Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that Iran has already decided to become a nuclear state. He urged action before it is too late, indicating that Iran must be stopped before it crosses the threshold to complete the construction of a nuclear weapon.
This statement came at the end of his talks in Holland with Dutch leaders Thursday, Jan. 19. It reached Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had just arrived on his first visit to Israel as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and gave him due notice of the subject of his conversation with the prime minister the next day.
This was also the message conveyed to President Barack Obama.
Because Netanyahu has kept the Iranian cards close to his chest, his words caught his own ministers, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, wrong-footed when in the last 48 hours they asserted that Iran had not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb and there was still time for US-led sanctions to work.
In any case, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem and Washington advised taking these assertions with a large pinch of salt for two reasons:
1. When an informed Israeli official talks about Iran not yet building a nuclear weapon, he means that Tehran has not yet begun fitting a combat-ready nuclear warhead atop a missile.
2. None of the spokesmen or pundits on the Iranian issue knows exactly where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stands on the Iranian nuclear program or is in a position to judge whether, when or how he may order the Israeli Air Force and missiles to go into action against Iran's nuclear sites.
Netanyahu's only confidant on his military plans is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But our sources say that even he has been kept in the dark on Iran.
Netanyahu keeps his own counsel on Iran
Barak's only card is that the prime minister is constitutionally barred from picking up the phone to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, or any other general, and giving them direct orders, the way the US President as commander-in-chief can call top American generals. Netanyahu can only communicate instructions to the chief of staff after first obtaining the defense minister's consent and approval.
But Netanyahu did not have to check with the defense minister before he informed President Barak Obama in their late-night phone conversation Thursday, Jan. 15, that Israel was canceling the Austere Challenge 12 joint US-Israeli war game scheduled for April.
So when word of the exercise's postponement was announced from Washington last weekend, it sent shock waves through Israel's military and security establishment. They had received the impression that the Obama administration had made the decision, which was unprecedented in the history of US-Israeli joint drills.
They received their second shock when the US was seen halting the transfer to Israel of substantial numbers of troops who were scheduled to take part in joint practices of anti-missile systems including highly sophisticated interceptors.
It looked to Israel's defense and military chiefs like a serious and dangerous diversion of US military plans for war with Iran and/or a potential regional flare-up in its wake.
Israel's security elite received its third shock Tuesday, Jan. 17, when debkafile's military sources revealed for the first time that it was Netanyahu who called off the exercise – not President Obama.
Netanyahu does not trust sanctions to work or Obama to strike
On Wednesday, Jan. 18, Defense Minister Barak tried to limit some of the damage to US-Israel relations. He told an Armed Forces Radio interviewer that the government was still "very far from a decision" about attacking Iran over its nuclear program.
He was trying to smooth the path to the talks ahead of Gen. Dempsey with Israel's security and military chiefs.
But Washington is fully aware that until the US general hears these words from the horse's mouth, i.e., Prime Minister Netanyahu neither he nor Washington can be sure whether Barak spoke for himself or represented Netanyahu.
As to the prime minister's motives in calling off the joint exercise, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that it was his way of "banging on the table" over what he sees as US procrastination on Iran on several counts:
1. Netanyahu does not trust American and European sanctions to produce the desired result of slowing Iran's momentum toward a nuclear weapon, or believe that President Obama will ever give the order to strike Iranian nuclear sites. And even if he does at some point, it will be too late: Once Iran starts building its first nuke, it will have the capacity to produce at least three more every year and build a veritable nuclear arsenal.
The prime minister is utterly convinced that Israel cannot afford to let Iran attain nuclear weapons. He is also aware of the solemn pledges he made in his 2008 election campaign and thereafter to stop Iran going nuclear. Breaking this pledge after nearly three years at the helm would discredit him in the eyes of the Israeli voter and very likely cost him his chances of being returned to power in the 2013 general election.
Washington neglects to pick up Iran's gauntlets
2. Netanyahu feels that Israeli understandings with the US on the Iranian nuclear issue are eroding Israel's defense credibility and deterrent strength. A high-ranking Israeli source complained this week that President Obama and his Iranian policy strategists have chosen to ignore the gauntlets the Iranians keep on throwing down at their feet, starting from the downing of the US RQ-170 stealth drone over Iran on December 4.
Tuesday, Jan. 17, Tehran after ignoring President Obama's demand Dec. 12 for the drone's return, made a sneering offer to send Washington a small toy model of the missing drone in red plastic.
The Obama administration also turned the other cheek to the announcement on Jan. 9 that 20-percent grade uranium enrichment had begun at the underground Fordo plant.
For three weeks, Washington has avoided challenging the threat made on Jan. 3 by Lt.-Gen. Ataollah Salehi, commander of the Iranian Army, to forcibly bar the USS Stennis aircraft carrier or "any enemy ships" access to the Strait of Hormuz.
So far, no American aircraft carriers have put the Iranian threat to the test, notwithstanding Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's definition of freedom of navigation through the strategic strait as a red line for the United States.
The Iranians didn't bother to answer the letter President Obama sent their Supreme Leader last week.
Israel committed to action after Fordo went on stream
Israel finds it hard to understand why Obama administration officials made such a hullabaloo about the assassination of the senior Iranian nuclear scientist Prof. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, deputy chief of the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, in North Tehran on Jan. 11. Their emphatic condemnation and denial of responsibility implicitly directed the finger at Israel.
3. Three months ago, Defense Minister Barak warned twice that Israel would not be able to live with the wholesale transfer of Iran's forbidden nuclear facilities underground, starting when Fordo went on stream. Barak noted that from that moment on, neither the US nor Israel would have access to those sites for surveillance. They would find themselves totally in the dark about Iran's nuclear activities. Before that happened, he warned, Israel would have to take action.
Netanyahu is of the opinion that Israel cannot afford to lose credibility in the eyes of Iran. He also thinks that by letting these Iranian provocations go by without response, Washington is not only encouraging Iran to persevere in its course but also strengthening the hands of its allies, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the radical Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
(See a separate item in this issue on Syria).
Tehran for its part does not credit the US-Israel rift and believes it is an exercise in deception to pull the wool over Iranian eyes. (More on Iran's take in a separate article.)