debkafile's sources disclose exclusively that, contrary to recent reports published in Washington, Jerusalem – and this site too – it was Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, not the Obama administration, who decided to call off the biggest ever joint US-Israeli military exercise Austere Challenge 12 scheduled for April 2012.
Washington was taken aback by the decision. It was perceived as a mark of Israel's disapproval for the administration's apparent hesitancy in going through with the only tough sanctions with any chance of working against Iran's nuclear weapon program: penalizing its central bank and blocking payments for its petroleum exports.
This was the first time Israel had ever postponed a joint military exercise; it generated a seismic moment in relations between the US and Israel at a time when Iran has never been so close to producing a nuclear weapon.
This week, Netanyahu further orchestrated a series of uncharacteristically critical statements by senior ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon called the Obama administration "hesitant" (Jan. 15), after which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the Americans to "move from words to deeds" (Jan 16).
The underlying message was that the Israeli government felt free to attack Iran's nuclear sites on its own if necessary and at a time of its choosing.
debkafile's sources report that Netanyahu decided on this extreme course after careful consideration when he judged the Obama administration's resolve to preempt a nuclear Iran to be flagging, as indicated by four omissions:
1. Washington has taken no action against Iran's capture of the RQ-170 stealth drone on Dec. 4 more than a month after the event, and not even pressed President Obama's demand of Dec. 12 for the drone's return.
Tehran, for its part, continues to make hay from the event: This week, our Iranian sources report, the Islamic Republic circulated a new computer game called "Down the RQ-170." Players assemble the drone from the components shown on their screens and then launch it for attacks on America.
2. Silence from Washington also greeted the start of 20-percent grade uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo facility near Qom when it was announced Jan. 9. Last November, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned in two US TV interviews (Nov. 17 and 22) that as soon as the Fordo facility went on stream, Iran would start whisking the rest of its nuclear facilities into underground bunkers, out of reach and sight of US and Israeli surveillance.
Barak made it clear at the time that Israel could not live with this development; therefore, the Netanyahu government believes Israel's credibility is now at stake.
3. Exactly three weeks ago, on Jan. 3 Lt. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, Iran's Army chief, announced that the aircraft carrier USS Stennis and other "enemy ships" would henceforth be barred from entering the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz . Yet since then, no US carrier has put this threat to the test by attempting a crossing. Tehran has been left to crow.
4. Even after approving sanctions on Iran's central bank and energy industry, the White House announced they would be introduced in stages in the course of the year. According to Israeli's calculus, another six months free of stiff penalties will give Iran respite for bringing its nuclear weapon program to a dangerous and irreversible level.