US President Barack Obama predictably failed to persuade his visitor Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to call off plans for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities – or hold off until early 2013. Although the prime minister warned repeatedly during his five days in Washington that Israel “won’t wait much longer,” their White House talks Monday, March 5 did finesse their separate timetables somewhat.
Tuesday, the US president was able to announce, “We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.” Later, he said he did not believe that a decision by Israel on whether to attack would have to be made in the next two months. “Increasingly tough sanctions should therefore have more time to work,” he said.
Translation by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources: The president obtained Netanyahu’s consent to suspend military plans against Iran until early May – both to give the president a chance to show sanctions are working and to make headway in the big power (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) talks with Iran due to start next month in Istanbul – even though he and most Israeli strategists are deeply skeptical of their getting anywhere.
This deal will not stand up if the security situation takes a sudden downturn – for instance, if Iran was proved to have assembled nuclear warheads or its allies, Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah or the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami, were building up for war on Israel.
Obama and Netanyahu to meet again in July
A glance at the Jewish-Israeli calendar reveals that April is a holiday month: Israel celebrates its 64th Day of Independence on April 6, followed in mid-month by the eight-day Passover festival. It therefore suits the prime minister to let the holiday month pass quietly and segue into May before going ahead with a strike on Iran.
Obama’s advisers and strategists argue August as the earliest date for Israel to make it. This still leaves a three-month gap between the two estimated timetables, for two reasons:
First: Obama and Netanyahu have agreed to meet again in July. They haven’t fixed a venue, which makes it possible that Obama will decide to pay his first visit to Israel as US President rather than again hosting Netanyahu in Washington.
This plan is still in the air. However, preparations for a presidential visit to Israel are already in train in Washington and Jerusalem.
It will also depend on what happens in the Middle East between now and July – especially in Syria and Lebanon. While in the Middle East, Obama will want to make calls on other regional capitals and reap rewards from his active contribution to the Arab Spring.
He might find it also expedient to call on the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia and at least one Gulf emirate.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources emphasize that this plan is not final, and may be dropped at any time.
Tighter US sanctions on Iran, weapons systems for Israel
Second: The two leaders also agreed on five steps to be taken before their summer meeting – none of them contingent on an Israeli decision to attack Iran.
1. In early July, Obama and Netanyahu will get together along with their military commanders and intelligence chiefs to update and reassess their respective intelligence pictures on the state of the Iranian nuclear program. They will then try and bring the two estimates in line.
2. Until then, the US administration will keep on tightening tough sanctions on Iran. Members of the US Congress already announced Tuesday, March 6, the drafting of legislation for sanctions on 20 Iranian banks, including the CBI in coordination with the administration. Our Washington sources do not doubt that Canada, Australia, Britain and Holland will join this initiative.
3. Although this was later denied by the White House, President Barack Obama authorized the early supply to Israel of weapons systems suitable for long-range military operations and strikes against fortified underground targets. They include four KC-35 aerial refueling aircraft – doubling the number already in the Israeli Air Force inventory, and GBU-31 Direct Attack Munition-JDAM bombs of the type used by the US Air Force especially by warplanes based on aircraft carriers.
Israeli Air Force successfully drills long-range missions
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Washington sources report that the White House decision to provide Israel with these items followed upon the information that Iran’s leaders were really worried by the big long-range air exercise carried out together by the Israeli and NATO air forces, including the US, in the last week of October 2011 at the Decimomannu Air Base in Sardinia, southern Italy.
Tehran was finally convinced that Israeli bombers could reach its nuclear sites last week, when six Israeli Air Force squadrons were reported by aviation journals to have successfully duplicated the exercise from an air base in Italy.
Taking part were the components required for a long-range strike mission: combat squadrons with ranges of up to 2,400 kilometers (there and back to Iran), aerial refuel craft and air control.
Fourteen F-16 single and twin-seater F-16s – C and D (“Lightning”) aircraft came from three Wing-1 Squadrons taking off from their Ramat David air base in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel. They were joined by three Boeing (“Ram) planes for in-flight-refueling, a Gulfstream 550 executive jet converted by Israel’s Aerospace Industries for air control and early warning functions, and Hercules transports which took off from the IAF’s southern Nevatim base in the Negev.
This was Israel’s first long-range air drill without partners.
Tehran was dismayed to hear that Washington was to strengthen its remote action capacity with four more refueling jets soon to be delivered.
4. Netanyahu procured Obama promise that if Syria and/or Hizballah attacked Israel – whether or not as part of a comprehensive Iranian preemptive strike – the US would back the Jewish state and, if it became necessary, participate in a military offensive against the aggressors.
Netanyahu sticks to his unilateral plan
5. The US president committed two aircraft carriers with strike groups to permanent deployment off the coast of Iran. Up until now, one of two aircraft carriers performed double duty between stations opposite Iran and the Pacific as part of the US Seventh Fleet. From now on, two carriers will stay put in the Persian Gulf.
Sources close to Obama disclose that the Israeli team also came away with a certain secret understanding reached on the sidelines of the main Obama-Netanyahu conversation, primarily by their national security advisers Tom Honilon and Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports.
It was this: If resumed negotiations with Iran fail and, notwithstanding sanctions and diplomatic pressure, Iran still refuses to abandon its nuclear weapon program, President Obama will then give orders for an American offensive against Iranian nuclear facilities and strategic targets, extensive enough to bring about the fall of the regime in Tehran.
It was explained to the Israelis attending the White House talks, say those sources, that the president is neither willing nor able to publicly disclose this intention – certainly not while campaigning for reelection in November. But this is his intention, they were assured.
Israel might just as well rethink any plans to attack Iran, they said, since in the end the US will take responsibility for terminating Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Netanyahu and his team discussed this message exhaustively but in the end, decided it was not a binding pledge and Israel must therefore continue to keep all its options open for “defending itself, by itself,” as before.