One is that Netanyahu promised President Obama that he would not order an attack on Iran before the November 2012 presidential election. Another, that Israel lacks the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Obama did not get the last word. On Tuesday, April 17, Jerusalem brought out its big guns to rebut what is seen there as a tissue of falsehoods, while also bringing some rare clarity to its intentions.
Three figures in the prime minister’s confidence on the Iranian issue offered revealing statements within hours of each other.
Israel reverts to an implacable front on a nuclear Iran
Defense Minister Ehud Barak led off by demanding a clear-cut outcome from the talks between the six world powers and Iran – quite simply, the discontinuation of Iran’s nuclear program. The bargaining must not drag on for months. Both these demands, voiced in a morning radio interview, were at odds with the Obama strategy for Iran. Barak went on to echo Netanyahu’s charge that the five-week interval between sessions had rewarded Iran with extra time for developing its nuclear capabilities.
Barak then set off for Washington to meet Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The disenchantment coloring his and the prime minister’s comments was rooted, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports, in their discovery that the “1,000 formula” agreed between US and Israeli officials had not been put on the table at Istanbul.
This formula (first revealed by debkafile on April 9) would have let Iran kept 1,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium to the low 3.5 percent grade, while stocking no more than 1,000 kilograms. Its 20 percent uranium would be exported.
Barak’s words indicated that since the Americans had ditched this formula, Israel too had withdrawn its concession on enrichment and reverted to an all-or-nothing stance.
The former Israel military intelligence MI chief, Maj. Gen. (res) Amos Yadlin came next.
"I don't think that if Iran has a nuclear bomb it will rush to drop it on Israel,” he said. “But Israel can’t afford to risk letting a nation not only seeking, but actively preparing for, its destruction, attain a nuclear weapon.”
Dep. PM Ya’alon: Iran will have a dirty bomb in 2012
Yadlin’s point was that Israel cannot afford to subscribe to the Obama administration's willingness to live with a nuclear-capable Iran so long as it stops at the threshold of a final decision to use the resources and technology in its power for actually building a bomb.
In ascending order of resonance, the loudest and toughest decibels came from the third speaker, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is also minister for strategic affairs.
He made six telling remarks in a television interview Tuesday afternoon:
1. Israel no longer believes the Obama administration.
2. "On the Iranian issue, the US and Israel are not in the same boat."
3. By the end of the year, Iran will have a dirty bomb. This was the first time a senior Israeli figure has confirmed that Iran is building dirty bombs on the way to completing its nuclear weapons program.
Three hours later, Tehran, which avidly picks up on every word spoken or printed by the “Zionists,” announced the creation of a new “Crisis Management Center for Nuclear and Radiation Accidents,” to be headed by its Atomic Energy Organization’s director, Dr. Fereydoon Abbasi.
Announcing the appointment, Iran’s civil defense chief Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali said:
"Radiation defense will be carried out at national and provincial levels and includes confronting pollution, monitoring threats, treating the injured, cleaning polluted areas, disseminating information and decreasing threats as well as enhancing the level of preparedness, organizing and creating proper mechanisms for times of crisis and holding drills and public training and information dissemination."
This sounded very much as though Iran was getting ready for an Israeli strike on its stock of dirty bombs after revealing their discovery.
Israel is fed up with Washington’s procrastination
4. Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon any time between April 2013 and 36 months thereafter.
5. Israel does not accept President Obama's demand to wait before striking Iran until the end of 2012, i.e. after the US presidential election. According to Ya’alon, Israel was assured that if in 2013 it still finds it necessary to go to war on Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans might undertake the initiative.
Asked by the interviewer if the US president was cynical enough to give his reelection precedence over the threat of a nuclear Iran, the Israeli minister answered with a curt “Yes.”
6. The stalling on an Israeli decision on military action is over. After the Baghdad talks of May 23, Israel will “review its steps,” said Ya’alon.
This was the first time a competent Israeli figure, a member of the top decision-making level, had mentioned dates in connection with a decision about launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. He would not have spoken without the authority of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem say that within 15 minutes of the interview, telephones were ringing off the hook in Jerusalem with urgent demands for "clarifications" from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
But clarifications were really unnecessary. Israel’s message was crystal clear: We are fed up with being kept in the dark; we don’t trust American diplomatic maneuvers to stop a nuclear Iran; and we’re getting ready to make our own decisions.
The most radical US maneuver – a major concession to Iran – was still to come, as will be revealed in a separate article in this issue.