Alongside the visits US defense secretary Robert Gates and special envoy Dennis Ross paid to Egypt and the Persian Gulf in the first week of May, US Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta arrived in Israel unannounced.
Panetta presented Israeli policy-makers and generals with a US intelligence working paper which reassessed Iran's capabilities and intentions: First, Iran is short of adequate military resources for shielding its nuclear facilities, and, second, Tehran's retaliation for a possible Israeli strike would be very moderate.
Gates presented the same document to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday May 5 and the next day to Abdullah, king of Saudi Arabia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has procured an exclusive summary of the classified paper's six main points:
1. Tehran will beware of overextending its military capabilities to retaliate for a military attack, because they are inadequate; a failed reprisal would expose the regime to popular fallout wrathful enough to shake it to its foundations.
2. Tehran will also think twice before venting its urge for revenge on US targets in Afghanistan. According to the CIA report, Iran is more frightened of the Taliban than of the Americans and will therefore not seek to weaken the US military presence in Afghanistan.
3. Iran also has good reason to avoid hitting US targets in Iraq. An Iranian military strike there would run into Iraqi as well as American military resistance, so jeopardizing all Tehran's gains in the post-Saddam years.
In other words, Iranian influence in Baghdad has reached its outer limit.
4. Tehran is unlikely to make good on its braggadocio about closing the Straits of Hormuz to the world's oil shipping. The US report estimates it would take the US Navy no more than two or three days to re-open the passage.
5. As for punishing the Gulf emirates and Israel or Egypt, Tehran will be wary here too, knowing it may well face US military retaliation in turn.
6. Iran's response to an Israeli military attack is likely to be mostly verbal. According to the CIA's working paper, Iran believes its missiles would be intercepted by Israel's Arrow anti-missile missiles boosted by systems deployed by the United States.
Jordan fears stray Iranian missiles exploding in Amman
Neither Saudi, Egyptian or Israeli policy-makers took the US assessments seriously, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources report. They saw it rather as a fishing expedition by President Obama to plumb Israel's intentions with regard to Iran and find out how deeply the Arab-Israeli partnership was committed to military action against Iran – behind America's back.
(See the two first articles from DEBKA-Net-Weekly 395 of May 8: Israel, Arabs join Hands).
Panetta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, is trusted by President Barack Obama to keep the agency in sync with White House policy.
It is feared in Washington that by linking up with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Israel would be free to send its warplanes against Iran through the skies of its two Arab partners, without the United States being able to interfere.
Rather than offering explanations, the Saudi monarch and Egyptian president turned on Obama's envoys with a coordinated counter-demand for a US aerial shield to protect them from air or missile attack in case of an Israeli or US strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
They demanded this shield be put in place before Washington goes into talks with Tehran.
Jordan's king Abdullah brought an overriding concern to Washington when he met Obama on April 21: What if some of the Iranian missiles aimed at Israel fell short and landed in Jordan just across the border? The king did not suggest Tehran would deliberately hit Jordan, but he did not trust the accuracy of Iran's missiles or their firing teams.
Iranian missiles exploding in his capital, Amman, could shake his throne, said the king. He complained to president Obama that the Hashemite kingdom has no defenses against missile attack or resources for hitting back.
Saudis demand inclusion in regional military missile defense
Gates heard a similar complaint from Saudi King Abdullah last Wednesday.
The king said he was not getting into the argument between the Obama administration and Israel – the former is against an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, whereas Israel believes that Iran's rapid advance toward a “breakthrough” will soon make its military pre-emption unavoidable. All the Saudis care about is their own exposure to certain Iranian retaliation (discussed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 295). Therefore, the Saudi king told Gates, if Obama decides to endorse his predecessor George W. Bush's pledge to come to Israel's aid under Iranian attack, he must extend this undertaking to the oil kingdom.
Specifically, all Saudi territory and the Gulf principalities must be gathered in under the protection of the anti-air, anti-missile shield securing American forces in the region.
The defense secretary was not taken aback; he heard a similar pitch the day before in Cairo from Mubarak, who argued: Israel is at least protected from Iranian missiles by its Arrow anti-missile batteries, backed up by sophisticated America FBX-T anti ballistic radar systems operated by US military personnel at the Israeli Negev air base of Nevatim.
The land-based radar is linked through a JTAGS (U.S. Joint Tactical Ground Station) ground station) to US satellites able to detect hostile missiles at the moment of launch.
Egypt has no such sophisticated weaponry or access to American satellites – nothing at all to offset its vulnerability to Iranian missile attack.
In view of the strained relations between Cairo and Tehran, Mubarak suggested Iran would find grounds to use an Israeli attack to settle its scores with Egypt.
Gates, our sources report, promised to bring this matter to the attention of President Obama. It would be studied in Washington pending Mubarak's arrival on May 26.