US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Tuesday night that he doesn’t believe Israel has made a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear program. “As a sovereign country, they will ultimately make decisions based on what they think is in their national security interest,” he said, but he believed there was “still room to continue to negotiate” and “additional sanctions were beginning to have an additional impact.” The Secretary added that the Israeli prime minister agrees that military action should be the last resort.
At their joint press briefing in Washington, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “I am not privy to [Israel’s] planning. So what I’m telling you is based on what I know of their capabilities. And I may not know about all of their capabilities. But I think it’s fair… to say they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources say that neither official said anything new.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have reiterated firmly that the government had not reached a decision on whether to attack Iran. They have fully agreed it must be the last, not the first, option.
The fly in the ointment of US-Israeli interchanges on the subject is to be found in Gen. Dempsey’s rather than Panetta’s phrasing. For instance:
1. Dempsey: “I may not know all of their [Israel’s] capabilities.”
debkafile: The US army chief may know all there is to know about those capabilities but may not be fully apprised of how they are to be used, or when. That doesn’t mean he has no notion of Israel’s plans of operations, but the tight compartmentalization of top-level and IDF operational decision-making on the Iranian topic necessarily results in him not being privy, as he said himself, to every last detail of Israeli planning for action against a nuclear Iran.
This does not rule out Israel, at the critical moment, forewarning Panetta and Dempsey – and through them President Barack Obama – about the event to come.
2. Dempsey: “But I think it’s fair… to say they [Israel] could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”
debkafile: This premise is accurate: Neither Netanyahu and Barak or the IDF generals and security chiefs, past and present, who urge Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear capabilities (They are numerous although antagonists are featured on front pages.) presume that Iran’s nuclear program can be leveled to the ground at one stroke. Israel hopes to hold it up for a couple of years.
But this raises another question: Isn’t it too late for even the United States with its superior capabilities to aspire to total Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
Neither Panetta nor Dempsey discussed this US capacity but, according to our sources, while the Americans can certainly achieve more and longer-lasting destruction than Israel, they too can no longer destroy the program in its entirety. But they could delay it for four to five years, double the grace period Israel could achieve.
It must be stressed that the longer the world waits for diplomacy or sanctions to take effect and holds back from direction action, the faster the options for even slowing down Iran’s nuclearization shrink – not just for Israel but for the United States too.
The last moment for the United States and Israel, separately or together, to have destroyed Iran’s program went by without action four years ago in 2007. Today, the best they can achieve is to temporarily hold Iran back from building a bomb.